A Mississippi congressman mailed a Bible to each of his fellow representatives last Friday. In a letter enclosed with the Bibles, U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) wrote that the tomes are intended to provide guidance for public policy.
“Our staffs provide us with policy memos, statistics and recommendations that help us make informed decisions. However, I find that the best advice comes through meditating on God’s Word,” Palazzo wrote. “Please find a copy of the Holy Bible to help guide you in your decision-making.”
Talking Points Memo (TPM) obtained a copy of the letter, and noted that members of Congress interpreted the Bibles as “gesture of good will.” Palazzo claims the Bibles were donated by a constituent, a fact which, if true, somewhat reduces a potential church-state violation.
Despite this, his gesture is laden with negative implications.
AU’s executive director, Barry Lynn, explained to TPM why the representative should have refrained from sending the Bibles. “When a politician calls for using the Bible as the basis for public policy, what he or she is really saying is, ‘Let’s use the Bible as I interpret it as the basis for public policy,’” Lynn said.
He added, “When it comes to religion, our nation is pluralistic and diverse. Rather than look to the Bible or any other religious book to craft our nation's public policy, we would do well to examine another source instead, one that was actually created to guide governance. It's called the Constitution.”
It’s possible to parse Palazzo’s letter and reach the conclusion that this is exactly the sort of argument he intended to make. The implication, while veiled, is clearly in evidence: In a few short sentences, he manages to position the Bible over the (secular) information provided to him by his staff.
That is, of course, his personal prerogative. But Palazzo isn’t speaking to a Bible study group or writing in his personal prayer journal; he wrote this in a letter sent to his congressional peers. And he matched sentiment with action by sending them each a copy of the Bible.
If Palazzo simply wanted to share his faith, he could have done that simply by sending the letter on its own or expressing his beliefs in another, more appropriate forum. But he didn’t do that. By sending a Bible along with the letter, his gesture took on an instructional bent – and that’s a problem. Congress might be mostly Christian, but it’s not monolithically Christian, and neither, for that matter, is Palazzo’s district. Therefore, his gesture shows little respect for the beliefs of his non-Christian peers and constituents.
It’s a matter of concern that Palazzo seems to prioritize the Bible over other sources of guidance. As a legislator, his responsibility is to make sure that laws adhere to the Constitution – including the First Amendment – not the Ten Commandments. While he, and indeed every other public official, is certainly entitled to find spiritual solace in any religion’s holy text, dogma has no place in the policy-making process.
The United States is becoming more diverse every year. It’s time for our elected officials to acknowledge that reality and show more consideration for those who might draw inspiration from different sources.