Stephen Prothero: Take the challenge in American Bible

In The American Bible, How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation, Stephen Prothero has given Americans an exciting challenge to refocus our raging national debate in a healthy direction. Let’s help him revive a public discussion on core sacred texts that millions of Americans hold dear. Of course, we vigorously disagree about what these texts actually mean. We even disagree about why our own list of sacred American texts is quite different than the next person’s list. For example, we may love Huck Finn’s adventures and consider Mark Twain the definitive American writer; or we may dismiss the novel as a racist relic penned by a sadly out-of-date scribe. The whole point of Prothero’s creative new project is to pour our energies into vigorously discussing these issues—and step back from demonizing each other in our various political camps this season.

Read Part 1 of our coverage in which we give a sweeping overview of this huge new book.
And, please enjoy a 5-part, discussion-starting series of articles in the OurValues column to help you raise good questions with friends.
To get ready, you’ll also want to order a copy of Prothero’s book from Amazon.

TODAY, in the final part of our coverage, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Stephen Prothero on how to kick-start a discussion about this book …


DAVID: Your book is so timely and helpful that we are pleased to recommend it to our readers. I describe your book this way: Rather than trying to bridge the deep chasms in American politics right now—let’s step back and discuss the foundational texts that have shaped America. But that begs this first question: How did you choose these books and speeches and other texts for your book?

STEPHEN: This book is called the American Bible, but it’s not about American religion. It’s about American public culture. The criteria I used for inclusion and exclusion are: To what extent did these texts create ongoing public controversy? And: To what extent is that controversy about America?

DAVID: We write a lot about this kind of problem in the OurValues column with Dr. Wayne Baker: Americans do have some shared values, but we often forget that fact. More importantly, we have forgotten how to debate those values in a civil way.

STEPHEN: That’s why I put together this book. I began working on this book during the Ground Zero mosque controversy. It seemed to me like our society was imploding—was forgetting so much of what I value about American culture.

I went hunting for an answer to the question: What holds us together? The truth is that from the very beginning of this country there wasn’t much that held us together. This wasn’t like France or Germany where there was a homogenous society, one language, one religion, shared cultural references, an ancient history. From the beginning of America, there was a lot of hand wringing about what could hold this new nation together. One answer to that challenge is to say that we have a common creed as Americans. But, I just don’t think we have a creed. I think America is more rabbinic than creedal. When we open our sacred books, we don’t agree about what they mean. Like rabbis, we open these sacred books and we argue about what they mean. For example, there has been a long-running fight between those who value liberty above equality and those who value equality above liberty. Yet, when we debate these issues, we come together and quote the same sources on both sides. We all use Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln—both on the left and the right—as we debate the most contentious issues to this day. So, that was my starting point in this book.

DAVID: For readers who are not familiar with the Talmud and rabbinic study, this tradition shows one’s reverence for Jewish heritage by continuing to hammer out contemporary interpretations of it. Jewish scholars vigorously debate fine points of Jewish teaching, right?

STEPHEN: Yes, this is a foreign idea to most American Christians. The Talmud is the scripture from rabbinic Judaism that places words from the Hebrew Bible in the middle of a page, then surrounds those words with commentary. The Talmud makes no effort on any given page to settle the resulting disputes. My daughter went to a bat mitzvah some years ago, and she was surprised to hear the girl finish her reading and then start to rip into what she had just read. The girl started talking about how sexist that reading was. And she said: Today, we need to do better as Jews. My daughter was shocked to hear this. She thought that religion was all about agreeing to stuff that others have given us. But, Judaism is different. Judaism is a community of memory and a community of argument. You can be a Jew and not believe in God, for example. I think that being an American, engaged in the great issues in American culture, is a lot like this rabbinic tradition. For example, you can be a good American and think the Gettysburg address is horrible or you can think that Huckleberry Finn is racist. Or you can think the opposite about both works. To be an American is not to completely agree about these things—but it is our role as Americans to weigh in with our opinions on what these things mean, today.


DAVID: I was struck by how different your book is than other standards of what is greatest in American letters. I looked up the list of the earliest American Nobel Prize winners in literature: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck. And none of them appear in your American Bible. Different standards of judging our greatest texts?

