Stephen Prothero, Author, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation and Revolution
Thinking in Public
September 3, 2012
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Words matter. They move individuals to tears and to action. They make or break communities. So writes Professor Stephen Prothero in his new book The American Bible. He’s professor in the department of religion at Boston University, the author of numerous books and one of the most quoted academics in America.
Mohler: Professor Prothero, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Prothero: Thanks for having me.
Mohler: You wrote this book and titled it The American Bible. Many people looking at it are going to mostly assume that this is mostly about the Christian scriptures, the Judeo Christian scriptures the Old and New Testament. Actually, you are using the Bible in a very different sense, explain that to us.
Prothero: Right it’s a little more of a religious study sense, sort of as scriptures. So, it might have been called American Scripture or American Public Scripture or something like that. The idea is that I am not looking at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but I’m looking at Washington, Lincoln, King, and Jefferson- some of the great expressions in American public life and not only those words but the commentaries on them, which really take up most of the books. So, I’m just as interested in what people have said about the Declaration of Independence as I am about the declaration or what people have said about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as the Gettysburg Address itself.
Mohler: Well, I was really interested in not only the selections you made but in the process by which you made the selections. You mentioned this in various interviews and also in the book itself- you were looking for those documents that make a decisive difference in American History and have what we might call an “after life.” They continue to be a part of the American conversation in ways that shape our understanding of ourselves as a nation and as a people and that must have been a very difficult selection process.
Prothero: Yea, I mean it was sort of like, uh, creating a cannon, right? Like, the people who sat down and decided which gospels were going to be, were going to be the four gospels, um and so I tried to do that in a fair way rather than sort of saying alright what are my favorite books or my favorite speeches or songs I tried to think about which ones have really mattered, you know? Which ones we, as Americans, you know, care enough to fight about and to debate? And so I really looked for a text that generated controversy and comments over a sustained period of time and then looked for those comments to be about America. So not really about literary theory- you know you might have a debate about a novel, you know telling us about literature but looking for things that really helped us figure out what America was all about. And that’s how I really honed-in on my core texts.
Mohler: A figure like Mark Twain reminds us that we have, each of us, have a “cannon” of books and of, uh literary figure and characters that are seemingly always with us. And, uh, as much as you now have three hundred million Americans, and you might say each with three hundred million different sets of documents walking around in our imaginations you really were looking at those that have a uniquely unitary kind of identity with the American people. And when I look at this, I realize you start out with something as fundamental as the Exodus story from the Bible and then you end up with Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham
Prothero: (laughs) Yea, they’re not so far apart because the Exodus story is so foundational to the civil rights movement. The whole idea that we’re moving from slavery to freedom, from segregation to, um, to desegregation and, uh, into integration and you know part of it, part of what I was interested in as a historian of religion, of course, is the religion angle on this. You know I typically write books that are more clearly about religion. This is more, I think it’s shelved in the political science section, you know in your library or you know your local book store, uh but, religion plays an important factor. There are sermons here. There are a lot of references to the Bible and there are a lot of texts like those with King, that defy being pushed into a simple genre. Where you take a speech like “I Have a Dream” you know that’s as much a sermon as a political argument.
Mohler: You do begin with the Exodus story and the first section of your book that you identify is Genesis. Talk about, just as an example of the way a text has taken possession of the American character and imagination. Talk about how Exodus as a story functioned at the beginning of our national experiment, and trace it through its aftermath and its continuing references that you make very clear.
Prothero: Yea, well this is a very good example. And here is one case where a book in The American Bible is actually in the Bible. It’s the only biblical story that I’ve picked because I do think it’s the foundational story. It’s both Jewish and Christian story of course. It’s the story of Moses and the slavery of the Israelites and their liberation out of bondage across the Red Sea into freedom and toward Zion and toward the promise land. That story was the story that animated the Puritans and the Pilgrims and they came over to the new world. They left behind the kings of England, who they saw as Pharoah. They left behind religious rulers they believed were misinterpreting the Protestant tradition and they sought out a Zion of biblical commonwealth in the new world. But they weren’t the only people who did that. That story was an animating story for slaves in the South who saw the South as Babylon and saw the North as the promise land. It was important to Mormons who moved out West. They saw the East as Egypt and saw the West as freedom promised to them in the book of Mormon. And it animated the feminist movement, and it animated the Civil Rights movement. So it is a great example of a story that has an “after-life” to go along with the power that it has in the Bible itself.
