There is a controversial measure introduced in Tennessee by State Sen. Kerry Roberts to make the Bible the official book of the state. Roberts insists that this is just a recognition of the historical importance of the book and not any elevation of the Bible over other books of faith. That is less convincing to many who view the measure as an official endorsement of, if not an entanglement with, Christianity.
Roberts insists that the Bible is merely being acknowledged as the book relied upon by George Washington in his inauguration: “He used the Bible for his swearing in. The attitude of these people was not to keep religion out of government. It was to keep government out of religion.”
There is a legitimate debate over the purpose of the entanglement clause and whether it was solely meant to prevent the creation of an official religion. Some have argued that the framers were not opposed to general religious influence on government.
However, regardless of your view of meaning of the religious clauses, this is still a uniquely bad idea. For those who truly believe in fostering faith, the selection of the book of one faith (or two if you include the Old Testament as advancing a Judeo-Christian understanding) is neither inclusive nor supportive of all faiths. The Tennessean was particularly blistering in its editorial.
Try telling that to the editorial board of The Tennessean. Calling Roberts and his colleagues “theocrats,” the newspaper objected that “This is Tennessee, not Tehran. We are governed by the people, not the religious authorities.”
What is amazing to me is that this measure does not advance faith but a faith. It also creates a glaring conflict for agnostics and atheists in Tennessee. The question is why create such conflicts rather than honor the Bible in your own families and churches and private schools. The Framers were first and foremost concerned about individual liberty and freedom to think and live and pray according to our own values and beliefs.
Despite the rise of faith-based politics, those of faith should be the first to demand neutrality on religion to protect the free exercise of faith. These are many of the same people who openly warn about the encroachment of Sharia laws and other faiths into governmental programs or regulations. Putting aside the low likelihood of such developments, the greatest protection is found in the separation of church and state — not the erosion of separation principles through measures like the Bible bill in Tennessee. Where Roberts can demand that the Bible be honored as the official state book today, what is to stop another move to do so with the Torah (as the older book of Judeo-Christian traditions) or even the Koran under other claims of historical significance. These are merely majoritarian votes after all. The point is that, simply because you currently have the votes, does not remove any need for judgment or restraint.
The greatest demonstration of faith is to protect all faiths and not to try to place any one religious book higher than the rest. We are living at a time of religious extremism around the world. The United States represents a shining example of a place where all faiths flourish without violence or official favoritism. Despite their claims of being protectors of morality, I have never viewed Saudi Arabia or Iran as truly supporters of faith. They are the very opposite in flogging, arresting, or executing those who hold other religious views. We represent a system that truly values faith and protects free exercise. This is done not only in preventing government restrictions on faith but guaranteeing a separation of our government from our faiths. We manage the secular work of our government and leave matters of faith where they belong: with our families or our churches and temples and mosques.
By the way, there are various books based in Tennessee (“Tennessee Williams” would seem a logical choice but he was actually born in Mississippi and received that nickname due to the fact that his family came from the Volunteer State).