The Tennessean has done the Internet a great service by compiling some of the weirdest bills Tennessee legislators are filing at the buzzer before the deadline Thursday for filing bills in the state legislature.
The one that got my attention is a resolution introduced by state Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss that would amend the state constitution to state: “We recognize that our liberties do not come from governments, but from Almighty God, our Creator and Savior.”
Now, James “Micah” Van Huss seems like a nice enough guy. Mid-30s, former Marine, hailing from the middle of Appalachia. What distinguishes him, though, is a peculiar focus on firearms. In the current legislative session, in fact, he’s introduced four bills about them.
The most amusing one would designate the Barrett Model 82A1 rifle as “the official state firearm.” This is no hunting rifle, mind you. It’s a semi-automatic “dimensioned for both civilian and military ammunition.” I’m not sure why this particular semi-automatic weapon strikes Van Huss’s fancy, but it sure isn’t hanging over many fireplaces.
Incidentally, the Tennesseean notes that the state wild animal is the raccoon. You could sure make mincemeat out of one of those varmints with an 82A1, I bet.
More substantively, Van Huss also has introduced a bill allowing anyone to carry a weapon with no need for a permit (should we call that the Adam Lanza Jared Loughner Act?); a bill creating a “Second Amendment tax-free weekend for sales of firearms” and ammo; and, best of all, a bill that would require property owners wishing to ban weapons on their premises to conform to extremely precise phrasing, measurements, and pictorial representations on their “No Weapons Allowed” signs. I am not making this up.
Reading between the lines here, I wonder if one of the God-given liberties Van Huss is referring to in his new resolution is the right to bear arms. That would be convenient, since the Second Amendment was never meant to be an individual right in the first place. But perhaps God’s version is.
Or maybe Van Huss is making a point about religious liberty here—the new, religious right variety, that is. The thinking would be, the state can try to force me to obey anti-discrimination laws, but my religious liberty comes from God, so I am fully justified in turning those gay guys away from my restaurant. No one can take that precious liberty away.
As a rabbi who also holds a Ph.D. in religion, I am, however, a bit mystified about where these “liberties” might be mentioned in the Bible. The Bible has a whole lot of responsibilities, to be sure: Be fruitful and multiply, don’t kill, love thy neighbor. Judaism has 613 of these commandments—so many, in fact, that Jesus (and St. Paul) said there’s no way to keep them all, so it’s better to rely on grace and love anyway.
But liberties? The only one that comes to mind is “You are free to eat of any tree in the Garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” And we all know how well that worked out.
Free speech, maybe? The third commandment (no swearing in vain) rules that out. How about freedom of religion? Definitely not; God requires the Israelites to annihilate all pagan ritual (Exodus 34:13) and personally smites Aaron’s sons when they engage in it. (Leviticus 10:2)
In short, I can’t think of any specifically contested civil liberties that are given by God—at least, not the God of the Bible, whom I assume Van Huss has in mind. Sure, basic human rights—but rights aren’t the same as liberties, and anyway, that would cut the wrong way for conservatives like Van Huss. If God has endowed me with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, isn’t turning me away from your restaurant a violation of my basic, God-given rights?
Now, I don’t mean to pick on Van Huss too much. (Well, maybe I do.) There are plenty of other weird bills coming out of Tennessee. Why, state Rep. Jerry Sexton wants to make the Bible “the official state book.” Maybe he and Van Huss should get together. They could fulfill Johnny Cash’s immortal line (actually written by Bono) “I went out walking, with a Bible and a gun.”
And liberals are having their fun, too, with measures that would allow medical marijuana and abolish the death penalty—bills that stand about as much chance of passing as that raccoon has of surviving an assault from an 82A1.
But it’s the religious bills—Van Huss’s and Sexton’s in particular—that stand out. Tennessee is a profoundly religious, and specifically Christian, place. Eighty-two percent of its population identifies as Christian. Seven Protestant denominations are headquartered in the state, including the Southern Baptist Convention. So while many conservative Christians may indeed feel embattled, and may indeed be losing the battle for American morality, it’s hard to make that case in Tennessee.
Which is probably what this is really about. From slavery to same-sex marriage, states’ rights have long been the bastion of conservative resistance to social change. Enshrining God in the state constitution and making the Bible the official book of Tennessee are two symbolic ways to say Tennessee is different; that the world may be changing, but that Tennessee is not. These bills may be silly, but they are also sincere acts of resistance to societal change.
And lest we take these local legislators too lightly, let’s remember that they’ve got semi-automatic weapons to back them up.