The test of my preference of a book is whether or not it stays on my shelf. It’s a small shelf, so books sometimes get removed to make room for new ones. Stephen Prothero’s The American Bible is up there as we speak. It’s no beach read by any means, but for people who are interested in politics and rhetoric, it’s an invaluable resource, especially when university-level papers are in your future. (Yes, I plan on grad school.)
Prothero’s idea is that while America does not have a state religion, there are certain texts that Americans hold sacred, and thus they can be compiled into a “bible.” This is unusual, but as Prothero is a religious historian by trade, it works brilliantly. One Amazon reviewer found this premise offensive because, as I’ve said, America does not have a state religion and thinks Prothero wants us to approach these texts as, literally, biblical. This reviewer is a moron.
The book is divided into these sections: Genesis (pre-Constitution writings), Law (the Constitution and certain Supreme Court cases), Chronicles (historical exposés), Psalms (patriotic songs), Proverbs (famous quotes), Prophets (speeches with predictions), Lamentations (speeches with, well, lamentations), Gospels (speeches with calls to action), Acts (patriotic behaviors) and Epistles (directed writings). Organized this way, it’s hard not to see religious traits in ostensibly secular U.S. traditions.
I truly appreciated Prothero’s inclusion of “commentaries” on each text excerpted in his book. In his introduction, he brings up the Talmud, which itself is rife with competing commentaries on the text of the Hebrew Bible. “To be a Jew, therefore, is not so much to have the truth as to search for it,” he writes, and the reader is meant to think of what it means to be an American this way. Certainly Americans are more willing to question and debate their institutions than other societies, no matter how long they’ve maintained them. (Does that reviewer think Prothero wants us all to be Jewish?)
Whether you like the religious connotations or not, every text in Prothero’s book has become inextricably ingrained in American discourse to a point. He is not trying to hold each one up as good or bad; he is merely holding them up as important. The inclusion of the commentaries proves that the associated and ongoing debates are just as important as the texts themselves.
Prothero’s book is a must for any curriculum in communications, law or American studies. It’ll save everyone the trouble of making copies of the text they’ll probably read anyway. And if you’re stuck on something interesting to say about an idea, read this for a side you may not have considered.