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The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation Hardcover – May 29, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“In these pages Stephen Prothero has brilliantly captured the American spirit-a spirit that has always seen us through hours of division and disagreement. With Prothero’s expert analysis, these texts should spark civil conversation, informed debate, and intelligent discussion.” (-Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion.)

“There are certain speeches, songs, books, letters, laws, and axioms that Americans honor 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.” (Religion News Service)

“Required for putting in one place so many historic pieces that are more opined over than actually read. Awesome scholarship to an admirable purpose.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

The American Bible is a provocative, brilliantly realized illumination of American values by means of excerpted historical documents.” (Colloquy, Harvard University)

In The American Bible, Prothero has turned his considerable talents to assembling a version of the American canon. The author’s prose is, as usual, spritely, informed and incisive.” (Washington Post)

From the Back Cover

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.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne (May 29, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062123432
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062123435
  • Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 1.6 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #202,504 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stephen Prothero is the New York Times bestselling author of Religious Literacy and chair of the religion department at Boston University. His work has been featured on the cover of Time magazine, Oprah, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, National Public Radio, and other top national media outlets. He writes and reviews for The New York Times Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Salon, and other publications. He holds degrees in American Religion from Harvard and Yale.

Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By John L Murphy TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
"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 (see my review Aug. 2011), "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.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Edward J. Blum on May 30, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I read a number of these chapters before they were published, and I think this is an incredible way for everyday readers and college students to learn United States history. It has liberals like FDR and conservatives like Reagan; it has Washington and Jefferson, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Luther King Jr. We get everything here: primary documents (such as memorable speeches from Abraham Lincoln) and expert analysis from Prothero, one of the finest scholars distilling complex concepts into understandable points. I plan on using this in my courses on American religious history and having students select a document to fit into one of the categories (Genesis, Law, Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Prophets, Lamentations, Gospels, Acts, Epistles") and then write their own commentaries. I'm a longtime fan of Prothero's work and this seals the deal.

Edward J. Blum, co-author of "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America"

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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Zachary Bailes on June 17, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Since Toqueville penned Democracy in America everyone in the world, including Americans themselves, have been trying to understand what constitutes America. Admittedly, Prothero compiles this literature not in an effort to provide the "canon" of America, but rather to provide a lens by which to read, see, and engage the American experience. To leave it at that, however, leaves too much to be desired and does no justice to Prothero's work.

Stephen Prothero (click for website)
From the statehouse to the church house Americans have fought, sometimes literally, for the definition of America. Prothero asserts that the fabric of our American identity, the ability to disagree and wrestle with difficult questions, has waned considerably. Those that dare engage Prothero's words will find a calm, steady voice challenging Americans to reflect upon our current societal situation and our place within it.

From the Constitution to Martin Luther King Jr. I found myself reflecting upon how and why we are who we are. Prothero's work is far from nostalgic, but it signals that something fundamental has changed. An atmospheric shift has occurred in all sectors of American life. Prothero's work, in my mind, implies a loss of American pragmatism--the ability to engage differing ideas and move forward for the common good.

All too often the word pragmatism remains seen as a foul, odorous word singeing our idealistic nose hair. Yet this spirit, the spirit of engage different ideas and hearing various opinions, constitutes American experience. As Prothero asserts how we participate in life constitutes who we are as Americans. We have lost the art of conversation and value in differing opinions.

Whether or not this identity crisis can be corrected remains to be seen.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Roy F. Johnson on September 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover
For me, it was educational to read cornerstone documents from American history. It was a good overview.

As an agnostic, I was not put off by the biblical structure. I thought the approach was creative. Interweaving of religion with government has indeed been an American phenomenon. And certainly not all of the passages in The American Bible promoted religion.

A few things that caught my attention:

1. How some of the documents seemed so verbose, as though the writers found verbosity necessary for credibility.

2. The parallel drawn between the Israelites of the real bible and European settlers of America, suggesting that they were both God's chosen people who had an innate right to brutally displace an indigenous population.

3. Harriet Beecher Stowe's suggestion that African Americans be repatriated to Africa. For me this added to the evidence that while Northerners might have wanted to end slavery, they were not particularly happy with the idea of former slaves migrating northward.

4. How Malcolm X, despite being a voracious reader, still took so long to realize that the Muslim teachings he received in the U.S. didn't match the teachings in the Middle East. But at least he was ready to change his mind when presented with new information.

5. George Washington's caution about becoming entangled with other nations at the expense of U.S. interests. I immediately thought of our current relationship with Israel, and then I saw the comment by George Ball confirming this concern.

6. Past parallels to current controversy, e.g. the liberal/conservative conflict and blaming the financial community for the country's ills.

7. How some of the documents presented as sacred to school children were resoundingly criticized at the time they were written.
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