Tennessee has an official state fruit, two official state birds, and an official state reptile. It even has an official state rifle. And now, if lawmakers had gotten their way, it would have had an official state book: the Bible. Last week the Tennessee General Assembly passed HB615, which designates the Holy Bible as the official state book. Official state books are not unheard of; the official children’s book of Massachusetts is “Make Way for Ducklings.”
But the adoption of the Bible has many groups protesting. Some voices offered a thoughtful stance grounded in respect for religion. They argue that the measure would cheapen the Bible by equating it with other, more mundane objects such as the tomato (the official state fruit) and the raccoon (the state wild animal). Such arguments have merit and should be considered. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for some other voices.
The ACLU lost no time in shrilly protesting the measure, stating that the measure privileges one religion over another, “tramples” on the Constitution, and “marginalizes the tens of thousands of Tennesseans who choose to practice other religions or not to practice at all.” Of course, the ACLU ignores the fact that designating the Bible as the official state book does not mean that the state is staking out a religious position. You don’t have to be Christian, or even religious at all, to acknowledge the impact of the holy book on American history and culture in general, let alone on Tennessee history and culture.
In his sociological portrait of nineteenth-century American culture, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that religion acted as a guardian of liberty, “indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” While the Founders opposed an overt state role in civic affairs, they believed that a religious citizenry was a precondition for a successful democracy.
The adoption of the Bible as the official book would not have meant that the state was affirming its Divine origin. All it would have meant is that the duly elected representatives of the citizens of Tennessee wish to acknowledge the book’s impact on Tennessean culture.
Apparently, this is too much for the ACLU. “Make Way for Ducklings” is apparently fine as a state book, but the Bible? – God forbid!
UPDATE: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam vetoed the bill on Thursday, April 14th.