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The Divisive Words that Bind

These documents are our shared history and a common conversation, but that conversation is often fever-pitched and rhetorically violent. Can pointing to these major writings help address the conflict?

As I worked on The American Bible, I was struck not just by what our great thinkers said but how they said it. In other words, I discovered alongside our rituals of argument a great tradition of conciliation. Accompanying our various "culture wars" there has always been a rhetoric of "culture peace."

There is Jefferson's "We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists" in his First Inaugural Address. There is Lincoln's "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies." There is John F. Kennedy's "civility is not a sign of weakness." And of course there is Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream.

At a time when partisan bickering threatens to consume our common life, and sink both our economy and our politics, we need to hear these voices. Virtually all of America's founders were deeply suspicious of what Washington called the "mischiefs of the spirit of party." I think we now all see why.

Great speeches and documents, just as with religious texts, are often twisted and used out of context. As a historian, what items in this collection do you believe politicians and pundits most often misconstrue? Can you give a recent example?

Just about every book in The American Bible is, to put it kindly, creatively interpreted over time. And how could it be otherwise? The Christian Bible does not address the question of abortion, so when we want it to weigh in we have to misconstrue it in some sense. The same goes for the Constitution on Internet privacy or the Declaration of Independence on gay marriage.

I think there are two helpful ways to think about this. First, it must be admitted that twisting our core texts into pretzels is the American way. Second, it must be remembered that another great American tradition is calling our politicians and pundits to task for so doing.

In that spirit, I have to call out social conservatives today (Rush Limbaugh included) for their particularly contorted interpretation of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Quoting King on the importance of judging our fellow Americans not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, they draw on his moral capital to argue against affirmative action. This move seems akin to me to efforts by some Mormons to conduct proxy baptisms for dead Jews.

Any time you make a compilation of anything you are begging for criticism based on your inclusions/exclusions. Which of the items that you included do you expect to be the most contested? Why?

People are already complaining about my inclusion of Ayn Rand's 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged on the grounds that it is pro-capitalism propaganda with no redeeming literary value. But this book fits my two criteria perfectly. It makes the claim that America is and should be about liberty first, and it has scared up a storm of controversy. This controversy abides, with figures on the Right such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin arguing that Rand has been a major influence on their political lives and figures on the Left saying that you can't have your Ayn Rand and your Jesus, too.

Your "canon of American scripture" closes, so to speak, in 1983 with President Reagan's "evil empire" speech.  Is there really nothing formative to the American experience that has happened in the last three decades?  Is there something that might, at the very least, make honorable mention?

The reason I don't have anything more recent than Reagan's "evil empire" speech of 1983 and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of one year earlier is that it takes time for any text to develop a vibrant afterlife, which I see as essential to its inclusion in American scripture.

Our public culture has shifted in recent years from speeches and books to television, films, and the Internet, so I would be surprised if in 2050 there weren't some films in our canon. I thought about including All in the Family, which certainly stirred controversy and featured—thanks to Archie Bunker and his son-in-law Mike Stivic (a.k.a. "Meathead")—an extended debate between emergent Reaganism and countercultural liberalism. But that show has faded in American memory. Will films have more staying power? Probably so. But we will have to wait and see.

6/24/2012 4:00:00 AM