Celebrating Lincoln 150th? Read this ‘American Bible’

CLICK ON THE BOOK COVER TO VISIT THE AMAZON PAGE.AS A LEADING EDUCATOR, Boston University’s Stephen Prothero wrote the textbook that teachers nationwide will need to explore the evolution of American values over the past 200-plus years. Whether you learn in a church basement, a public library, a public school classroom or the comfort of your own easy chair—we strongly urge readers to order a copy of Stephen Prothero’s THE AMERICAN BIBLE: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation, which Amazon will release in paperback on January 8.

Anyone who is fascinated with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (read our review of the major new PBS series The Abolitionists), the Stephen Spielberg movie about Lincoln (read our review of that film), or the 150th anniversary of our national Thanksgiving holiday (read our story about Lincoln’s remarkable Thanksgiving declaration)—you’ll learn much more if you buy a copy of Prothero’s book and explore it.


This is a collection of great expressions concerning the American soul. The classic texts include portions of the U.S. Constitution, George Washington, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Irving Berlin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan and Maya Lin—plus many more. At the core of Prothero’s book is our turbulent transformation from a nation organized by an elite group of white men into a nation that embraces all races and ethnicities. That theme forms a central spine running through this thick volume that Prothero dubbed, The American Bible. That’s why Prothero’s book is such a great a companion for the 150th anniversaries throughout 2013.

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN: Prothero devotes nearly 20 pages to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as well as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884)—both classics in transforming American attitudes about our racial divide. Although far less known today than Twain’s novel, Stowe’s bestseller was an explosion that Lincoln credited with forcing the Civil War and the freeing of slaves. Each section of Prothero’s book offers an easy-to-read excerpt of the classic, plus a string of commentaries about it by other major American figures. NOTE: Stowe and her bombshell novel play a major part in the epic PBS series The Abolitionists.

THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS (1863): Far more than a meditation honoring the tragic loss of life in war, Lincoln’s brief speech redrew our image of America’s mission. In just a few words, Lincoln swiftly struck key historical milestones—dramatically recasting “the federal government as a covenant of people rather than a compact of states,” Prothero writes. And, when America is viewed through that new lens, the equality of all people within our covenant becomes our sacred pledge. Prothero devotes 15 pages to the legacy of the Address, including Garry Wills’ 1992 description of the speech as “one of the most daring acts” ever designed to “cleanse the Constitution.”

Also related to this year of 150th anniversaries, Prothero’s book includes Sojourner Truth as well as Lincoln’s second inaugural address in which the president said that our American policy toward conflict among Americans must be “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Now, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Stephen Prothero on Lincoln …


Stephen Prothero. Courtesy of HarperOne.DAVID: Just last month in your CNN blog, you wrote about President Obama as “pastor in chief” in helping the nation to mourn after the Sandy Hook shootings. And you mentioned President Lincoln in that column. Clearly, Lincoln tried to play a pastoral role 150 years ago. How has this role evolved since Lincoln’s time?

STEPHEN: Over time, that presidential role has become more personal and familial. The vehicle for that chiefly is television. There has been a longstanding idea that the president speaks on behalf of the country and in the face of a tragedy, like we had at Gettysburg and at Sandy Hook. And, of course, I realize those two tragedies were on whole different levels, but they were both nationally experienced tragedies. They both were moments when we expect our president to say something that somehow transcends the political.

Lincoln was the great example of that. Since then, there were some presidents who could do that like Lincoln. George W. Bush could have said something historic after 9/11 and he didn’t. For whatever reason, he didn’t find words for that particular moment. Ronald Reagan tried to do this in his words after the Challenger disaster and he did very well. Now, I can’t remember any of his words from that speech without going back and checking, but I do remember being impressed with what Reagan said to the nation at that moment.

From George Washington forward, we’ve always had this idea that the president is a kind of patriarch for the country and is supposed to say things that are spiritual as well as political. But, Lincoln really elevated that role at Gettysburg 150 years ago.

DAVID: This month as we are talking, January 2013, is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation taking effect. This week, as we publish our interview, millions of Americans will begin watching the dramatic story unfold again on PBS. Oddly enough, however, the texts related to the proclamation do not stand up as American classics, do they? In fact, anyone who sees Spielberg’s Lincoln, about the amendment to the Constitution that followed emancipation, will realize that a lot of the public utterances in that era were pretty ugly and better forgotten, right?

