There is great power in our American texts, and even more intensity to be found in context. In his latest, The American Bible, Stephen Prothero of Boston University brings together a wealth of great American narratives, from “The Star Spangled Banner,” to The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
But this unique collection does more, allowing great minds from Christopher Hitchens to Howard Zinn to comment on these “scriptures” as living works, lending a diverse and uniquely modern perspective to those passages we know so well.
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Why do words matter?
This is an old debate: what drives world history? Some say economic factors or climate or, as Gov. Romney has been contending recently, culture. I say that ideas drive history, too, and they do so through words and sentences and speeches and books. Try imagining the civil rights movement without the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s hard to do.
In an age that is more politically divided than ever, why was this a good time to revisit the great texts of America’s rich history?
Because the great thinkers in U.S. history don’t just offer us great arguments about the meanings and ends of America. They also show us how to argue. As I was researching The American Bible I was heartened to see a great tradition of conciliation that puts the interests of the nation above the interests of party or region or self.
There is George Washington warning us in his farewell address against the “mischiefs” of political parties. There is Lincoln urging us to be friends rather than enemies in his first inaugural address, and President Kennedy in his inaugural address reminding us that “civility is not a sign of weakness.” Now more than ever, we need these voices.
How did the title lend itself to the book’s content and themes?
I was initially thinking of this as “The American Talmud,” because I initially envisioned it being published like that Jewish scripture, with a core text in the middle of the page and commentaries ringed around it. But I thought that would be too obscure to many American readers. The point of the title is to underscore the fact that we have a de facto canon of American public life—texts we quote for authority in political debates much like Christians or Jews quote from their Bibles in disputes over ritual or theology.
What elevates a historical text to the level of American “scripture?”
I looked for two things. First, the text needed to have an “afterlife.” In other words, it needed to generate commentary and controversy. Second, that controversy needed to be about America—about what we value, and who is, or is not, a “real” American.
Why was it important to introduce commentary on these vital texts from other historical voices?
I have taught the topic of martyrdom for many years, and one thing I have learned in the process is that martyrs are not made by their own actions, or even by the circumstances in which they die. They are made instead by their followers, who transform them into larger-than-life characters after they have passed away.
The same goes for the texts in The American Bible. Lincoln may have delivered the Gettysburg Address, but “we the people” turned it into American scripture, by commenting on it and applying it throughout our subsequent history to the major questions of our time. So this book actually gives over more space to commentaries than to the core texts themselves. These commentaries constitute, in my view, a living history of the nation—a record in words of how we have seen ourselves and our country.
What do you see as the common misconceptions among Americans about the kinds of dialogue examined in The American Bible?
One misconception I tackle in the book is the view that our national unity is founded on some “American idea” or “common creed.” This has never been the case. We have argued from the beginning about core ideas such as liberty and equality, never agreeing which was pre-eminent or even what these ideas mean.
But that doesn’t mean we are hopelessly divided. In fact, I contend in The American Bible that arguing about these ideas is what brings us together. It is, I say, “the rite of our republic.” So we don’t need to worry about the fact that we argue. We just have to do a better job of it. Why model our political debates after Rush Limbaugh or Harry Reid when Lincoln and Douglas are around?
One might not naturally put Mark Twain up against Malcolm X. How did you go about choosing, organizing and classifying the texts in The American Bible?
The choosing was hard. I spent nearly as much time figuring out the table of contents as I did writing the book itself! And in making my cuts I tried to adhere to the two criteria I mentioned above, looking for texts that generated consistent controversy over time about the meanings and ends of America.
As I did this work, my longstanding conviction that race lies at the center of the American story was reconfirmed. In this respect, Twain and Malcolm X are closer than you might imagine. Both Huckleberry Finn and The Autobiography of Malcolm X are about our “original sin” of slavery and our ongoing efforts to expiate that sin.
You state clearly, “The first objective of The American Bible is to commend to readers a better way.” How would you hope that this book helps to accomplish that goal?
The “better way” is toward a national dialogue that is both civil and informed. Unfortunately, in recent years our politics has disintegrated into petty partisanship. And there have been moments in the past where things were just as bad or worse, the election of 1800, for one example.
But Americans have consistently opted for politicians and thinkers who have valued national interests over political calculations, and I’m hoping this book will remind us of that.