Amid all the truly awful things state legislatures do, one of the rare bright spots has been the naming of official symbols. Who was ever made unhappy by the designation of a state rock?
Tennessee, alas, is screwing up the record. The governor is currently trying to decide whether to sign legislation that would put the Bible on the list of State Things, alongside the salamander (amphibian), milk (beverage), honeybee (agricultural insect), raccoon (wild animal), several variations on the theme of state tree and flower, and nine — nine! — official state songs. The last of which, adopted in 2011, was “Tennessee.”
The next question you’re probably asking is why it took nine tries for Tennessee to get a song named “Tennessee,” and the answer is that it actually has two. You have to admit that’s pretty inclusive. On the other hand, picking the Christian holy book as a state symbol seems simultaneously divisive and unnecessary. Not to mention sort of disrespectful to the Bible, which doesn’t usually get included on the same list as the salamander and the smallmouth bass.
“It’s been a hard year for diversity and inclusion in Tennessee,” state Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, said in a phone interview. Harris is the Senate minority leader, which means he heads a hearty band of five out of 33 members, an all-time low for his party. Besides the Bible bill, the Legislature recently passed a new Confederate heritage measure, and Wednesday the House approved a bill aimed at allowing counselors and therapists to deny services to gay or transgender patients. Meanwhile, one member left a DVD in her colleagues’ mailboxes titled “America’s Mosques Exposed! Video Evidence They Are War Factories.”
Feel free to blame this all on Donald Trump.
In the great scheme of things, making the Bible the state book may be the least of Tennessee’s problems. But it’s sad to see the state messing with a time-honored, cheerful tradition. For generations, middle-school civics classes have studied how a bill becomes a law by petitioning their legislature to honor the otter as state animal, or the blueberry muffin as the official ... state muffin. (Here’s looking at you, Minnesota.)
Then, jovial hearings take place. Serious-minded colleagues complain that the House and Senate are wasting valuable time. This is true only if you labor under the assumption that the lawmakers would otherwise be busy reforming the contract procurement process.
Years ago, when I was covering the Connecticut state legislature, a fight between the deer and the whale forces went on for so long that the Senate went into a brief rebellion and voted to name the human being as the official state mammal. It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to spend my life covering politics.
The point of the symbol-naming has always been amity and good citizenship. But recently, the cultural wars have intruded. In 2011 Utah became the first state to pick an official state gun, an automatic pistol called the Browning M1911. (“This firearm is Utah,” said the sponsor.) Hot on its heels came Arizona and the Colt revolver, a gun that won the West or — as a few legislators noted — drove out the Native Americans.
The momentum kept gathering. Erin McCoy, the executive director of State Symbols USA, a website dedicated to — well, you know — says she misses the days when the only weapon-related designations involved retired battleships and war memorials. Now firearms may be the fastest-growing category. “I don’t enjoy doing pages for them,” she admitted.
There are now seven states with official guns, although to be fair, some are so extremely old and inefficient they really might count as historic artifacts. The exceptions include — yes! — Tennessee, which recently honored a .50-caliber rifle, the Barrett M82/M107. Critics pointed out that the designee has the power to knock down a commercial aircraft, although the debate in the state Senate seemed to suggest that might be a good thing. One supporter noted proudly that witnesses had “seen this thing go a mile and a half through a cinder block to take out its target.”
The lone senator to speak against the bill, Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, complimented the weapon maker, a local boy, on his ingenuity. But, he added, when “our elementary school kids are going through looking at the mockingbird, the raccoon, the purple iris, I’m not sure that the Barrett sniper rifle is a necessary addition.”
This is not what symbols were made for. Skip the guns and save the state dance. Books seem to be dicey territory, although we can all rally around Massachusetts’ choice of “Make Way for Ducklings.”
The next time your state legislators try to stick religious preference into the designations, tell them everybody would be much happier with another rock, legume or fossil. Or they could follow Utah in one of its happier days, and pick an official state cooking pot. Nobody was ever made unhappy by a nod to the Dutch oven.
Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.