Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Stephen Prothero's "The American Bible": Book Review

"Why allow John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi to dominate your book club when Jefferson, Lincoln, and King are in the room?" To arrange such a conversation, Stephen Prothero compiles our nation's "core texts" from our "de facto public canon" into an "American Talmud," offering speeches, songs, stories, and sayings to spark discussion and debate as primary "books." Following each inclusion, he chronologically arranges dissenting and affirming comments from activists, lawyers, politicians, writers, and scholars. Ten "scriptural" sections comprise this biblical inspiration, mixing at first predominantly religiously infused arguments with, as the nation evolves, more secular and diverse texts. Furthering this Boston University professor's survey of contributions to our public discussion of issues that matter, it's a logical follow-up to his 2007 study "Religious Literacy."

Professor Prothero aims "not to create a canon but to report upon one." He seeks to overcome our bipartisan antagonism and our weariness with policies, parties, and principles which seem to shift. Returning key texts that matter to our public conversation, he hopes to renew hope among Americans. In this affordable, thoughtful, and balanced collection, Prothero invites us to listen to what our fellow Americans have discussed over almost four centuries as our necessary exercise in self-government, an experiment as open-ended as any ever attempted by citizens anywhere, anytime.

The book begins, logically, with "Genesis": colonial calls that often reenacted the Exodus story. "Law" follows as constitutional traditions and Supreme Court decisions from Brown in 1954 and Roe v. Wade in 1973. "Chronicles" relate "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Huck Finn" excerpts on slavery neatly, while a telling absence of an intended excerpt, denied by the estate of Ayn Rand, allows "Atlas Shrugged" to enter only in its commentaries, not the original text! Surely a moral lurks in this refusal.

Songs as "Psalms" follow, and for "God Bless America," even an Indiana billboard attests to its power, alongside "This Land Is Your Land" for a sharper counterpart to jingoism and patriotic cant. "Proverbs" places aphorisms around a Talmudic pattern of surrounding voices, before "Prophets" announces "Civil Disobedience," Eisenhower's farewell address about the military-industrial complex, King's "I Have a Dream," and Malcolm X's autobiographical defense of his "demagogue" role with a predictably if astutely chosen chorus of dissenting as well as assenting voices joining in as commentary in the decades since, with our current president among poets, pacifists, and preachers.

Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" opens "Lamentations" fittingly; Prothero prefaces this with an exegesis of how this "new gospel" elevated the Address above not only the "letter of the Constitution" but the "spirit of the Declaration of Independence." It redefined America as more revolutionary than conservative, in the professor's perspective. He then juxtaposes this with another dramatic response to war, Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and ends that section with Bill Clinton invoking in turn Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address to heal the damage of the Vietnam War.

Appropriately after this division, the book breaks into its "Gospels" with inaugural addresses by Jefferson and FDR, before a surprising entry by Ronald Reagan. Not from his presidency, but from nearly two decades earlier, when on television he endorsed Goldwater and argued against LBJ's Great Society, to set the course for the resurgence of his own career and that of the GOP. Prothero tips his hand perhaps away from the expected tilt of many in academia towards the left. Although his sympathy may hover, he does take pains to present the views of conservatives fairly in such chapters. Examining the comments appended to "The Speech," from Reagan's demythologizing biographer Lou Cannon to his memorialist Sarah Palin, the sharp voices for these polarizing texts prove lively.

After the figures of such bold presidents, "Acts" may seem anticlimactic.  Yet, the Cold War insertion of the "under God" clause into "The Pledge of Allegiance" merits extended analysis in one of the most informative segments. "Epistles" from Washington's "Farewell Address" prove relevant in terms of both the rise of the Religious Right and the controversy over "entangling alliances" as foreign policy. Lesser known one may hazard to nearly any reader than other entries: Jefferson's "Letter to the Danbury Baptists" in 1802, over the separation of church and state. At the time of this letter, a national church was prohibited by the First Amendment, but not by states. The "establishment clause," articulated here by Jefferson, became long a tenet of Democrats--at least until the past decade's return by even many liberal candidates towards espousing in public their own faith.

Faith supports the second document from King, "Letter from Birmingham Jail." No book of revelation or apocalypse concludes this compendium, although the Civil Rights Movement has its own eloquent speakers in the commentaries that follow, if oddly nearly all after the initial unrest during which King's letter was delivered. The epilogue wraps up the presentation with more on the race question, which Prothero emphasizes as the key question in all the "American Bible," as a melting pot has not endured as a model, but a fiercely partisan, multicultural, and multiethnic polity.

Prothero reminds us of competing readings we bring to this anthology's issues. Dissent erupts, even as it's channeled into conversation, as heroes rise and fall and politicians come and go. This dynamic, as this edition represents handsomely (even if the parchment-type of background for primary texts may jostle aesthetically against the brown-on-beige commentary footnoted therein), may not resolve these worthwhile wrangles Americans love to engage in, but they stand for our "shared practice" to argue the public good (I think of the ideal of the founders, a "res publica") as regularly as some go to Mass, attend sermons, or visit temples. (Amazon US 5-29-12 via a review copy; author's website)


trish said...

I think the Song as "Psalms" and the section about the pledge of allegiance sound most interesting. The debate on whether to keep "under God" in the pledge seems to come up fairly often (I listen to a lot of talk radio), so I'd love to see what Prothero has to say on the subject.

Thanks for being on the tour and sharing your thoughts!

Stephen Prothero said...

Thanks for your thoughtful review of my book. Always great to have careful and articulate readers! Steve P.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Trish & Stephen, thank you for your kind words. I agree that for me, the Pledge "under God" proved one of this anthology's most intriguing sections. I hope the edition sparks lots of debate, discussion, and understanding.