The biblical reference in the title of Stephen Prothero’s “The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation” (HarperOne: $29.99) is purely metaphorical. Although Prothero is a professor of religion and the best-selling author of “Religious Literacy” and “God Is Not One,” his new book is an anthology of writings and other works of authorship that amount to a mostly secular American canon, ranging from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to “The Gettysburg Address” and “Civil Disobedience” to the Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.
To be sure, Prothero characterizes his collection as a spiritual enterprise. The various entries are categorized under scriptural headings, ranging from “Genesis” and “Chronicles” to “Gospels,” “Acts” and “Epistles.” But only a few of the writers whose texts are singled out were themselves clergy, and there are actually more songwriters — Francis Scott Key (“The Star-Spangled Banner”), Irving Berlin (“God Bless America”) and Woody Guthrie (“This Land Is Your Land”) — than men of the cloth; in fact, only two clergymen, Martin Luther King Jr. (“I Have a Dream”) and Malcolm X (“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”), are listed as authors of the principal texts, although many of the commentaries originate with ministers and preachers.
Prothero insists that American culture and identity can be understood as “a religion of sorts,” but he is just as insistent that there is no such thing as an American creed. “Our republic of letters is a republic of conversation constituted, divided, reconstituted, and maintained by debate over the meaning of ‘America’ and ‘Americans,’ ” he writes. “Americans agree to a surprising degree about which symbols and ideas are central to our national life, but we disagree profoundly about what these symbols and ideas mean and how they ought to be translated into public policies.”
Indeed, Prothero explains his book as “an effort to construct an American Talmud,” that is, a core text that can only be understood through the commentaries that are built upon it. “My chief criterion,” he explains, “has been the ability of a given text to generate controversy and conversation.” The principal of selection explains why a single sentence (John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you …”) and even a single phrase (Ronald Reagan’s reference to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”) are included in the canon.
More typically, however, Prothero gives us a generous excerpt from a core text and then provides various passages that reflect the text in one way or another. For example, he opens the book with the Exodus story as it appears in the Bible, but only as a starting point for a selection of writings that echo the biblical text — the slave spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” a note from Benjamin Franklin that was found among the papers of Thomas Jefferson and a 19th century writer who compared the Mormon leadership to Muhammad and Moses. All of the short commentaries, according to Prothero, show how the liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egypt can be seen as “the American story — the narrative Americans tell themselves to make sense of their history, identity, and destiny.”
Some entries are eccentric but also highly imaginative. One of the core documents in the collection is “The Blue Back Speller” of Noah Webster, a famously secular reference work first published in 1783 by a man whom Prothero characterizes as one of America’s uncredited Founding Fathers. “Nothing has a greater tendency to lessen the reverence which mankind ought to have for the Supreme Being,” explained Webster, “than a careless repetition of his name upon every trifling occasion.” Significantly, both Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and Booker T. Washington, a former slave, are among the writers whose praises for “The Blue Back Speller” are included in “The American Bible.”
Very few texts by women are included in the collection, a fact that Prothero readily acknowledges and explains: “For better or worse,” he writes, “dead white men have had outsized influence over the course of U.S. history.” And when he does include a work whose author was female, his choices are a bit of a stretch. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is one: “There is no more polarizing novel in American literature,” he concedes, and it’s significant that we are not offered an opportunity to read an excerpt from the book because, as Prothero points out, permission to do so was denied by the Estate of Ayn Rand — a fact that is a commentary in itself.
Another work by a woman is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the only contribution in the collection that is not, strictly speaking, a text. The excerpt, such as it is, consists of some of the names inscribed on the stone surfaces of the monument: “Dale R Buis, Chester M Ovnard, Maurice W Flournoy” and so on. Among the commentaries is one provided by Maya Lin, the architect who designed the memorial: “[T]his memorial is not meant as a monument to the individual,” she explains, “but rather as a memorial to the men and women who died during this war, as a whole.” Only a few of the other commentators acknowledge the fact that Lin’s work is a powerful anti-war statement, but Bill Clinton is among them: “Let us continue to disagree, if we must, about the war,” he said. “But let us not let it divide us as a people any longer.”
Although “The American Bible” reaches back to the beginnings of our democracy, Prothero is mindful of the noisy media environment in which we actually live today. “t is difficult to enter into the rough and tumble of contemporary American policies and exit with one’s hope (or one’s dignity) intact,” he observes. But he encourages his readers to use his collection as a book of maps that will guide readers back to the original texts: “Why allow John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi to dominate your book group,” he suggests, “when Jefferson, Lincoln and King are in the room?”