Earlier this month, state representatives in my home state of Mississippi proposed two separate bills which would establish the Bible as the official state book. Both major political parties are represented in this attempt, and by many accounts this appears to have a groundswell of bipartisan support among state lawmakers. Of course state symbols are common, and some of the most peculiar and specific things get picked, but rarely are symbols chosen which are religiously sectarian in nature. No other state has declared the Bible the state book, although Alabama has come close.
Rep. Tom Miles (D-Forest), who is sponsoring one of the bills, insists that this move is “completely symbolic” and adds that his bill won’t dictate which specific version has to be adopted. That’s a good thing, since you’d have to decide whether or not to include the Apocrypha and there were once riots in Philadelphia over that very issue. But speaking of symbols, what exactly would adopting this proposal communicate? The primacy of one religion over all the others? Don’t we have a rule about that or something, somewhere? Does a rule like that become null and void as long as a majority of voters in a state disagree with the rule?
Baptists Should Know Better
This here’s Baptist country, so it’s significant that Richard Land, the founder of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, had this to say about this proposal:
I am sure that they are well-meaning people who want to emphasize and want to underscore the role Judeo-Christian beliefs have played in American culture and the Mississippi culture, but this is a clumsy way of doing it and it is probably a bit too far…The state is supposed to be neutral when it comes to religion. I think it could be argued that for the state to officially declare one religion’s Holy Scripture to be the official book of the state would be putting the state on the side or giving preference to one faith over other faiths. I think that is probably unconstitutional.
I can’t believe I’m saying these words, but Richard Land is correct. The very first line of the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits the government* from favoring one religion over another. It got mentioned first because religious freedom is a fundamental element of a free society, and the only way you can be free to worship as you please is for everyone to be equally free to worship as they please, or by extension not to worship at all. It’s a knife that cuts both ways. Baptists should know this as well as anyone else, given the way they began in this country as persecuted outcasts.
Land goes on to point out that a gesture like this would succeed at offending many while simultaneously accomplishing little of value to those who would care the most about seeing it done. For those who would love to see their holy book privileged in this way, a move like this would only dilute the pastoral ethos of the text.
For those who are Christians, one can’t be neutral about the Bible. The Bible, for many Americans, is sacred text. It is the Holy Scripture. If you try to approach it as just a historical book, that is not neutral. To me, that [degrades] the status of Scripture.
I seriously doubt declaring the Bible the official state book will actually lead to more people reading it. On the other hand, as Land points out, those who do not adhere to the Christian faith would only feel alienated by a move like this:
It seems to me that if the state of Mississippi is declaring the Bible to be the official book of the state, how would that make people who our [sic] Jewish feel? How would people who are Muslim feel? How would it make people who are atheists and agnostics feel? I am sure there are people who are atheist and agnostic in Mississippi, probably not as many as there are in New York, but there are atheists and agnostics in Mississippi.
Yessir, there are. More than you probably would guess. I know hundreds by name and many of them communicate with me regularly. Most of them are quite “closeted” about it, and many of them even still go to church because they know that if they tell anyone they don’t believe any of that stuff they could lose everything they value. That’s how important religion is to people in the Deep South. Around here, your church membership is even more important than football, and that’s really saying something.
What Are Representatives For?
What if your country’s constitution, which you swore to uphold and defend, tells you to do one thing, but your constituents want you to do something else? What does a good “representative” do? Is his first loyalty to convey the values and priorities of his constituency, following their lead? Or is there an element of leadership inherent in his office which entails stepping out in front of them, showing them the way they should go? It seems to me that representatives in a constitutional system must mediate between the currents of their surrounding culture and the laws that are meant to govern those whom they represent.
But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Plus there’s the fact that our representatives are every bit the product of the same cultural influences that gave their constituents their own blend of biases and predispositions. Of course these representatives want to see the Bible honored and recognized in this way—they are products of small towns in Mississippi, which is by all accounts the most religious state in the union.
By my count, of the 122 state representatives listed on the legislative roll, 117 list a specific Christian denominational affiliation right under their picture (exactly half of them Baptists). Active church membership is so important to Mississippians that it has to be included among the vital statistics in a representative’s bio page. Our governor wears his religious beliefs on his sleeve, and last year he signed a law that added “In God We Trust” to our state seal. Teachers are already bound by state law to display those words in every classroom and cafeteria, and now every state government agency will do the same on their letterhead.
How were they able to do this so easily? It’s because “In God We Trust” has been the national motto since the heady days of the Cold War, when we were trying to distinguish ourselves from communist Russia. Because it has served as an official motto since then, it remains on our currency and in our classrooms no matter how blatantly it overlooks that portion of the US population which doesn’t subscribe to a belief in personal monotheism. As long as it remains the national motto, not much else can be done.
Which is why making the Bible the official state book of Mississippi isn’t a completely benign gesture. If state lawmakers declare the Bible the state book, there will be little to stop them from placing copies of “the official state book” wherever they please. From there it will only be one short step to approving measures prescribing mandatory Bible reading in schools (sorry if you’re Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or anything else). The symbol of one particular religion privileged over all others just because a majority of a state want it that way. Is that really the way our government is supposed to work?
There is a good reason why our government was not designed to be a pure democracy. Mob rule is no way to run a country, and majority opinion does not automatically dictate what is right or what is good. That’s why we have a constitution in the first place. The principles which should govern a free country are spelled out in ways which limit the power of the government, both at the federal and state/local levels, to ensure that the prejudices of the many never come to oppress the lives of the few. That’s why it doesn’t matter that a majority of Mississippians from both major political parties might support a religiously sectarian measure like this. It’s contrary to our nation’s founding principles.
The greatest irony to me is that the people who sneer at our current president for what they view as flagrant disregard for the Constitution will turn around and show no self-awareness at all when it comes to honoring the Establishment Clause. As much as they champion the cause of religious freedom, when it comes to privileging their beliefs in the state legislative houses, their much praised document goes right out the window. Baptists of all people should know better.
* While the Bill of Rights initially applied to the federal government only, the due process clause at the end of the 14th Amendment extended those same limitations to the states and their representatives. Thus the Establishment Clause applies to state and local governments as well as the national one.