What Does It Mean When Politicians Literally Hide the Bible?
On Monday, state legislators in Arizona filed an ethics complaint against state Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton (D-Tucson) after she was caught on tape hiding Bibles in the House lawmakers’ lounge. Stahl Hamilton, who is a Presbyterian minister and attended Princeton Theological Seminary, apologized last week and characterized her actions as “playful.” But disrespectful acts toward Holy Scripture that take place in a state capitol building are far more serious than that, and it is good to see the lawmakers who filed the complaint recognize it.
The ethics complaint against Stahl Hamilton states that she “engaged in disorderly behavior, potentially committed repeated acts of theft, and created a hostile work environment, which demonstrate a lack of respect for other members of the Legislature, staff, visitors, and their property, and the rule of law.” Stahl Hamilton’s actions were said to be “contrary to the rules of good order and decorum and deeply offensive to the public sense of morality.” Indeed.
At the end of March, Arizona Capitol Security was informed that two Bibles which resided in the private House members lounge were missing. Officers later discovered the Bible under couch cushions in the same room. A week later, one of the Bibles disappeared again and was discovered inside a refrigerator in a shared kitchen. Due to the incidents, Capitol Security installed a security camera in the room to find out what was happening to the Bibles. Not long after, the video feed caught Stahl Hamilton swiping the Bibles from their designated tables and again concealing them under cushions.
After the camera footage was released and the incident became nationwide news last week, Stahl Hamilton offered an apology that utterly failed to provide a satisfactory explanation. She said:
“I acknowledge that a conversation about the separation of church and state should have began [sic] with a conversation. And for that, I apologize. I hold Scripture very dear to my heart. It is what guides me. It is what shapes and informs the decisions I make. I have the utmost respect for people of all faiths and for those who choose not to have a faith. And because of that respect, I recognize my actions could have been seen something as less than playful — and offensive. And so, I just took it and put it in the couch cushions. At the time it just felt like a simple little prank.”
The claim that Stahl Hamilton was playing a prank is laughable. The way she anxiously looked around to see no one was watching her before quickly and conspicuously hiding a Bible is far from the gleeful antics of a prankster. They are the nervous movements of a wrongdoer. Furthermore, no representative at any level of government ought to be playing “pranks” with religious objects in government buildings.
This is more than just one moment of irritation or poor judgment — Stahl Hamilton hid the Bibles three times. The incidents raise more questions than answers: What about the sight of Bibles made Stahl Hamilton so annoyed or uncomfortable as to cover them up so she did not have to see them? Security was able to recover the Bibles each time she hid them — was she planning to repeat these shenanigans every time they were returned to their rightful place? If Stahl Hamilton truly thought this was an issue of “separation of church and state” (cheat sheet: it is not), why didn’t she take action to try to remove the Bibles through proper channels?
Since Stahl Hamilton tried to justify her action by implying the stunts were a political commentary on the separation of church and state, it is worth pointing out that American political leaders from President George Washington to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt have looked to the Bible for inspiration. At the 1983 National Prayer Breakfast, President Ronald Reagan said of the Bible: “Inside its pages lie all the answers to all the problems that man has ever known.”
It is a good thing that there are copies of the Bible kept in the Arizona state capitol building. No one is pressured or coerced to read them, but they are there if representatives feel a desire to read them. American political leaders should be reading the Bible. It is an important demonstration of humility that reminds us we are accountable to a higher power. Core biblical passages such as the Ten Commandments have long anchored the law and moral tradition of Western civilization, affirming the human dignity of all people.
Providing a Bible to be read by Arizona state legislators if they choose to do so does not contradict the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause or negate religious freedom. In fact, it is a perfect example of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause at work. Religious Americans are free to practice their faith in the public square, including reading the Bible.
Ultimately, Stahl Hamilton’s excuses ring hollow. One typically does not place items they sincerely hold “very dear” under couch cushions. It is difficult to interpret Stahl Hamilton’s behavior as anything other than a bizarre expression of distaste for Christianity and the teachings of the Bible. Sadly, such attitudes seem increasingly common among America’s political class. Stahl Hamilton’s public controversy should remind Arizona state legislators about the importance of religious freedom and the value of reading the Bible.
Arielle Del Turco is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, and co-author of "Heroic Faith: Hope Amid Global Persecution."