Mohler: You go on to demonstrate furthermore how many of these texts that are so much a part of our public life and public conscience together also function in ways that can be described appropriately by what can only be described as opposing sides in even our nation’s greatest conflict the Civil War. For instance, dealing with the Exodus narrative you provide a selection from a Maria Stewart, an anti-slavery lecturer, who was clearly using the Exodus metaphor to argue for the abolition of slavery. At the same time Benjamin Morgan Pulmer, a Presbyterian pastor from New Orleans was arguing that the Exodus story was instead most implacable to the confederacy.
Prothero: Well, that’s what makes these Americanscriptures rather than democratic or republican scriptures that these texts have a space inside them. Great literature as well has statements that can be generalized outside of their own circumstances. So if the gospel of Mark, only spoke to people around the Mediteranean in the first Century then we wouldn’t have so many Christians in the United States. This is a text that speaks overtime and the same with these texts in American Scripture that they can be read by republicans and Democrats in very different ways and they provide a basis for debate. One of the points I make in this book, is that we are held by a common debate about these texts, and it’s instructive to see that your party, often in the past believed things that your party doesn’t believe anymore, and I think that is actually a healthy thing for Americans to realize the malleability of their own politics because I think we are so incased in our own political agendas that we forget that we have had constructive debates that we are fighting for now.
Mohler: You include many selected documents and pieces of literature within your collection, The American Bible, but under the first section you include some things that frankly might surprise us that you document and defend in terms of the selection in the book, but for instance in the very first section you include one of those texts that defined America Noah Webster’s Blue Back Speller, Talk about that.
Prothero: Well that’s one that many people haven’t heard about nowadays. But if we were around in the early 19th century and going to school with Abe Lincoln we would be learning our A, B, C’s from this book, from Noah Webster’s most famous first dictionary. I think he was most influential for creating this speller, which we don’t even know what a speller is today. It’s a kind of book that you would use to learn how to read. And as you are learning to read you would also be learning about scripture, which was included with biblical references but you would also be learning about American history and you would be learning about what Webster referred to as American English. He was very keen on Americans having cultural independence from England as well as political independence and so he wrote this speller, which went to numerous editions and sold millions and millions of copies certainly one of the top ten best-selling books in American history. It had a cultural, political, and religious influence on America and really helped bring the nation together.
Mohler: Well, it helps explain and I know you also demonstrated this in the book, that it helps to explain for instance on the American frontier we still ended up with a similar language where as in Europe that distance also led to a fundamentally different language group.
Prothero: Yea, Webster was hoping for something that didn’t quite actually come to pass. He wanted an American English that was different from British English, which he accomplished. But he also wanted an American English that would standardize over all the regions, and we don’t quite have that. You sound kind of funny there with your Southern accent, where we speak proper up here in New England you know? I’m kidding. But we have regional differences in the way we talk and Webster was hoping to flatten that out, specifically in New England, He was educating people from all over the nation to speak in his way and that didn’t quite happen.
Mohler: You include a selection of things that are clearly memorable even today. Most Americans are at least familiar with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Certainly most are familiar with The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin, by Mark Twain or with “The Star Spangled Banner” or Woody Guthries “This Land is Your Land.” Fewer might have in mind such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation but you include that?
Prothero: Right, I see that among the prophetic books that I include. It’s most famous, this
speech, for his warning about the military industrial complex, and that’s where
most of the after life is. So you have people who are trying to figure out what Eisenhower is saying as he retired and gave way to John F. Kennedy. He was by the way, one of our most beloved presidents, very popular and presided over a period of relative peace and prosperity. He chose in his final words, “You have to watch out for runaway military spending,” and boy do we have a lot more military spending now that we did in his time period. That’s been a point of contention both on the left and on the right, when people ask, what was Eisenhower really saying? Was he trying to cut military spending or was he saying that we needed to be aware of the money spent on military efforts. I rank that up with Washington’s farewell address as the two most goodbye letters from American Presidents.
