Stephen Prothero: “Our Uncommon Creed”

Last evening I had the distinct pleasure to hear Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religion at Boston University, give an address. Given the events of yesterday and Prothero’s home institution, the evening began with the observation of a moment of silence.

Prothero’s talk was hosted by the Lee Institute, an organization associated with Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church (USA). I first became acquainted with Prothero’s work through his book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World. His burden in that volume, in conjunction with introducing and explaining the engine that drives these eight religions, is to argue that the religions are not all different paths up the same mountain: rather, they are each interested in and develop explanations for different aspects of the human condition, with problems and answers to those problems that are fundamentally different from one another. It is a very good and informative book, and I highly recommend it.

Prothero’s talk this evening was entitled, “Our Uncommon Creed: Reflections on the World’s Religions and American Politics.” To begin, he described his work on a forthcoming project addressing culture wars in United States history, and how this project led him down an expected rabbit trail that became his most recent book, The American Bible-Whose America Is This?: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation. I have not (yet) read this book, but I now intend to as a result of hearing Prothero talk about it. The basic point is that he realized that Americans have a canon of national texts that we treat as sacred in interesting ways. This book collects and comments on 27 of those texts, which he organizes according to a broadly biblical (Judeo-Christian) pattern. Indeed, Prothero remarked that he originally wanted to title the book, The American Talmud, but his publisher would not let him.

This is an important point because he argues that Americans treat their civil religious canon (if you will) more like a Jewish Talmud than the Christian Bible. These texts provide us with a collection of seemingly incommensurable common goods, but little instruction on how to adjudicate between them. Thus they give rise to an ongoing community of interpretation organized by the need to make such adjudications in different times and places. In this way, Prothero suggests, our collective identity is one structured not by orthodoxy—since neither these texts themselves or the fundamental diversity of our nation (ethnic, religious, more broadly intellectual, etc.) allow for a single, authoritative interpretation—but by orthopraxy, namely, the communal interpretive conversation. In this way, our civil religion is more fundamentally Jewish in character than Christian.

The “application” that he made from all this is that anyone who raise an issue for debate over what exactly the whole America thing is about, or what it means to be an American, actually pledges allegiance to America by so doing. Raising such questions is how you function properly as a part of our national interpretive dialog. Well, raising such questions AND engaging in an interpretive dialog that is both civil and well informed. Prothero made a distinction here between arguing to learn and arguing to will, extolling the former. The common good must be maintained before one’s own good, the good of one’s own, or the good of one’s party.

Thus far, description—as best as my meager notes allow for. I do encourage you to pick up his book and engage more deeply with his arguments as he would put them himself. But with that proviso in place, allow me just one semi-critical comment.

Prothero’s interest in raising the level of public discourse and excising unnecessary political vitriol is certainly important and to be welcomed. But there must be limits to the sort of questions about American ideals and identity in interpreting this canon that we as a nation will seriously entertain. For instance, Prothero makes much of how we have historically had to carefully negotiate the relationship between ideals of equality and liberty. But surely there are interpretations of these things that are beyond the pale. There must some way of making a judgment that some accounts of equality are inadequate, and some accounts of liberty or too excessive. Furthermore, while it is important to make room at the table of interpretive discussion for a great plurality of voices, surely there are those who by their committed allegiance to defective interpretations of these values have forfeited their right to a serious hearing. Surely there are those who have become such enemies of equality, using huge amounts of wealth and power to marginalize great swaths of the citizenry, that they have lost all right to comment upon the importance of liberty, for instance (just a random example I made up...honest...ok, maybe not).

Perhaps Prothero has an account of these things in his book. I hope so, and I certainly look forward to reading the book and thinking through matters further.

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