Why the ‘Bible Bill’ in Tennessee Was Important

I earlier promised myself that I would not write about the bill to make the Holy Bible the official state book, but I couldn’t help myself. The debate among our Representatives was too important not to observe.

I know there were those who might have thought it was a waste of time, that the time should have been spent on something “important.” But I would submit that such a view reflects the very reason the debate was important.

This bill raised very important issues about the meaning of the term “separation of church and state,” what constitutes an “establishment” of religion, and perhaps most importantly, who we are as Tennesseans.

Religious Neutrality or Hostility?

Regarding the constitutional debate, we need to begin with the acknowledgement there is nothing unconstitutional about having a state book. And as Rep. Matthew Hill said, if we’re going to have a state book, what other book could we name that has had the kind of historical, practical, and economic impact as that of the Bible? There is none.

But if the constitutional point is that no religious text can even be entered into the debate, then I submit that we are not being neutral on the issue of religion. Rather, we are advancing secularism at the expense of religion. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart remarked in a different Establishment Clause context:

[A] refusal to permit religious exercises [in schools] thus is … not … the realization of state neutrality, but rather … the establishment of a religion of secularism, or at least, … governmental support of the beliefs of those who think that religious exercises should be conducted only in private.

The Myth of Neutrality

The sooner we wake up to the myth of neutrality the better. Neutrality is the mantra of those who would use it until such time as they suppress the reigning orthodoxy of the views with which they disagree. When those people succeed, they abandon neutrality in order to maintain control of the new orthodoxy. If you don’t believe me, go ask the florists, bakers, and T-shirt makers who have run into the “neutrality” of those who advocate for same-sex “marriage” and homosexuality as a civil right.

An ‘Establishment’ of Religion?

Further, from a constitutional perspective, neither the “separation of church and state” referenced in a letter by Thomas Jefferson (and not found in the Constitution) nor the Establishment Clause were ever intended to divorce religion or its influence from the public square. As Supreme Court Justice, Harvard law professor, and author of the first comprehensive treatise on the Constitution, Joseph Story, wrote in 1833:

The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government” (emphasis mine).

Putting aside for the moment the question of whether the state should or should not have recognized the profound historical influence and impact of the Bible, its historical use as a record of the lives of Tennesseans, and the impact its printing has on Tennessee’s economy, it is clear that such recognition is not the kind of “establishment” at which the First Amendment was directed.

I would submit that the failure of many Christians to understand that history and their uninformed acquiescence to those who misrepresent that historical meaning have led to the suppression of religious liberty in the public square that today they lament. So, to me, just having the public debate over that history was worth the effort.

The Importance of Remembering

But let me be even more clear about why the debate was important. Karl Marx once said, “A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.” Mr. Marx was merely reflecting what God knew was true about us. It is why He constantly urged His people to set up memorials; they needed to remember who they were.

Whether one was “right” or “wrong” before God in supporting or opposing the “Bible bill” I’ll leave for others to debate, but I am fully persuaded of this: there are many who would have us remove from our public life and the public square any recognition of our religious heritage. And perhaps they do so for the very reason given by Mr. Marx – it makes it easier for them to persuade us to do things that, in a different generation, knowing who we were, we would not do.

I’m not accusing anyone who opposed this bill as sharing such intentions, but I do hope that Christians, in their understandable desire not to demean the Bible by placing it alongside other reminders of who we are found in our official state poems and songs, do not unwittingly join them in their effort.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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