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By John R. Vile, published on March 29, 2021

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Photo courtesy iStock: Iryna Kaliukina

Once again Tennessee State Rep. Jerry Sexton from Bean Station has introduced legislation that would make the Bible the state book of Tennessee. A similar bill passed both houses of the state legislature in 2016, only to be vetoed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who argued that such a resolution “trivialized” the Bible.


Haslam’s action must have been difficult. It’s hard to get on the wrong side of the “good book” in a state that is sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible belt, although it helps when the concerns come from an individual like Haslam, who is a Christian.


American Founders, most notably Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, taught us that state sponsorship of religion tends to have adverse consequences.  Like similar cases that have arisen in public  schools, such a state endorsement would immediately lead to the question as to which Bible and which translation we are endorsing. My Bible contains two major sections, but Jews do not generally recognize the New Testament, Muslims put far more emphasis on the Koran, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints honor their own Book of Mormon. Catholics and Protestants typically consult different Bible translations, with the former recognizing some books that the latter do not.


Sexton rightly argues that the Christian Bible had more influence on people in Tennessee than did some of these other books, but when it comes to identifying symbols that are chiefly religious in nature, it is wise to put ourselves in the shoes of minority members. As a Protestant Christian, how would I feel if Tennessee chose to honor the Book of Mormon, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (the book used by the Church of Christ, Scientist), the Koran, or another text?


When approaching similar issues, the U.S. Supreme Court often uses the so-called Lemon test. It asks whether the primary purpose and effect of a law is to advance or hinder religion and whether it leads to excessive entanglement between church and state. It would appear that identifying the Bible as the state book would be a clear case of attempting to advance Christianity over other religions. 


Justice Sandra Day O’Connor often applied the first two prongs of the Lemon test under what she described as the endorsement test.  In trying to ascertain whether the government was endorsing one form of religion over another, she would ask what message government actions had on outsiders. As a Christian, I would undoubtedly feel like an outsider if the state were to adopt the Koran as the official book. That’s likely how Muslims or members of other non-Christian faiths would feel if we adopt the Bible.


We live in a country that supports the free exercise of religion. We can freely purchase Bibles, preach from them, and even share the Bible’s message with others, without seeking state endorsement of our endeavors. If we endorse the Bible, will we proceed to endorse the cross knowing that others might look more favorably on the Star of David, or a crescent moon and star?


In addition to being bound by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the official establishment of religion, the Tennessee Constitution provides in Section 3 of its Declaration of Rights that “no preference shall ever be given by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”  It seems fairly clear that a bill recognizing the Bible as the official state book would do exactly that.


When the U.S. Supreme Court made its controversial decision limiting public prayer in public schools, President John F. Kennedy observed that those who were upset could continue to pray at home and at church and share their views with others. Too often the most prominent book in a home is a large family Bible that is chiefly consulted for family birthdays rather than for edification. There is a story of a woman who tried to impress a visiting minister by asking her son to bring “the book that momma loves,” only to have him return with a Sears catalog.


The best way to honor any book is to read, heed, and share it. Tennessee Christians certainly don’t need Tennessee’s imprimatur in order to treasure the Bible!


John R. Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University and the author of  The Bible in American Law and Politics: A Reference Guide.


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