Religion is never far from the top of the list of topics guaranteed to generate controversy. But the way we approach it can take many forms. As humans we are constantly reorganizing our thoughts and reconceptualizing our most basic ideas—ideas that can help us find what is common across religious, political, and popular beliefs. From the representation of faith in popular TV shows and movies, to the way we think about America’s foundational documents and these concepts on a grander scale, three Boston University professors are tracking the way these concepts inform our lives as they shift, change, and even take on new meaning in a modern world.
Stephen Prothero uses religion tangentially, metaphorically, and literally in his book The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation. No, the book is not a bible—at least, not in the conventional sense. Rather, it explores essential texts that help define who we are as a nation, even as we continue to debate and disagree on their meaning.
"I really wanted to call it The American Talmud, because I think it’s more Jewish and Hebraic in its inception," says Prothero, a professor of religion. “My image for the book as I was writing it was a page in the Talmud, where you have scripture in the center and all these different commentaries around it. And the commentaries never come to a conclusion. But a lot of American readers haven’t heard of the Talmud. So we went with The American Bible because these texts are American scripture and, like the Bible, they’re texts that we return to and that serve as touchstones.”
Among the chosen texts are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
In shaping the book, the commentaries were as important to Prothero as the texts themselves. “The book is about the conversations Americans have been having since colonial days,” he says, “the debate on what it is to be an American and what America is all about. Our common ground is not that we agree on those things, but the debate that we have on these core texts. I would say liberty and equality are our two most fundamental principles, but we don’t necessarily agree on what they mean. And sometimes they compete with one another and we don’t agree on how to prioritize them. Right now I’m doing some writing on the Prohibition era, and both sides in that debate were appealing to liberty. One side said liberty is being able to drink whatever you want. The other side said no, alcohol takes away your free will. So our lack of agreement on these ideas means that they don’t give us the kind of social glue you want in a society.”
Prothero had two criteria for selecting the texts. First they have to engender considerable “controversy and commentary.” Second, the commentary they generate has to be a “meta-conversation” about what this country is all about. “For instance, I chose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but not Moby-Dick,” he says. “Moby-Dick is a great novel, but it hasn’t created the kind of controversy and commentary about America that Huckleberry Finn has: ‘Is the book racist?’ ‘Is it the greatest statement against slavery ever?’ Underneath that are questions about whether America is racist or has America overcome its racism. That debate continues today. We now have libraries that ban the book and schools debating whether to teach it. So that’s a sustained, ongoing controversy that is about the text, but it’s also about America.”
For commentators, Prothero chose recognizable names from all sides of the political spectrum whose take on a particular document was not only insightful, but also “pointed to a different reading of America.” Those voices include William F. Buckley Jr., Frederick Douglass, Alan Greenspan, Ralph Nader, Sarah Palin, Rosa Parks, Antonin Scalia, and Gloria Steinem. “I wanted to balance the book as best I could,” says Prothero.
The titles of the book’s 10 chapters allude to the Old and New Testaments: Genesis, Law, Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Prophets, Lamentations, Gospels, Acts, and Epistles. The only actual scripture in The American Bible is the story of Exodus. “It’s the most powerful biblical story and the most malleable one,” says Prothero. “It’s the one we keep referring to, from the slavery question through women’s rights. I think the Exodus story is the American story.”
Prothero is well aware that these days, debate is becoming a lost art in American discourse. “I say in the book that what makes debate work is that it’s informed and civil,” he says. “Part of what I am trying to do is enlighten readers about these great texts in order to make our debates more informed, and also to point out the way these great texts and a lot of the commentaries pass this test of civility. You have John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address saying, ‘Civility is not a sign of weakness.’ And you have Patrick Henry saying, ‘I’m not a Virginian, I’m an American.’ These statements are all what I call part of the great tradition of conciliation. So we can read these texts not only for what they say, but how they said it. In many cases they’re the model of a kind of civility that we’re missing today.”
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