STEPHEN: The Emancipation Proclamation was a case of something important that Lincoln did rather than something he said. But our appreciation of American texts changes dramatically over time, as I point out in my book. After the Declaration of Independence had served its purpose—declaring that we were independent of England—it was largely forgotten. It was only over our history that the preamble of the Declaration became so important.

Until Lincoln refocused our attention on the Declaration as our founding document, most Americans thought of our country as starting in the 1780s with the U.S. Constitution. This was Lincoln’s point in his opening words at Gettysburg.


DAVID: Many of the people you quote in your book argue that the Gettysburg Address is a milestone because Lincoln argued for a fundamental change in our definition of America.

STEPHEN: The level of Americans’ knowledge of our history is pretty bad. I haven’t asked it in a national survey, but I bet half of Americans would be hard pressed to answer the question: “Who gave the Gettysburg Address?” Most Americans know very little about our history, which is why I wrote this new book. The larger problem is that—even among people who know Lincoln gave the address—most people don’t even stop to think about the numbers in Lincoln’s opening lines: “Four score and seven years ago …” Do the math and Lincoln is saying that the United States of America began in 1776. Most people didn’t understand our history that way in 1863. Lincoln was telling them that the Declaration of Independence was even more important than the Constitution. More than that, he was telling them that the equality of all people was the point of the Declaration. Lincoln was testing a new idea that day.


Click this image from the Congressional Record to read the entire statement.DAVID: We’ve already discussed two of the major 150th anniversaries in 2013—the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. But there is another declaration by Lincoln that is emerging as an important milestone 150 years ago. I’m talking about his startling proclamation in 1863 of our first nationwide Thanksgiving. On the day we publish this interview, we also will publish a second story about that first Thanksgiving Proclamation.

I think that a lot of leading voices are going to be discussing that Thanksgiving text as the year unfolds. Lincoln clearly declares that the true blessings of America come from “the Providence of Almighty God” and “Gracious Gifts of the Most High God.” But I can’t imagine any 20th-century president issuing such a proclamation—because Lincoln never specifically asks Americans to give “Thanks” for soldiers on that first Thanksgiving Day. He calls the losses in the Civil War a “waste” and describes the whole war as “our national perverseness and disobedience.”

STEPHEN: This does sound like a fascinating text to teach this year, but none of that Thanksgiving Proclamation surprises me. It’s classic Lincoln. Today, this may be difficult to understand because Americans don’t think like this anymore. When Katrina hits New Orleans, a few extremists may say that’s God visiting disasters on the nation because of our disobedience—but most Americans don’t think that way. Even most evangelicals don’t think that way today. But in Lincoln’s time, Americans had this providential view of history that came from Puritans and Calvinism. Throughout his life, Lincoln didn’t know quite what to think of religion, but he clearly believed that God is real and that God does things in the world. He believed that the agent with whom God was engaged is the nation. This is like thinking out of the Hebrew Bible. Lincoln sees the nation in conversation—and even in contest—with its God. That’s how to think about such a statement by Lincoln.

Then, in your question you’re pointing out that he didn’t pray for the soldiers and I would say: Well, praying for soldiers was tricky at such a point during the war in 1863. He was declaring a national Thanksgiving. He didn’t want to pray for the soldiers on just one side. But, he also didn’t want to pray for the Confederate soldiers on that day. He thought of them as in rebellion against the nation. So, I’m not surprised, knowing what I do about Lincoln, that we get this proclamation.


DAVID: We won’t hit the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s famous second inaugural address until 2015, but you already have that covered in your book, as well.

STEPHEN: It’s an important text in the great tradition of conciliation. This American Bible grew out of my research on culture wars in American history and I still am working on a broader and longer history of culture wars in the United States that I plan to publish later. As I’ve done this research, I’ve been struck by the recurrence of culture wars throughout our history. And, along with the conflicts, we see a recurrence of figures who stand up and speak about the importance of the nation over against the interests of parties, the interests of economic groups, the interests of—and you can fill in the blank here.  

Lincoln addressed one of our worst conflicts “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Those eight words alone are remarkable—and he said this in a context of actual war in early 1865! I’m not seeing people standing up in Washington D.C. today and saying things like that about the other side. Yet, Lincoln did it. I think that second inaugural ranks as one of the greatest theological statements about American life.


Then, you’ll enjoy reading our more wide-ranging interview with Prothero when the hardback edition of The American Bible debuted in 2012. This is a great choice for small-group discussion.


READ our review of the three-hour documentary that was produced much like a dramatic miniseries.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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