House approves Bible resolution, but lieutenant governor opposes making it state book

By: - March 29, 2021 12:18 pm
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The General Assembly is replaying a decision on making the Bible Tennessee’s official state book, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally intends to maintain the opposition he held five years ago.

The House passed the resolution 55-28 Monday evening as Rep. Jerry Sexton, a minister from Bean Station in East Tennessee, said he wants to elevate the scripture so more people can read it while also commemorating its historical and economic benefit. 

For it to clear the General Assembly, a similar measure would have to be sponsored by a senator, and it is unclear whether such a move has support.

Rep. Johnny Shaw, a Bolivar Democrat and minister, led arguments against the measure Monday, saying the drive to make the Bible the state book is a hollow act. He warned about passing the measure and then following it up with unholy legislation.

Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar (Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar (Tennessee General Assembly)

“I don’t want to be embarrassed to be coming off as the holiest state in the nation and then not living up to it,” Shaw said.

Sexton said his resolution is based, in part, on economics and history. Nashville is the top publisher of Bibles in the nation, he said, and Tennessee’s culture is built largely on the Bible and the nation’s Judeo-Christian founding.

But while arguing it does not create a state religion, Sexton said he wants to elevate the Bible and put it in a place where more people will read it. He responded to Shaw’s argument by saying he was willing to take the shame upon himself.

“Whether you agree with it or not, this is my way of lifting it up,” Sexton said.

As a substantive resolution, legislation in the Senate would have to go through the committee system, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said. The governor would also have to sign it into law.

McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, said recently he feels the same way he did in 2016 when then-Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed a bill the Legislature passed to make the Bible the state’s official book.

“I think it trivializes it and places it along with other symbols the state has,” McNally said, including the salamander, limestone rock and mockingbird as the state’s official amphibian, rock and bird.

Amid great rancor, the Legislature passed a bill by Sexton in 2016 designating the Holy Bible as Tennessee’s state book. Haslam vetoed it, and the Legislature failed to override.

On one hand, Sexton considers it a cornerstone of his legislative career, having worked on it for seven years. Yet at the same time, its impact could be very limited because it won’t force religion on the public, all while saying he wants to elevate the word of God.

Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station: unaware churches have not been shut down during the pandemic. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station: unaware churches have not been shut down during the pandemic. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“It doesn’t make anybody go to Sunday school, sing Amazing Grace or get baptized,” Sexton told a House committee last week where it received approval. His intent was to sidestep arguments that it would violate the Constitution by creating a state religion.

Under normal conditions, passage as a resolution would not enable the Bible to go into the Tennessee Blue Book as the official state book. But Sexton said Secretary of State Tre Hargett agreed it could be placed in the Blue Book as long as the resolution specified it be done.

Sexton’s resolution didn’t have full support of Republicans, who hold 73 of 99 seats in the House. But none of them spoke out against it Monday.

The seven representatives who marked themselves present but not voting — the same effect as abstaining — were Reps. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, Pat Marsh, R-Shelbyville, Ron Travis, R-Dayton, Rush Bricken, R-Tullahoma, Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, and Kevin Vaughn, R-Collierville.

Travis noted during last week’s Naming and Designating Committee meeting that he voted against Sexton’s bill five years ago and plans to continue to oppose it.

Calling the Bible the greatest book ever written, Travis said the Bible should be kept as far away from government as possible.

“There is evil in government. I just don’t feel like the Bible and evil should mix. There is evil in this building,” he said.

Democrats such as Reps. Bo Mitchell of Nashville and Gloria Johnson of Knoxville argued against the resolution as well.

Mitchell pointed out he would be put in the position of telling his neighbors, who hold different religious beliefs, that his holy book is more important than theirs. 

“My God won’t fit in a Tennessee Blue Book or a green book. We’re belittling my God,” Mitchell said.

Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, said the Bible shouldn’t mix with government, adding: “There is evil in this building.” Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, said the Bible is as much as a part of Tennessee’s “common heritage” as Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Johnson was miffed by Sexton’s move to pass the resolution based on its economic impact.

“Despite popular opinion around here, there is a higher power than the General Assembly,” Johnson said.

Former House Speaker Glen Casada, who is under an FBI investigation, spoke in favor of the resolution, saying it is part of the state’s “common heritage” just as Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells. 

The committee turned down a resolution to end an observance of Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, despite his life as a slave trader and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, a measure to rename the Legislative Plaza in honor of Ida B. Wells was deferred.

Other lawmakers such as Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Lancaster Republican, argued that the Bible is the basis for American history, laws, documents and courts. She pointed out it is used to swear in the president.

“We either honor the Bible or we don’t,” said Weaver, a participant in the Jan. 6 protest that led to an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.