There is a sometimes silly, but nonetheless passionate exercise in this country, in which the various state governing bodies determine that particular plants, animals, or objects define the nature, desires, and good sense of their citizens, and differentiate them from those poor souls who do not have the good fortune of living in that particular state. I live in Virginia, Mother of Presidents, The Old Dominion. My state has determined that my official bird is the Northern Cardinal (nice choice, I approve), and, not surprisingly, like so many good choices, six more states (I’m looking at you, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky) have, either through laziness or cheek, without compensation, or even gratitude, used Virginia’s extensive research, long hours of analysis, and thoughtful deliberation, by blithely naming the Cardinal as their state bird too. Or is it possible that people in all of those places actually agree on something?
We also have a state motto, Sic Semper Tyrannis - Thus Always to Tyrants, and who would argue that we Virginians, above all other Americans, will not suffer tyranny? We have a combo state flower and tree, the Flowering Dogwood, again copied by others, but such is the cost of original thinking. In fact, there are many Official Virginia State things. We have our own fish, both fresh and salt water (take that Kansas), our own state dog, drink, fossil, bat, and even our own Tartan. I could continue to lord the richness and diversity of our state stuff over you, but no, after all, Virginia’s state emotion is kindness (I made that one up).
States sometimes go a little nutty with this thing naming… thing. Consider this: 20 states have passed legislation naming their official state soil. Seriously? Official state dirt? Now, those of you who thought (and you know who you are), that this was simply swept that under the rug? I believe apologies are in order. Kansas (Etch-a-Sketch), and Pennsylvania (Slinky), felt compelled to name a state toy. Every state has a state bird, and a state flower. Oregon has a state microbe, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, known to the rest of us as brewer’s yeast. Oregon has its priorities straight. Hawaii proudly celebrates its Black Coral. South Carolina, in a rather aggressive move, named the Carolina Wolf Spider, as the nation’s only state spider. Seven states and the District of Columbia have state dinosaurs, but none of them are available for adoption. And don’t mess with Texas. They chose a state cactus, the Prickly Pear, and don’t even think about changing their minds. (“They can take my Prickly Pear Cactus when they pry it from my cold, dead, needle ridden hands” – Yosemite Sam)
So the naming of state stuff can be, and usually is, a fairly illustrative example of the democratic process. For the most part, this exercise is conducted in an atmosphere of righteous passion, pressure from the apparently requisite special interest group, some old fashioned partisan politics, and oftentimes, good natured fun. Yes, it can become a bit silly, when, well when the almond and hazelnut factions duke it out for state nut honors, but in the end, civility and statesmanship usually prevail. This could have worked out for those of you pushing for the almond. If you had done your homework, you could have done an end around on the hazelnut crowd, and gone for official state Drupe (look it up, I’m not going to do all the work here). What are they paying those lobbyists for, anyway?
Well, at least this is the way the process is meant to work.
State Mottos, on the other hand, generally take a more serious tone than state things, and they can offer thought provoking insights into a state’s character.
California’s motto, Eureka – I found it, reassures us that something important, which was lost, has now been recovered. They are not very forthcoming about what it is that they have found, perhaps they’re a little embarrassed. I’m not surprised at this apparent carelessness. After all, the state has long been accused of being home to those who are, perhaps, a little too laid back. However, though this admission may not seem like much to you, it takes guts for an entire state to admit that it screwed up.
Michigan’s motto Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice, while definitely a mouthful, is certainly friendly and welcoming, if somewhat lacking in passion (see New Hampshire). Translated from Latin, it means, If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you. Adopted in 1835, this was, perhaps, an early form of advertising, like West Virginia’s Wild and Wonderful, or Texas’ It’s Like A Whole Other Country. Although it is possible, of course, that this vote was taken late in the day, and everyone just wanted to beat the traffic getting home.
But, if there was ever a motto born out of acute ennui, it would have to be that of the state of Washington. “By and By”? What the hell, did someone just close their eyes, open a book, and point? Now I have family in Washington, and I can tell you that they are sober, clear thinking folk, fully capable of coming up with a motto far more inspiring than the one under which they are forced to live. Maybe there should be term limits on State mottos.
