cover image The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation

The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation

Stephen Prothero. HarperOne, $29.99 (544p) ISBN 978-0-06-212343-5

What makes America unique, Prothero convincingly argues, is that the words that manifest its "core ideas and values%E2%80%94" from the Declaration of Independence to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged%E2%80%94continue to be debated by its citizens. To illustrate this, Prothero (God Is Not One) takes excerpts from important American speeches and documents and places them next to various commentaries. A particularly rich result of this juxtaposition comes in the supplements to John Winthrop's 1630 sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," wherein themes from Winthrop's speech are used by John O'Sullivan to justify Manifest Destiny, by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to posit the 9/11 attacks as divine retribution, and by Sarah Palin to praise America while misattributing the coinage of the "shining city on a hill" to Ronald Reagan. Despite the book's arrangement according to biblical headings (e.g., Genesis, Acts, Law, Epistles, etc.), Prothero deftly balances the debate between religious and secular voices, such as on the godlessness of the Constitution. The book's greatest strength lies in this neutrality, offering commentaries from both sides of the discussion%E2%80%94all enlightening, encouraging, and frustrating in equal measure. (June)