Bible bill sent to Tennessee governor

Lawmakers send legislation naming 10 texts as official state books to Gov. Bill Lee

Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Franklin, sponsored a bill, which has been sent to Gov. Bill Lee for approval, to make the Bible and nine other texts official Tennessee books. (AP file Photo/George Walker IV)
Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Franklin, sponsored a bill, which has been sent to Gov. Bill Lee for approval, to make the Bible and nine other texts official Tennessee books. (AP file Photo/George Walker IV)

An 18th century Bible and nine other texts by Tennesseans and other influential figures in U.S. political history would be designated as the "official state books of Tennessee" under a bill sent Monday to Gov. Bill Lee for approval.

The bill's sponsors said they seek to honor Tennessee's cultural legacy and to promote the importance of reading and the diversity of the state's people.

"We've got state songs, state poems, state reptiles, but we have no official state books," the House sponsor State Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Franklin, said while arguing for the bill before a state House vote in February.

But critics said the list of texts — which ranged from the Chattanooga-raised Jon Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson to Alexis de Tocqueville's landmark "Democracy in America" to Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" — seemed like an arbitrary reading list with, in many cases, weak ties to Tennessee.

Proposed list of official Tennessee books

— "Farewell Address to the American People" by George Washington.

— The papers of Andrew Jackson.

— "Democracy in America" by Alexis de Tocqueville.

— "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warre.

— "A Death in the Family" by James Agee.

— "Roots" by Alex Haley.

— "The Civil War: A Narrative" by Shelby Foote.

— "American Lion" by Jon Meacham.

— "Coat of Many Colors" by Dolly Parton.

— Aitken Bible.

Before a February state House vote, state Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, wondered why works by Tennessee writers like Ann Patchett and Cormac McCarthy didn't make the list.

"We just have a random amalgamation of books that you want to put as out state books that you said represent the diversity of Tennessee," Jones said, addressing Bulso. "Only one author is Black. Only one author is a woman. So this is not diversity, this is just you trying to promote a certain narrative — and a certain dominant narrative — of what Tennesseans should be."

Jones added, "We have people of all faiths represented in this state, and yet we're trying to slip in the Bible as a state book."

Jones did laud the bill's inclusion of Alex Haley's "Roots" — which he said detailed Tennessee's history of racist terrorism — and said he hoped Bulso had read the book or watched the movie. Bulso responded that the reading list was a starting point and that "Roots" is probably the most widely read book written by a Tennessean. The best part, according to Bulso, was on the first page, where Haley dedicates the book to the United States.

(READ MORE: 'In God We Trust': Phrase now adorns 3 in 5 standard Tennessee license plates)

After passing the state House in February, House Bill 1828 passed in the Senate on Monday with 26 in favor and 6 against. State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, abstained.

It's not the first time Tennessee lawmakers have sought official state recognition for the Bible. In 2016, both chambers passed a bill that would have declared the Bible the state's official book, only to be rejected by then-Gov. Bill Haslam, a Christian, because of concerns over the constitutional separation of church and state — and that it trivialized the holy text. A similar effort failed a few years later.

The U.S. Constitution restricts the establishment of a state religion, but what that means in practice has long been debated. The inclusion of other official state texts alongside the Bible might, from a constitutional standpoint, make the bill more viable in the eyes of a court, said John Vile, an expert in constitutional law at Middle Tennessee State University.

(READ MORE: Bill Lee's Christmas invite draws complaint — but for Tennessee governor, faith has long been a refrain)

Still, in addition to the concern that putting the Bible on the list of secular texts diminishes it, he said in a phone interview Tuesday, there is the other obvious issue of how the Bible's inclusion on a list of state books would make members of religious groups with different sacred texts feel. Vile imagined, for example, the backlash from lawmakers if the Quran or Book of Mormon were proposed as official state books.

"People live by symbols," Vile said. "We like our own beliefs and our own belief systems to be affirmed. And what we need to remember is others like theirs affirmed, too."

Bulso and the bill's other sponsor, Sen. Paul Rose, R-Convington, linked the Bible to parts of George Washington's "Farewell Address to the American People" and Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" that state the importance of religion in the national fabric.

The Aitken Bible — the edition included in the bill — dates to the Revolutionary War era. As Vile wrote in his reference guide, "The Bible in American Law and Politics," the British at that time prohibited the printing of Bibles here, seeing the U.S. as a source of raw materials rather than a manufacturing competitor.

A Philadelphia bookseller named Robert Aitken printed a King James version of the New Testament and petitioned Congress to support it, Vile wrote. Congress declined to advance money or buy copies, but it did offer its first and only Bible endorsement, recommending the edition to the inhabitants of the U.S. — a move Vile said came before the adoption of First Amendment, which restricts the establishment of state religion.

Aitken later asked for the exclusive right to print the Bible in the U.S., which Congress declined to grant, and many other Bible editions soon moved into print in the nation.

The texts the bill would add to the Tennessee Blue Book range widely, and some are not, noted Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, even a "book."

In the interview, Vile joked that lawmakers should not be able to vote for such a bill unless they've actually read all the texts in question.

"I feel fairly certain," he said, "that nobody in the legislature had read all the writings of Andrew Jackson."

Contact Andrew Schwartz at or 423-757-6431.

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