Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the year in which Stephen Prothero’s earlier book, “American Jesus,” was published. It was published in 2003, not 2007. The review also incorrectly said that the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1987; the disaster occurred in 1986. This version has been corrected.
Over the past decade, Stephen Prothero has become one of the most successful, and most controversial, popularizers of the academic field of religious studies. Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, made a particular splash with his lively 2003 book, “American Jesus,” arguing that the image of Jesus, increasingly unmoored by theology or tradition, has been adopted so ubiquitously in our culture that it has become essentially secular.
In “The American Bible,” Prothero has turned his considerable talents to assembling a version of the American canon: “Not the books I revere but those that Americans themselves have made sacred.” His scripture comprises a set of essays, speeches and fiction that, in his judgment, have largely influenced the United States’ self-image. By recovering their teachings, he believes, we can heal the divisiveness and self-interest that ail our politics.
The goal is a noble one, and his list, for the most part, an admirable culling of national texts. The book falls into the tradition of other efforts to capture the nation’s cultural heritage — the Modern Library’s line of novels and E.D. Hirsch’s books on cultural literacy come to mind — but although there are other entrants, the contest tells us something important about our national character: that the United States, comparatively young to be wielding the remarkable influence that it does, is still trying to figure out how it got here and what makes it special.
The texts Prothero has chosen are organized, perhaps too preciously, along lines that readers of the Bible will understand: Genesis, law, chronicles, psalms, proverbs, prophets, lamentations, gospels, acts, epistles. Many of the chosen texts are wonderful, and I enjoyed finding, in a single place, the Gettysburg Address, John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and an excerpt from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The author’s prose is, as usual, spritely, informed and incisive.
But some of his choices seem awkward. He includes Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial as a lamentation. The brilliant wall isn’t pictured — was there a copyright problem? — so we are treated instead to various commentaries about it. But the commentaries can’t possibly be considered canonical, and Lin’s explanation, also included, isn’t the lamentation; her work is.
Film makes no appearance — not even “Gone With the Wind” or “Star Wars,” which, I suspect, taught the world more about the United States than any other movie in recent memory — but Prothero quite correctly includes novels in his canon. And although I might have made different choices (No “Gatsby”? No Steinbeck?), his are entirely defensible. (The award for irony goes to the estate of Ayn Rand, which refused to allow the excerpting of “Atlas Shrugged,” a decision Prothero cleverly marks with a blank page.)
Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address is included among the prophets, but George Washington’s farewell address falls among the epistles, even though his warning about entangling alliances with foreign states was at least as prescient as Eisenhower’s concern about the “military-industrial complex.”
To show how prophetic Eisenhower was, Prothero tells us how many billions of dollars the defense sector has earned since Sept. 11, 2001. But he scarcely mentions the greater military responsibilities the nation has taken on since then (I say this without being a fan of our adventurism) and never compares the profit margin of the defense industry to others. (Defense profits — including those of companies such as Raytheon and General Dynamics — run about 7 percent, which isn’t particularly impressive; in comparison, candy makers operate on a margin of about 11 percent, the book publishing industry operates at 15 percent, and application software makers at a whopping 23 percent.)
Moreover, Prothero has made the unfortunate decision to scatter political asides — mostly at the level of accusations that Republicans care only about the rich and refuse to make deals with Democrats — throughout the otherwise astute commentaries. I have no doubt that the author earnestly believes them, but none are necessary, and they are likely to narrow the appeal of an otherwise quite wonderful volume.
Consider conservative hero Ronald Reagan, who appears in the volume twice. Prothero includes Reagan’s 1964 Republican National Convention address and a brief excerpt from a 1983 speech in which he popularized the term “evil empire.” The second makes sense, but the first is a puzzle. The convention address is best known nowadays to a handful of rather senior conservatives. The iconic Reagan of the right is the Reagan of the 1980s, not the Reagan of the 1960s, whose stalwart but occasionally confused conservatism probably would have made him unelectable.
Prothero says the Reagan who was president was a pragmatist, and is at pains to inform us that the current Republican Party has strayed from Reagan’s vision. Is this simply cold academic analysis? Well, no. Prothero gives the game away when he chooses to include only a single, peculiar footnote in the text of the 1964 speech: a characteristically acerbic blast from economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who doesn’t like Reagan’s humorous crack about the poor being on a diet. Neither do I — but that’s why the speech is anything but iconic.
Dumping the convention address would have left space for a different Reagan speech, the best of his presidency — a lamentation, but in another sense a Gospel. I have in mind his address to a stunned and mourning nation in 1986 on the afternoon of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, when, in a paean to the tug of exploration, he quoted the poet John Gillespie Magee Jr., telling us that the fallen astronauts “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Including the Challenger speech would have remedied the principal omission in a book otherwise admirable in breadth and ambition: the almost entire failure to discuss science and technology. Yet it is technological advance and the American belief in the future that have done as much to set us apart from the world as anything else.
Thus, although Abraham Lincoln is in the book twice, we never learn what drew him into politics: Henry Clay’s plan for “internal improvements,” as they were then called — tunnels and bridges and ferries and railway lines to knit the country together. (Lincoln’s lifelong dream was a railroad linking the coasts.) John F. Kennedy is in Proverbs for “Ask not what your country can do for you,” but the address that probably generated the greatest excitement was his promise in May 1961 to put a man on the moon within a decade.
The political scientist Walter Murphy once remarked that what makes Americans unique is our certainty that no problem is unsolvable. That belief is central to our history and our self-image, and its great texts should surely be a part of our canon.
THE AMERICAN BIBLE
How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation
By Stephen Prothero
HarperOne. 533 pp. $29.99