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‘The American Bible’ collects the texts ‘We the People’ argue about
First Published Jul 03 2012 01:48 pm • Last Updated Jul 03 2012 02:49 pm

Abraham Lincoln’s "Gettysburg Address" radically reinterpreted the Declaration of Independence.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech riffed on Lincoln’s lofty language.

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And Ronald Reagan drafted King’s dream of a country where character outweighs color into an argument against affirmative action.

There are certain speeches, songs, books, letters, laws and axioms that Americans appreciate enough to argue about, says religion scholar Stephen Prothero.

Like the Declaration of Independence, this almost consecrated canon inspires endless commentary about what it means to be American — and what "America" means.

Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, collects these civil scriptures in his new book The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.

"We treat these core texts in a sacred way," Prothero said in an interview. "Each has different meanings — and they don’t necessarily reconcile with each other."

So, "The American Bible" contains patriotic picks like the Pledge of Allegiance, and phrases like "city on a hill" that are repeated by pilgrims, presidents and pundits across generations.

But some selections — like the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision — may be more reviled than revered by many Americans.

That’s precisely the point, Prothero says. Few documents have inspired more passionate debate than the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion — and arguing remains the central ritual of the American republic.


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Prothero says that he aimed to describe, not craft, the country’s sacred scriptures. He had two main criteria: The texts had to be about America, and they had to stir controversy.

"It could have been the most brilliant thing in history," Prothero said, "but it wouldn’t have gotten into my book unless it had a vibrant afterlife."

As in his previous books, God Is Not One and Religious Literacy, the prolific author urges Americans to do their homework. That is, read the primary texts for themselves and not take others’ interpretations at face value.

Prothero says his book about America’s most influential arguments was inspired by the petty partisanship of contemporary debates.

"I was casting about for what might hold us together at a time when it seems like we might be fraying apart."

The religion scholar didn’t find a central American creed. Instead he found a cacophony of voices, a loud conversation stretching from the Plymouth pilgrims to Sarah Palin.

Seeking to corral that conversation, Prothero patterned "The American Bible" on the Christian Bible.

The "Genesis" section includes Puritan John Winthrop’s "Model of Christian Charity," Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence.

The Constitution, and Supreme Court decisions Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade comprise the "Law" section. "Chronicles" include Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Ayn Rand’s dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged.

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