Magazine article The Christian Century

American Talmud

Magazine article The Christian Century

American Talmud

Article excerpt

The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation

By Stephen Prothero

HarperOne, 544 pp., $29.99


The American Bible, Stephen Prothero's latest assault on the best-seller lists, is a compendium of writings that, Prothero insists, together define Americans as a nation. "Words matter," he tells us in the introduction, and conversations about our identity as a people are essential to our common life. "In every generation our pluribus threatens to overtake our unum," he writes; "in every generation the nation must be imagined anew."

Although Americans are not bound together by creed, they think of their nation as a religion of sorts. "The stories we tell about our nation

are sacred stories," he says. "The heroes we recall on our holy days are saints and martyrs, as ancient and permanent as granite on Mount Rushmore." But just as the Bible, which is for many the foundational text of the United States, admits of many interpretations, so too have the writings of Americans themselves, from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King Jr., engendered intense debate. This collection, then, in the tradition of Noah Webster's readers, "is a record of what Americans value enough to fight about."

As befitting an American "Talmud" (Prothero's term), The American Bible reproduces not only the original texts but also a representation of various interpretations. Prothero inventively organizes the writings into biblical categories: Genesis (works like Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence), Law (the Constitution and court decisions), Chronicles (novels), Psalms (music), Proverbs (such as "Give me liberty or give me death"), Prophets (Henry David Thoreau, Malcolm X and others), Lamentations (the Gettysburg Address), Gospels (political speeches), Acts of the Apostles (the Pledge of Allegiance) and Epistles ("Letter from Birmingham Jail"). He includes no apocalyptic writings, however.

Prothero offers a wide range of readings, illustrating how various people have appropriated fundamental American texts. Both John E Kennedy and Ronald Reagan quoted Puritan John Winthrop's "City upon a Hill" sermon, for example: Kennedy while assembling his administration, and Reagan during his 1980 debate with John B. Anderson (incorrectly identified here as "Jon Anderson"). Although Prothero doesn't explain how or why Reagan appended the modifier shining to the phrase city upon a hill, he does quote Mario Cuomo and others who took issue with Reagan's usage. Similarly, after reproducing the Declaration of Independence, Prothero includes the "Declaration of Sentiments" from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights.

In the section titled "Law," Prothero includes both the Constitution and its critics, principally the Confederates, who lamented the absence of any acknowledgment of God or designation of the United States as a "Christian nation," and the National Reform Association, which sought unsuccessfully to remedy that. Prothero quotes Rousas John Rushdoony, the Christian Reconstructionist, arguing that the Constitution "was designed to perpetuate a Christian order," but he curiously fails to mention the Mormon claim that the Constitution was divinely inspired. …

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