Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Politics and Prose
May 17, 2013
By Byron Borger
The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define Us as a Nation
Stephen Prothero (HarperOne; 2012)
The title of Prothero’s amazingly interesting and thorough work, recently out in paperback, is at once helpful and troubling. Biblically balanced readers will be on guard against insinuations of civil religion and may even recoil at a book that uses the metaphor of sacred Scripture for a compilation of significant texts that have developed within the public conversation of US history. Does it confuse matters to suggest that a secular canon of authoritative civil texts is a “Bible” and does that metaphor carry too much weight here? Perhaps. But this book is not intended as a tribute to the religious right or a “Christian America” thesis.
Prothero’s use of the categories of Genesis, Law, Proverbs, Psalms, Chronicles, Prophets, Lamentations, Gospels, Acts, and Epistles as a superstructure upon which to hang historical documents is nothing short of brilliant. He includes texts as diverse as the Constitution, Franklin’s aphorisms, the Gettysburg Address, “This Land is Your Land,” Eisenhower's speech that coined the phrase “the military-industrial complex,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Before each primary source reading, Prothero explains the chosen text and why it fits in the particular “Biblical” genre. (Noah Webster’s legendary spelling book is part of Genesis while Jefferson’s “Letter to Danbury Baptists” fits nicely under Epistles.)
Prothero is an excellent teacher as he offers helpful, even inspiring, contextual background. He reprints the document or a portion of it, and then follows it with conversations about the text in the form of excerpts of letters, speeches, and editorials that illustrate that no primary source text is itself uninterpreted. Each text begins an ongoing conversation that is at the heart of American practice and forms our American identity. As Prothero says, “...the endless movement of American culture -- its swells and breaks and ebbing and flooding tides -- is on display.”
In his illuminating introduction, Prothero shows how one text is picked up by a later author, used or reused, reframed and freshly interpreted, with the new document perhaps becoming itself a nearly authoritative part of the American canon. Continuing his religious metaphor, he writes,
Another aim of this book is to demonstrate how the course of American political, religious, moral, and cultural life can be read “rabbinically” as it were-- as a series of extended commentaries on these core expressions. This is obvious in the constitutional tradition, where the Constitution gives us Dred Scott v Sandford, which gives us the Fourteenth Amendment, which gives us Brown v Board of Education, which provokes King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” But it is no less true with John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” which gave Reagan his signature image of the United States as a “shining city on a hill,” or with Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which put those three words at the end of virtually every important presidential speech over the last quarter century.
I know of no anthology that offers such a deftly chosen range of primary source documents. Expected ones are here --The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's “First Inaugural Address,” George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” King’s “I Have a Dream.” But Prothero also includes Atlas Shrugged and Uncle Tom’s Cabin as influential novels/Chronicles. He offers Sojourner Truth’s legendary “Ain't I a Woman?” and Chief Joseph's remarkable “I Will Fight No More.” He lists Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” under Prophets along with an excerpt of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
The accompanying affirmations and repudiations of these formative texts accomplishes Prothero’s goal wonderfully, proving that these legendary sermons, letters, speeches, and documents are not set in stone. Readers may not know that many people disapproved of the Gettysburg Address, that Wendell Berry criticized Thoreau, or that a robust body of court rulings exists about the “under God” phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance. What a civics lesson this all is, and what an interesting way to ponder political philosophy.
Those of us attempting to develop uniquely Christian perspectives and discerning evaluation of these influential documents should take heart at the unruly give-and-take about them all over the years. We can be glad for the eloquent and fascinating voices that have added to the flow, development, and refinement of ideas. This book glories in the messiness of our country, and the glory of it all is on display here, arranged in this very illuminating way. No wonder Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham says, “In these pages, Stephen Prothero has brilliantly captured the American spirit-- a spirit that has always seen us through hours of division and disagreement. With Prothero’s expert analysis, these texts should spark civil conversation, informed debate, and intelligent discussion.”
- Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”