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‘The American Bible’ collects the texts ‘We the People’ argue about

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George Washington’s farewell address, Thomas Jefferson’s "Letter to Danbury Baptists" and King’s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" comprise the "Epistles" section.

By Prothero’s own admission, "The American Bible" lacks demographic diversity.

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"For better or worse, dead white men have had outsized influence over the course of American history, and among their powers has been the capacity to command an audience," he writes in the introduction.

But "The American Bible" also gives voice to homegrown "prophets," such as King and Malcolm X, who castigated the country for failing to live up to its ideals.

Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said "The American Bible" could have included more women, particularly suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony. Feminists Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan could also have made the cut, Butler said.

The Boston Globe, meanwhile, chided Prothero for including "less thoughtful social critics, such as Operation Rescue’s Randall Terry," who defends the assassination of abortion doctors in a commentary on Roe v. Wade.

"The danger of false equivalency always lurks in this kind of project," The Globe writes. "Do all sides of an argument always deserve equally respectful reading?"

Does Lincoln lose some gravitas by being in the same book as Terry? Probably, Prothero says.

But the commentaries like Terry’s that follow after each main selection form the "heart and soul" of "The American Bible," Prothero argues. Everyone from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to lefty historian Howard Zinn gets space to sound off about what’s right and wrong with America.

The almost endless interpretations make "The American Bible" in some ways like a Jewish Talmud: a sacred text surrounded by impassioned argument.

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"The way to wisdom here lies not in affirming simple truths but in engaging in difficult discussions," Prothero writes. It’s just those kinds of conversations, the scholar says, that his "American Bible" aims to inspire.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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