After Louisiana tried to make the Bible the official state book, it isn’t surprising that now Mississippi is trying to do the same. I wrote about this at the time, King James Bible as Cultural Signifier. In it, I argued that the choice of the Bible for the official state book was not, ultimately, a religious act. It was rather a symbolic gesture — about what all right thinking people believe and not at all about the divinity of Christ and so on. The Mississippi bill is only different in that a couple of Democrats are doing it.
Obviously, I’m not for any such act. It is exclusionary — intended to make non-Christians feel like outsiders. And the constitutional questions it raises seem pretty clear. But I’m just not that interested in the story on that level. It is really just another story about how politicians pander to their base. And who really cares about that? It’s like, “Old man yells at cloud.” As with Louisiana, this bill will likely go nowhere. And if it does, the state will be punished with a bunch of legal fees as it is challenged and defeated in court.
What’s more interesting is the purpose of state symbols. The Mississippi state tree is the magnolia, not the sequoia, which is the California state tree. State symbols are supposed to be specific to the state. Admittedly, California does a much better job of this than Mississippi. But Mississippi still manages to pick symbols that, while usually not especially specific to the state, are specific enough. Their state insect is the honeybee and not the Lord Howe Island stick insect. So what’s up with the book?
It seems to me that the Mississippi state book should speak of the state as much as the state insect. And Mississippi just happens to have been the birth place of one of the greatest English language writers ever: William Faulkner. How about The Sound and the Fury? Okay, I know: Faulkner didn’t exactly paint the most wonderful picture of Mississippi. But that was just the way Faulkner viewed the world. Anyway, Mississippi is the only state that keeps the Confederate battle flag inside its current state flag. So if the leaders of the state care about their reputation, they might start with the flag. Regardless, the state should celebrate having created arguably the greatest American writer. (That’s not my opinion, but a good case can be made for it.)
But instead, we get a book that could not be less American. We get a book from the iron age about people who lived a long way away from Mississippi. It is true that the Bible is literature. I find some of it (in translation) quite beautiful. But generally, people do not read the Bible the way they read a novel. The people of Mississippi are not considering making the Iliad the state book. They can clearly see that such a move would make no sense given it doesn’t speak to what Mississippi is. The only way that the Bible makes sense as the state book is because a lot of Christians live in the state. But that’s true of every state in the union.
As an atheist, I have no problem with the Bible. But as a reader, I do. The co-sponsor of the bill, Tom Miles, said that he isn’t trying to “force religion — or even reading — on anyone.” Then what is the point of having a state book? In this case, it would just be a symbol of who some of us are and who some of us aren’t. And there are more than enough symbols of that throughout the United States — especially in Mississippi.