Mohler: It’s really interesting that you say that because you do include George Washington’s address from 1796 and your including such epistles but one has to look back on that address and realize that was one the most respected addresses given in American history and one of the least heated and virtually every point Washington made was disregarded or disobeyed by his immediate successors.
Prothero: Yea, that’s such an interesting document, and I learned so much doing the research on that and one of the things I say on that is it was seen as an instant classic and revered as “the great words of Washington” the sacred and immortal words of him. A lot of the other documents take a long time. Even the declaration of independence was no big deal for at least a generation after it was published. But right away people cared about Washington. They noticed that religion was one of the pillars of government and we hear this a lot from the religious right looking, not saying we should have a strict definition of church and state, but that religion was a pillar of good government, warning us about loving or hating any nation too much and. We do not need to get into alliances that are too close to anybody and don’t hate anybody too much because that draws you in and away from your own self interest. His third major point is the mischief spirit of party. How people will by nature feel pulled into allegiance with their political party and start to put the interests of the party over the interests of the nation, and we have to be careful not to do that.
Mohler: Included in the selections that are published in the American Bible with your commentary, and also your historical analysis, are documents such as supreme court decisions Brown v. Board of Education and Row v. Wade and I want to credit you by the way of putting an extremely balanced representation of responses to these documents over time. You include prophetic statements such as you identified them with Thuro’s Civil Disobedience and Martin Luther King’s speech, I Have a Dream, Malcom X Autobiography. You also include, what you call proverbs, such as Ronald Regan’s “Evil Empire” speech juxtaposed with Kennedy’s inaugural address and FDR’s New Deal Address in 1932 then you go backwards in time and you go forwards in time, and you end up with a rather comprehensive list and I can’t imagine that many people, who are critics would complain about any selection that is found here but I think we all might have things that we wonder like for me, Lincoln’s second inaugural address that didn’t find its way in here. What agonized you to leave out?
Prothero: That’s a great question. I have been criticized both ways for things I included and the Boston Globe thought I was too conservative. I tried really hard both in the core texts themselves and in the commentaries and to have a balance where the whole conversation was represented. So I am grateful that you noticed that. I ended up putting Kennedy’s inaugural in the book, but only as you said as a proverb and the prober section is made up of one liners or sentences and I just added “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” But I had wanted to include the whole speech which has a lot of wonderful language including Kennedy’s observation that civility is not a sign of weakness, and I think we need to remember that today. I did do a chapter on Longfellow’s, “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” that I ended up cutting, and it was done, and I wanted to make the book a little shorter and less expensive. I had to cut some things. I cut Walt Whitman, I wanted him in there. There are a lot of controversies about Leaves of Grass and a lot of controversies about America and of American democracy. I only included three novels, the two you mentioned, and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and I didn’t do things like Grapes of Wrath, which would have been important I think. It’s a one volume book and not an encyclopedia so I had to make some choices.
Mohler: As I said, there goes my childhood. I still remember my father sitting on the edge of my bed, reading me Longfellow’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” and I can still remember it. So it’s amazing the documents included and the ones you could wish or anyone who is reading the book might wish was included how they have taken on such meaning for us. I want to ask you one last question about the book and that is- What discovery did you make concerning one of these documents that brought you the most satisfaction?
Prothero: I think the thing that I discovered which was most hopeful for me and that I discovered not in one document but many was that a great tradition of conciliation in American public life. We are in a moment right now in our American politics where it is pretty nasty both on the left and the right. It reminds me of worst times like the election of 1800 where they were so angry and bitter on both sides. What I found in these texts wasn’t just what I see as wisdom but I also found a way of doing public debate and public disagreement that is both civil and informed and we are missing that. You see it in Lincoln and you see that certainly in Washington’s farewell address and you see it in MLK. That was always wonderful to see. The work of an historian is often depressing because human beings are sinners and they do things that are pretty bad but that was something hopeful and that kind of kept me going when I was working on this project.
