The Divisive Words that Bind
Listening to the partisan back-and-forth of American political discourse can turn the most optimistic citizen sour. But contrary to our assumption that these conversations only divide us, Stephen Prothero asserts in The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation that these tiffs are the shared fabric of our country that define and differentiate us.
Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and contributor to CNN's Belief Blog, has compiled some of America's most beloved and controversial speeches, songs, letters, and documents—from the "Declaration of Independence" to Uncle Tom's Cabin—and interspersed snippets of commentary from some of America's most colorful characters—everyone from Ben Franklin to Sarah Palin—into an accessible compendium.
Prothero asserts that the chronic, American obsession with disagreement is neither new nor inherently bad. In fact, it may be what makes the United States great and keeps its democracy vibrant. Through this book, Prothero invites the reader to listen to three and a half centuries worth of conflict and emulate the spirit and civility of past generations.
We asked Prothero a few questions about the purpose and timing of his compilation.
Religious literacy seems to be a common theme of much of your recent work. How does this book, which is an anthology of primarily "secular" documents, play into that?
Ever since I concentrated on religion and politics in my American Studies major in college, I have been preoccupied with both sacred and secular things. Most of my prior books put religion first. This one is more political, but there is still plenty of religion in it.
In Religious Literacy I observed that, while the American people are extraordinarily religious, they know very little about their own religions and even less about the religions of others. In The American Bible, I try to reconnect the chain of memory between Americans and the core texts of our public life, focusing in this case not on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John but on Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and King.
These core texts are not my only concern, so this really isn't an anthology. I include alongside the "Gettysburg Address" and "I Have a Dream" commentaries on these speeches by later Americans. These commentaries are as much a part of The American Bible as the core texts themselves.
You've given this book a familiar shape by organizing it into familiar biblical sections, such as Prophets, Proverbs, and Gospels. Did you consider including an Apocalypse?
Not really, but perhaps I should have. This might have taken me more squarely into popular culture, such as television (War of the Worlds?) and film (The Terminator?).
But as I worked on the Table of Contents for this book I tried to follow two criteria. First, I looked for biblical "books" with vibrant "afterlives"—texts that stirred up commentary and controversy. Second, I looked for voices that explicitly explored the meanings of "America" and "Americans": Where have we been? Where are we going?