But, back to business, one state’s motto was amazingly prescient. Kansans chose ad astra per aspera - to the stars through difficulties. They chose this in 1861! Wow! Just ask NASA. Kansas nailed it.
And then there is Wisconsin, which, with typically mid-western understatement, chose for its motto, Forward. This is solid, sound advice, albeit a bit obvious. There is no need for anything belligerent or flowery, for the good people of Wisconsin.
Hawaii might take a lesson here, having gone a little over the top perhaps, with Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono (aren’t fluent in Hawaiian? You know what to do.).
The naming of official things and the adoption of mottos is not a uniquely American exercise, but it certainly seems as if it could be. It might well be held up as demonstrating some of the essential qualities of the nature of getting things done in this country. Everyone participates, everyone has a good long, loud argument, and once the thing is decided, everyone shakes hands and moves on, despite some inevitable grumbling from the losing side. And while my description may seem hopelessly Pollyannaish, there is an essential truth to keep in mind. When a state names something as officially representing itself, it is done with good intention, on behalf of all of the citizens of that state. So, it is rare that anyone feels as if they have been somehow marginalized, or pointed out as being less welcome in their state, as a result of the naming of a bird, or the adopting of a motto.
Naming an official state bird, or tree, or fish, or even an official state cactus, is not law, not law in the sense that by declaring to the world, especially in the seven states named above, that Northern Cardinals have no special significance to you; and that as a result of your eternal allegiance to the Red-winged Blackbird, you might be fined, or even caged up for a while (sorry). Just how, exactly, does one break the Prickly Pear Cactus law in Texas, anyway? But, as I said in the opening paragraph, these actions by states’ general assemblies or legislatures are nonetheless meant to send a message, to the people of a state, and to anyone else who might be listening. What is important to me, and I believe, what is important about this exercise in governance, is that when it comes to these expressions of state pride, is that it is very difficult for any American to feel hurt or looked down upon, as a result of any state, naming any thing.
You may live in the reddest of states, say Texas, or Alabama, or the bluest, like Massachusetts, and California, and know that even if it seems that folks in these (and 15 other states) agree on almost nothing else, that they all “officially” agree about one thing, the Square Dance. What could better exemplify the celebratory and unifying nature of this ritual of naming state things than the fact that many states have a state “dance”, and that 19 of them agree that it should be the Square Dance.
I realize that this is taking a bit of time, but please bear with me.
At its best, this small exercise in American democracy reminds us that there is much we all have in common, much that we agree to be true. At its least, it does not divide. It does not target. It does not raise up any group as inherently superior, or more American, unless one fixates on bragging rights. And for that reason (almonds and hazelnuts aside) it should deeply offend every American, no matter their politics, to see it used for an arrogant, purely partisan, pointedly hurtful purpose.
What is this all leading to? I thought this was supposed to be funny. Well, it was, but some folks can’t leave well enough alone.
The idea of states naming things as officially representative was, in my opinion, never meant to be used as the state of Tennessee did last week. Tennessee has co-opted, no, it has weaponized this normally innocuous process, by passing Senate Bill 1108, sponsored by Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, designating The Bible as the official state book. Not any particular Bible, mind you, although Linda Lemmon, executive secretary to the president of The Bible and Literature Foundation in Tennessee, favors the King James Version of The Bible. On the Christian Science Monitor website for April 5, 2016 she said, “I think it ought to be every state’s book, every person’s book”, later adding that “we have freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion. Chilling. I suppose the importance of elevating The Bible, any Bible, in order to ensure that the 1.4 million non-Christian Tennesseans clearly get the message that their holy book, or lack thereof, marks them as somehow less Tennessean than Christians, trumps the need for specificity. Thus, some version of The Bible needed to join such other august Tennessee things as the Tennessee Cave Salamander, as official state amphibian, the Tulip Poplar, as state tree, Channel Catfish, official fish, Milk, official beverage, and my personal favorite, the Barrett M82/M107 sniper rifle, as Tennessee’s rifle of choice.