The selections chosen by Professor Prothero for his book The American Bible are sure to prompt a lot of debate but after all that’s how they arrived in this book in the first place. They are the topics of our national conversation and as very often is the case, a real live national debate.
In 2006, my guest Stephen Prothero wrote, “In the U.S. religion matters. In overwhelming numbers American’s believe in God, pray and contribute their time and money to churches and synagogues, mosques and temples. As much as race, gender, ethnicity and region, religious commitments make individual Americans who they are. The significance of religion is not confined however to self identity and the private sphere in the US it is as much public as it is pervasive, as political as it is personal and so it has been for a long, long time.”
Prof. Prothero, When you look at the religious landscape in the year 2012, what do you see?
Prothero: Well I see that still – What’s most interesting now is that we have our first post-protestant election cycle where we have a Mormon, two Catholics, and a Protestant who are contending for the slots of President and Vice President. I think that is pretty fascinating and we see a robust public square in terms of religion conversation, especially in the last couple of days where Mitt Romney seems like he is willing to start speaking about his Mormon faith. So, I think we are up to debate about Catholic values and whose Catholic values are more biblical and is Mormonism okay for an American President? How do Catholicism and Mormonism square with the Protestant values that have typically guided American public life in the past?
Mohler: This nation was consistently led by what could only be described as a white protestant leadership European in terms of its identity of origin and cultural alliance and now we have reached the point where on the United States Supreme court there isn’t a single Protestant. Where in terms of our national political leadership we are really not that surprised to have a Mormon and a Roman Catholic on a ticket against a Roman catholic and an African American Protestant tradition. It’s a very different America we see right before our eyes.
Prothero: It is a little bit of a puzzle. The obvious way to go with that is that Protestantism is in trouble, but you look at the congress and three quarters of the congress is Protestant and Protestants are over represented in the congress in their numbers in American homes. The way we talk about a lot of things in public is pretty Protestant. Evangelicals continue to have an important voice not just in the Republican party. It is not a post religious moment. I don’t think it’s a post-Protestant moment but I think it’s an intriguing time that we are in. Things are up for grabs, and we don’t quite know how to speak in public about religion in the simple minded ways that we have in the past.
Mohler: The American Academic establishment has been committed for a long time to a worldview that they were certain would indicate the receding public influence of Christianity specifically in religion in general and that the increasing of the American people. It hasn’t turned out that way. You look at these points so carefully, why would you argue that it has not turned out as the prophets of the secularization theory foretold?
Prothero: You need to give us Academics a little more credit there that the sociologists of religion were wrong in terms of their theories. Peter Berger for example was a colleague of mine at Boston University, probably the most pronounced in the secularization theory gave up on that some time ago he said he was wrong and religion isn’t going away. I dislike the post-protestant label so much because it implies a secularization that is not what’s going on. Protestants aren’t being replaced by atheists on the Supreme Court and by agnostics are Catholics and Mormons and Protestants and Hindus and Buddhists in the public space. So- the simple and theological answer is there is a God and the other answer is, religion is just a part of human life, and it doesn’t get chased out very easily and we only have only one place in history where secularity has really flourished and so I don’t see religion going away in American life. And as societies become more modern and technological they are going to give up on God, that’s being refuted in American life today.
Mohler: I appreciate your candor on that. I am glad to say we had Prof. Berger on this program and one of the things I want to say about him is that not only was he one of the pioneers of the secularization theory but as early as the late 80’s mid 90’s he was already reconsidering it and published an article, “Secularization reconsidered” He had the intellectual honesty to come back and look at it, but in that conversation he also indicated that there are a lot of sociologists must have been wrong on the time table not on the fundamental dynamic. But you don’t think it’s just a time table?
Prothero: Sociologists are divided over this. I think that some of them are pretty well divided around the secularization theory, and I think there is still effort to rehabilitate it and turn it into something else. Like, religion isn’t really going away but there is a loss of religious authority in certain key sectors of key societies. You can see this in American law and American entertainment, there is secularization in Hollywood and in the law that you don’t see elsewhere, like in literature for example, where there is a lot of Christian influence still so there is a division amongst sociologists. I think that what I see as pretty powerful data. Atheists are 2-6% out of the American public that’s not very big. And it’s not growing.
