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In Arguing We Trust

CAS prof’s new book about debating America’s civic Bible

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

Stephen Prothero’s book features key American texts and what people have said about them over the centuries. Photo by Vernon Doucette

If Abraham Lincoln could flub interpreting the meaning of America, why can’t Rush Limbaugh?

Lincoln famously told his audience at Gettysburg that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In fact, it was dedicated to nothing of the sort, says Stephen Prothero: to take two obvious examples, black slaves and women were denied equality. “Lincoln was radically reinterpreting” the Declaration of Independence, says Prothero, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of religion. Today, Limbaugh—and his antagonists on the left—continue the American tradition of debating the meaning of core civic documents, and sometimes misreading them, he says.

Prothero’s new book, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation (HarperOne, 2012), gathers what he considers those core texts and the conflicting commentary on them by diverse interpreters. In the first category, some of his choices are no-brainers, or at least easily defended: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the national anthem, the “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and, ironically, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But Prothero has raised some readers’ and critics’ eyebrows with inclusions such as Ayn Rand’s libertarian novel Atlas Shrugged and an essay by Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry. Some texts are pithy sayings (“proverbs,” in Prothero’s biblical analogy), such as “the business of America is business.” And one “text” isn’t a document at all: Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall with its names of U.S. war dead.

Prothero has written several books, among them God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, and A Nation of Religions: The Politics of Pluralism in Multireligious America. Bostonia spoke with him about his new book, which the Boston Globe says is “a useful, often illuminating, primer in the points of contention on which American history comes alive.”

Bostonia: Your previous books dealt with religion. Isn’t this topic, civic documents as opposed to religious documents, a little outside your specialization?

Prothero: My major was American studies. I’ve always written about religion and politics. But I’ve always done it from the religion side, whereas this book is more of a political book that’s interested in religion. That said, I think about it as an American Talmud. The image that started the book was the core texts of American public life, surrounded by commentary, just as on a page of the Talmud, you have a piece of scripture surrounded by competing conversations and disputes. Americans treat these documents like Christians treat scripture. These are the words that we see as authoritative. And there’s a lot of religion in these documents themselves.

There seems to be a consensus that Congress and the nation are experiencing hyperpartisanship. Is that really true, compared to past times?

In almost every election cycle in my lifetime, someone claims this is the worst election ever, and historians say, ahhh, it’s been worse. I’ve been one of those historians. I’m worried about the election of 2012, particularly because of the Citizens United decision, but also because of the longer-term trend in how we get our news. I think we’re going back to the early national period, when every source of news was partisan. That’s what’s happening now, with news on cable. The center is shrinking. We’ve always had a tradition of angry partisanship. We’ve also always had a tradition of conciliation. My interest in the book is holding up some of these great figures who are part of conciliation—Patrick Henry, who says, “I am not a Virginian. I’m an American.” I would rather we conduct our debates like Lincoln and Douglas than like Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh.

You say the “I Have a Dream” speech has been often misappropriated. If the right to debate is a noble American tradition, is it fair to say these documents can ever be misappropriated?

I don’t get that hot under the collar about misreadings, in part for the reason you suggest. Rush Limbaugh has used the “I Have a Dream” speech to argue against affirmative action. So has Ronald Reagan. It’s very popular to take this line about each of us being judged by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin, and to conclude that King would be opposed to affirmative action. I think it’s totally legitimate for people to say King wouldn’t have done that. But I don’t get that upset about it because I do think there is a tradition of interpretation and misinterpretation.

In your opinion, what misinterpretations of these documents would most surprise conservatives and liberals?

I think both liberals and conservatives are wrong about the church-state question, in terms of what the founders would have said. We’ve split into this strict separationism on the secular left and the very strong integration of church and state on the religious right. If you look at what Washington says in his Farewell Address of 1796 or at Thomas Jefferson’s letter of 1802 [asserting “a wall of separation between church and state”], the consensus early on was that there would be some integration of church and state, but not too much. Jefferson wasn’t even as radical a separationist as some members of the Supreme Court in the 1960s and 1970s. Jefferson gave money to churches, went to church, loved Jesus.

Did writing the book make you hopeful that we’ll get past this partisanship?

I’m hopeful. The approval rating for the U.S. Congress is now worse than the approval rating for communists in America. It’s about 9 percent versus 12 percent. We have this tradition of conciliation in our DNA. We remember how great statesmen used to sound, and it wasn’t necessarily so long ago. When people would say crazy things about Obama during the last election, McCain would correct them. Obama, in his famous speech, said we shouldn’t think of ourselves as red states and blue states—we should think of ourselves as citizens of the United States.

Some of your choices have been challenged—one being Ayn Rand.

Anytime you make a list, you exclude things and you include things, so you’re going to be criticized for both. My criteria were, does it generate controversy about what America’s really all about? One reason I included Rand was I felt I didn’t have enough about capitalism in the book, and I think there’s an argument that the business of America is capitalism. I also wanted more voices for women. Most of the core texts are by men, because men have had a bigger megaphone in American history.

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