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Monday, July 2, 2012

TLC Book Tour Feature: *The American Bible*, by Stephen Prothero

The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation
Stephen Prothero (Twitter)
HarperOne (2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0062123432 / 9780062123435)
Nonfiction (history/commentary), 544 pages
Source: Publisher, for TLC Book Tours
Book description, from the publisher's website:
Since Thomas Jefferson first recorded those self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence, America has been a nation that has unfolded as much on the page and the podium as on battlefields or in statehouses. Here Stephen Prothero reveals which texts continue to generate controversy and drive debate. He then puts these voices into conversation, tracing how prominent leaders and thinkers of one generation have commented upon the core texts of another, and invites readers to join in.
Few can question that the Constitution is part of our shared cultural lexicon, that the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision still impacts lives, or that "The Star-Spangled Banner" informs our national identity. But Prothero also considers lesser known texts that have sparked our war of words, including Thomas Paine's Common Sense and Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In The American Bible Christopher Hitchens weighs in on Huck Finn, and Sarah Palin on Martin Luther King Jr. From the speeches of Presidents Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan to the novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ayn Rand—Prothero takes the reader into the heart of America's culture wars. These "scriptures" provide the words that continue to unite, divide, and define Americans today.
Comments: I have to begin with a disclosure and an apology--I haven't actually read this book yet. It's not due to lack of interest; I'm definitely interested. But time, travel, and the fact that this is a 500-plus-page, non-narrative hardcover have all played their parts in keeping me from getting started on it. However, today is my designated stop on the book's TLC Book Tour. Not having done my reading homework, I obviously can't offer a review, but I can say a few words about why I think The American Bible will be worth reading.

I'm fascinated--and frequently aggravated--by the role that religion plays in the American public debate, because this country was founded on principles of freedom of (and from) religion and the separation of church and state, in consideration of the fact that some of its first settlers came here seeking relief from religious prosecution. The United States of America is not a theocracy, and it's not a "Christian nation" either. While some of our underlying principles and morality are based on precepts found within Christianity, they're not necessarily unique to Christianity. I was curious about how a book called The American Bible might address that.

But perhaps I should have read the description more closely, because it's not clear that it will address that, specifically (although some of Prothero's previous books have, from several perspectives). Rather,  The American Bible collects excerpts from and discussions of other texts that have fueled aspects of the public debate during the last two centuries,
organizing them along the same lines as the books of the Christian Bible:

  • Genesis (Thomas Paine's Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence) 
  • Law (The Constitution and two landmark Supreme Court rulings, Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade
  • Chronicles (Uncle Tom's Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, Atlas Shrugged
  • Psalms ("The Star-Spangled Banner," "God Bless America," "This Land is Your Land") 
  • Proverbs (quotes) 
  • Prophets (essays and speeches about change) 
  • Lamentations (speeches of war and remembrance) 
  • Gospels (Presidential speeches) 
  • Acts (The Pledge of Allegiance) 
  • and Epistles (speeches and essays in letter form)

While it's not what I was expecting, it looks like Stephen Prothero's American Bible will be interesting, insightful reading in its own right. Readers are sharing their insights about the book at other stops on this TLC Book Tour.