Friday, October 5, 2012

What it Means to be American

The American Bible
How Our Words Unite, Divide, 
and Define a Nation
By Stephen Prothero

As we head into the final month of this election season, it can be hard to remember that we're all really on the same side. No matter how heated the debate, most Americans want what they think is best for the country. And according to Stephen Prothero, it's our differences that unite us. In his introduction he writes, "To be an American is not to agree with your fellow citizens about a set of propositions. It is to agree to argue with them, and to argue passionately."

Prothero's aim in this volume is to bring together a number of texts central to America's idea of itself. He notes that while we don't often agree on how to run the country, "Americans agree to a surprising degree about which symbols and ideas are central to our national life." He therefore offers excerpts of many quintessentially American speeches, songs, books, and aphorisms. Inside you'll find snippets of Thomas Paine's Common Sense and Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is right beside "God Bless America" and "This Land is Your Land."

Prothero, a professor of religion, uses the Bible as a template, explaining that his book "began as an effort to construct an American Talmud." Like the Talmud, he offers the original texts surrounded by commentary and discussion from many voices. Is Huckleberry Finn the most American novel, or is it Uncle Tom's Cabin? What did George Washington really mean in his farewell address, and how should we interpret Ronald Reagan's most famous political speeches?

It's the interplay of arguments from different sides of the political aisle that makes the book useful. It can remind us what we're trying to do, and even give us some hope. If the size of the book seems daunting, you might try listening to it. It's available as a downloadable audiobook.

Review by Danny Hanbery

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