Why this bill, why now? Was it that Christians in Tennessee had, in frighteningly large numbers, forgotten the name of the holy text which guides their spiritual lives, and in the name of good governance, seized the idea that naming The Bible as the Official State Book, would be a great memory aid?
To be fair, the bill was not universally supported in the Tennessee Senate. Sen. Ferrell Haile (R) of Gallatin, voted against the bill saying in his floor speech, that The Bible was intended to be recognized by individuals and "not as a nation, not as a state." Democratic Senator Lee Harris was quoted in his floor speech against passage, saying “My constituents tell me they want to respect diversity of faith traditions in our state,”… “One in five Tennesseans are not Christian… I am a Christian but I do not think we should promote a bill that supports just a single religion.”
The ACLU weighed in with an interesting, and broader perspective with this statement.
Excerpt from Christian Science Monitor (April 5, 2016):
The Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union condemns the bill, calling it a "thinly-veiled effort to promote one religion over other religions," as well as an affront to those who practice no religion.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU in Tennessee, says that the bill represents a response to increasing diversity in the state and the Supreme Court’s upholding of same-sex marriage. “The rich and growing demographic diversity and the backlash against the equal marriage decision may be driving some legislators to put a big red stop sign up by filing bills that not only violate constitutional guarantees, but attempt to slow down progress and discriminate against individuals,” she says.
Tennessee’s Governor, Bill Haslam, called the bill “disrespectful”, saying that The Bible should not be included in the Tennessee Blue Book, which is the repository of official state symbols, along with the catfish, or tulip poplar, or “Rocky Top” (state song). Even the state’s Attorney General weighed in, indicating that the bill is probably unconstitutional. There was even an effort to amend the bill by naming President Andrew Jackson’s Bible, as the official Tennessee Bible. Not Tennessee’s state book.
So, how did SB 1108 fair when it reached the Governor’s desk? When the bill reached him, he stood firm in his convictions. Given all of the objections to this bill, considering its intentional divisiveness, and as he, himself considered the bill “disrespectful” of the holy script that guides his life, he knew what he must do. As more than half of Tennesseans self-identify as Evangelical Christians, in a state that boasts the largest publisher, and the largest distributor of Bibles, and in an election year, Governor Haslam’s course was clear. He would veto this divisive bill, right?
Governor Haslam courageously let SB 1108 sit on his desk, untouched, for the requisite ten days, after which it became law by default. The Bible won. Yay! You have to know that this was no sure thing in a state in which 52% of the population identifies themselves not just as Christians, but Evangelical Christians. And another 28% as, I suppose, merely Christian.
Let’s be clear. The Bible is not an inherently divisive symbol. No holy text, of any faith is divisive or hurtful simply because it exists. The degree to which the various holy scripts bring people together, or drive them to oppress or even kill one another, rests entirely upon the intentions of those who adhere to the beliefs they contain. I freely confess, as a white Anglo-Saxon man, brought up Methodist (we’re talking full WASP pedigree here, including the English surname), that The Bible is the holy text that guides my spiritual faith. It is the good book by which I was raised … it informs my morals, frames my world view, and inspires my life. However, as a Christian, I also know this to be true: My God is not so weak that I need to be afraid of people of other faiths, or hate gay men and women who wish to show their devotion to another human being, by entering into marriage. I don’t believe it is my place to insinuate my faith into the lives of those who have chosen other paths, in some inexplicable attempt to continually remind them of our differences--no actually, to remind them of the superiority of my beliefs. In ill-intentioned hands, The Bible, just like any other religious text, can become a weapon for those who would seek to divide us by lifting themselves up, while driving all others down.
