Stephen Prothero: ‘American Bible’ should spark debate

Click the book cover to visit the Amazon page.In the fury of one of the most brutal political struggles in 100 years, best-selling historian and scholar of religion Stephen Prothero draws a startling conclusion:
At our best, we will never agree.

In fact, America hasn’t grown through the centuries as a place where we all should agree on a single creed like some kind of rigid church. Instead, Prothero argues:
We thrive as Americans when we argue in a vigorous but civil way about the core ideas we share. We will never heal America by pouring on more fire-and-brimstone preaching. Instead, Prothero argues in The American Bible, How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation, at our very best: we are less like a doctrinally narrow church—and more like a community of rabbis who express the depth of our shared faith in debating our core teachings.

So where can we find our core teachings? What is our “American Bible”? That’s the whole point of this fascinating and infuriating new 600-page book. You can buy the book in hardback or e-editions (click the book cover above). At ReadTheSpirit, we recommend that you buy the hardback with its inviting layout and two-tone printing, because this book is destined to be a classic for anyone who cares about faith, values and the future of America.

Come back later this week to read our in-depth interview with Prothero about these very provocative ideas. The scholar who teaches at Boston University and now consults with the Smithsonian Institution has such intriguing answers in our Q-and-A that we can guarantee you’ll wind up quoting him.

Right now, and all through this week, express yourself at OurValues! University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker is a leading researcher on American core values and he is inviting readers—in five OurValues columns from Monday through Friday, this week—to discuss ideas in Prothero’s book.


Lincoln Memorial. Wikimedia Commons.On Page 1, Stephen Prothero explains the basic argument that he then explores for 600 pages, including passages from a whole constellation of American stars: Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan, Noah Webster to Woodie Guthrie, Thomas Paine to Ayn Rand, Sojourner Truth to Irving Berlin—and on and on and on. In that first page, Prothero tells readers …

WORDS MATTER. They move individuals to tears and to action. They make or break communities. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, India and Pakistan, Great Britain and the United States, words tie people together and tear them apart. Socrates lives because of Plato’s dialogues. The world remembers Jesus because of the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And what Americans recall of Paul Revere we owe to the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In his Gettysburg Address, probably the greatest American speech ever, President Lincoln said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” He was wrong. Americans have largely forgotten what Union and Confederate soldiers did at Gettysburg during three bloody days in July 1863, but we have not forgotten Lincoln’s words, which continue to be quoted and misquoted, interpreted and misinterpreted for all sorts of purposes. In the few minutes Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, he explained why the Civil War was being waged, why the Union was worth preserving, and why the United States was founded. His words—“conceived in liberty … dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal … a new birth of freedom”—are now part of our lexicon. They live not because Americans agree with everything Lincoln said, but because they agree that everything he said is worth debating. What does it mean to affirm “government of the people, by the people, for the people”? It depends on whom you ask. And if you ask enough Americans you will see that the nation rests not on agreement about its core ideas and values, but on a willingness to continue to debate them. …

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. …

The American Bible is a record of this ongoing conversation. It presents the books held sacred by the American people—the core texts to which Americans are forever returning as they reflect on what it means to be an American. … The American Bible also includes commentaries on these core texts—interpretations that keep America’s scriptures vibrant by applying their time-tested truths to contemporary circumstances.


Beyond the basic idea, how does Prothero organize this volume? Answer: Like a Bible.
Prothero chooses his American texts, based on two principles: They must tell us something about core American values—and they must be controversial enough over a long period of time so that many people keep debating the basic arguments made in these classic texts. For readers familiar with the Talmud, this is a classic organization of sacred materials. First, the Talmud presents a classic text. Then, flowing from it in the pages of the Talmud—and in Prothero’s new book—are a host of other voices debating the central point. The idea is to extend the critical discussion to readers.

Sections of The American Bible include: Genesis, Law, Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Prophets, Lamentations, Gospels, Acts and Epistles.

Then, for example, the Chronicles section includes three core texts, spanning a century: Uncle Tom’s Cabin from 1852, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from 1884 and finally—if the first two weren’t controversial enough—Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand in 1957. No, of course, Prothero doesn’t publish the entire text of these books. That would turn his Bible into a huge multi-volume library.

From Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he publishes the 6-page, Chapter 40: “The Martyr,: in which Uncle Tom defies Simon Legree and is savagely beaten in an evocation of Jesus’ own suffering in crucifixion.
From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he publishes the 8-page, Chapter 31, deep in the 43-chapter novel—a passage that represents a major shift in Huck’s awareness of the slave Jim’s humanity.
From Atlas Shrugged, he publishes one sentence: “Permission to reprint denied by the Estate of Ayn Rand,” which is an eloquent expression of the rigid contentiousness of Rand’s followers.

In the Commentary sections surrounding these three classics, we find viewpoints from the novelists James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., journalists H.L. Menken and Christopher Hitchens, athlete Billie Jean King, activists Ralph Nader and Charles Colson—and economist Alan Greenspan.

Care to learn more about Ayn Rand? Following the death of newsman Mike Wallace, ReadTheSpirit published a story about Wallace’s views on religion. In that story, we published a short piece by Wallace on being Jewish. We ended that story with the archival video of Wallace’s famous black-and-white TV interview with Ayn Rand.

Come back later this week for our interview with Stephen Prothero.


All this week, Dr. Wayne Baker is inviting readers to express agreement and disagreement with ideas in Stephen Prothero’s new book. Visit OurValues for this 5-part series by Baker, add a comment—and please invite friends to get involved in the online discussion.

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


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