STEPHEN: Yes, the Nobel Prize is for great literature and, in my book, I really didn’t care if something was judged to be great literature. I included Uncle Tom’s Cabin and I don’t think anyone regards that book as great literature. My tests were: Did the text generate controversy and ongoing commentaries over time? And, was the text about America? Now, I could have included John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. That does qualify for my book under my criteria for choosing texts. Grapes of Wrath certainly generated lots of controversy and it is discussed to this day. And, the novel does explore important issues of class in America. But I couldn’t include everything in my book—and I want readers to do exactly what we are doing, to extend the discussion and think of other texts to debate.

DAVID: That’s an important distinction for readers to understand as they dip into your book. This question of “greatness” or “sacredness” of the texts you’ve chosen isn’t a hallowing of literary talent, per se.

STEPHEN: On this greatness question, I chose Uncle Tom’s Cabin over Moby Dick because I felt Uncle Tom’s Cabin was much more influential in American life. Moby Dick is much more of the great American novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin caught the attention of ordinary Americans and caused them to reflect on their country. It led to the Civil War, Lincoln said.

There are many great American plays, but I didn’t include any because, at least in the contemporary period, plays are not particularly popular entertainment. Television is widely popular, but I didn’t choose any television shows. TV shows have a kind of evanescence. Not all of them vanish so quickly, but most do. All in the Family in some ways qualifies for inclusion in the American Bible. It’s clearly about America. It always focused on battles between the conservative Republican Archie Bunker and his son in law, the liberal ‘60s Democrat, but even that show kind of had its moment on the American scene and then faded.

DAVID: I’m sure readers will be disagreeing with you even as they read this interview. You’ve dismissed the impact of plays, but Death of a Salesman continues to be in headlines. The version with Philip Seymour Hoffman just won the latest Tony award for best revival of a play. There must be lots of things you regret leaving out of this book.


STEPHEN: Yes, I even had some things that I prepared for this book that I felt really horrible about cutting near the end. If I’d had three volumes to fill, there are all sorts of other things I would have included.

DAVID: Give us an example of something you prepared but then cut.

STEPHEN: I had Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride in a section that was done and ready to be included. I do refer to it in the book, but we needed to make this book manageable and Paul Revere’s Ride is one of the cuts we made. I feel very bad that there’s no poetry in the book. I thought a lot about: Should I include Longfellow or Whitman? Whitman’s Leaves of Grass qualifies on my two criteria—widely controversial over time and also all about America. But I chose Longfellow—before we finally cut that section—because on the eve of the Civil War, Longfellow really made this figure of Paul Revere into a central American figure. He created this idea of the heroic individual fighting and winning on behalf of our country.

I also had a chapter on the John F. Kennedy first inaugural, which I think is certainly one of the greatest presidential utterances in American life. It merits re-reading for its emphasis on individual sacrifice and for its great lines on civility, talking about how civility is not a sign of weakness. But I cut that section, as well, and I turned a shorter Kennedy quote into one my Proverbs. I devoted just a couple of pages to the Kennedy material instead of 20 or 30 pages if it had been a whole section on its own.

DAVID: I noticed there’s no Horatio Alger here. He pumped out hugely popular books. Like the huge popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, millions of Americans knew the Horatio Alger stories. The Horatio Alger myth is widely debated to this day. But he didn’t make the cut.

STEPHEN: I was tempted. If there is a second volume to the American Bible, Horatio Alger is definitely on my short list for that next book. People actually did read the Horatio Alger’s books in their day. They don’t read them anymore but they were very popular books that ran deep into the American psyche and they created a whole conversation about individualism and hard work and getting ahead on your own without help from the government. They deeply informed Ronald Reagan’s thinking about America.

DAVID: I appreciate your talking so openly about the cutting and pasting that went into the final production. I think this helps readers understand that you really do mean what you say: You offer this volume, not to carve this Bible in granite, but to get Americans thinking in this way, right?

STEPHEN: Yes, in fact, I used some sections of this book last term in a class I taught. My final assignment was to have students present their own books that should be in the American Bible and introduce them like I do in this book. We got some fascinating presentations from the students. I hope readers around the world will do the same thing that my class did and that we’re doing in this interview. Play the game of inclusion and exclusion with me. What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What should have been included? If we get people talking about those questions, then I have succeded with this book.

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

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