For the first time in American history, as near as I can tell, an official state symbol of divisiveness has been named. Making The Bible the Official State Book of Tennessee is an act of theater, no more meaningful or effective than a high school pep rally, and clearly meant to pander to aggressive Evangelical Christians in an election year. They would seek to divide us into our respective camps, by cherry picking verses which, taken out of Biblical context appear to highlight differences which have no merit in the public forum of a secular nation. And make no mistake: Gay Rights, Evolution, Same Sex Marriage, Islam, Atheism? The proponents of this bill fear each of these and much more, and would use The Bible to shame or intimidate all Americans into joining them in their fear. The question we must ask ourselves is this: Are we a secular nation which prizes and protects the freedom of every American to practice their religion, or to not practice religion, without being oppressed by those who believe that “theirs” is the only way? Or are we to become a Christian Theocracy, with all that that implies. Hey, that’s the ticket. Look how well intolerance works for Islam.
It is long past time that, as Americans, we claim the religious freedoms guaranteed to us, not by way of cynical political theater, but as codified in our Constitution. I am sometimes left speechless by the incoherent screeching from the religious right, demanding that we return to a strict adherence to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, with the clear intent by the screechers to cynically reserve those rights to themselves.
The same sensibility that drove SB 1108 into law in Tennessee also drove the passage of laws recently in Mississippi and North Carolina, and drives the bill now sitting on the desk of Georgia’s Governor, each seeking to restrict the rights of the LGBT communities in those states. It is what drives Kim Davis’ furious attempts to protect her religious freedom by denying marriage licenses to gay and lesbian citizens of Kentucky. In a revealing parallel incident, a Muslim flight attendant recently refused to serve an alcoholic beverage to a passenger on her flight, because that act would have denied her civil right to freely practice her religion. And there is a burning, salient point of legal equality at play here: if Kim Davis can bring her religious restrictions to the work place, so then can the Muslim flight attendant—if, in fact, we are the religiously tolerant society we claim to be. Just stop for a moment, and think about that.
It echoes in the words of those who hysterically trumpet the need for “religious freedom laws”, including freedom from the oppression of having to bake cakes for gay weddings, freedom from the burden of being forced to take pictures of those weddings, freedom from the injustice of working with homosexuals … and perhaps most importantly, our “religious freedom” to know precisely whom and what gender is doing what and why in the bathroom stall next to us, regardless of how invasive, judgmental and just plain nosy that makes as, as good Christians. Or as in the case of the new law in North Carolina, to prevent, and I quote, “trans-gendered men from using the bathroom …next to our little girls”. Despite the lack of any evidence of intention or commission of a crime, this bathroom example is always trotted out, I suppose, because they haven’t thought of anything more frightening yet. Give the fear mongers time, this ain’t over.
So this, I would ask of Americans, and American Christians in particular. Once we have completely covered ourselves in the laws necessary to ensure the dominance and inviolability of our Christian values; once we have codified The Bible into law, what then do we say to other religions, Islam for example, when they seek to follow our example? What is our response to the Muslim flight attendant? Does she enjoy that same Constitutional Right to Freedom of Religion?
Would our energies not be better spent framing a consensus which ensures that the debate is focused not upon which group will win, but upon finding the best solutions to the many challenges bearing down upon us as a nation? Have we the courage to ensure that our nation continues to evolve, welcoming new ideas, regardless of their source, confident in the knowledge that our Constitution endows us with the tools necessary to choose wisely, fairly, and for everyone’s benefit?
One thing is certain.
If we give in to the selfish temptations of the current political climate, we will lose our way. America has problems outside of its borders. But its true crisis lies within; if we are looking to place blame for the state of our nation, we need look no farther than one another. And sometimes, we must have the courage to look in the mirror. All too often, the gesture of reaching across the aisle is an excuse to slap, or punch. And on other occasions, an obscene gesture is what passes for eloquence.
America will endure, if we want it badly enough. Those who would destroy us, no matter their numbers, are nothing in the face of our nation united. But an America hobbled by fear, and hate, and greed? Or, a balkanized America, fragmented spiritually, ideologically, racially, even regionally? Those who would cynically divide us, those without the courage to reach out, those are the states of the mind and of the heart, which given their head, have the power to end this noble experiment. Unless we all commit, today, to stop screaming at one another, and start listening, our nation will not reach its potential. In truth, our nation may not survive. Today, each of us, must be resolved that compromise is not the enemy, and that fear and hate are not the solution.