Mohler: And added to that analysis I would affirm Burgers insight that the American Academic community has been perhaps the most thoroughly secularized of all. Not saying all academics are secular.
Prothero: I think that is true, and I think that is three areas Berger speaks about is entertainment, law, and academia. That’s shifting, there has been a lot of push back by evangelical academics and we do have evangelicals running major research universities. Harvard’s Divinity School is now being run by someone who is an expert in Evangelicalism. There are changes that are happening in academia, but I agree that it is more secular than the rest of The US.
Mohler: Something very interesting has been noted note only by sociologists and frankly by observers in the American religion but those are trying to orchestrate political campaigns. In the last couple of Presidential elections for certain, and to a greater degree that has been recognized even some before that, it turns out that religious identification is the singular most important indicator of an individual’s vote. We’re in a 2012 Presidential campaign how do you explain that?
Prothero: My understanding of that data is how often do you go to religious services? So isn’t so much are you a Catholic or are you a Protestant? It’s more how religious are you? And I think that’s up for grabs. I think the republican party and conservatives more broadly were able to position themselves as the values: God, Bible, Christian party and the Democrats allowed that because they held onto this Jeffersonian separation of church and state idea. That religion was private and you didn’t talk about it in public. That’s what John Kennedy talked about in 1960 in regards to his Catholicism. And that was a losing strategy. Why would you want to be the party that wasn’t interested in God in a country where 90-95% of the people believe in God. It doesn’t make any sense politically. I think the democrats have gotten that message over the last 5-8 years, and I think they are talking more consistently about the Bible and about God and they are connecting their tax policies to the gospel of Luke and their views on immigration to the good Samaritan story, and I think that is going to be interesting to see in this election, in terms of having people say, we see with the Catholics now, we don’t have a non-Catholic in Joe Biden and a non-Catholic in Paul Ryan. We have two different Catholics. So I am not so sure it’s going to go the same way this time. I could be wrong. Consistent church goers are going to vote more republican than Democrat but I don’t think that “God-gap” is going to be that big this time.
Mohler: It will be very interesting to see. Just to go back, the Democratic party, not to make this a partisan, but to try to be objective, I think it became the Party that largely replaced what Burger called Euro-secularity, at least in its public pronouncements and all the rest and several observers have noted that when you look at the cultural, ideological, theological divides that America they are amazingly deep and stark now. It will be interesting to see if that Biblical language will bridge that gap or if indeed the positions themselves are now the issue.
Prothero: I think that in the past the democratic line was, “we are not going to talk about religion” and that it was inappropriate in the public square. You know you can be religious in your private life but we are not allowed to do it in public, and I think they have really given that up. Obama has given up on that Hillary Clinton has given it up. There was a clear decision made after the 2004 election that one reason Kerry lost was his refusal to talk about God and Obama talked consistently about God. Then there are a lot of arguments now on tax policy that is very religious from the left, “would Jesus really cut Medicaid or Medicare?” And that is going to resonate. But who knows, I could be wrong. We will see after the election.
Mohler: There are a few things I want to ask you. One is that when you look at America today and you look at it’s historical progression and you look at future projections, there is no doubt that immigration is playing a major part. How is the most recent wave of immigration going to be changing the American religious landscape?
Prothero: That’s a huge question. Most of the immigration is not from Asia, which is what I studied as a graduate student. It’s mostly coming from Mexico and it’s largely Catholic and Hispanic and relatively conservative religiously, but then we have this wave from Asia which tends to be more secular than the rest of America and more Hindu and Buddhists, but also evangelicals. At Boston University, we have a lot of Korean students and they are evangelicals and they are bringing that to the US. So it’s more of the same. We talk about the US as a nation of immigrants and to be a nation of immigrants is to be a nation of religions and of constantly new impulses in American life. One reason why the Catholic Church is not receding badly is because of immigration from South America. They are keeping it above water and are excited about their faith. It’s an interesting time in terms of religion and immigration.
Mohler: You said something interesting, I believe it was the French historian Jean Fancois Revel, who pointed out that when you look at patterns of immigration there is a huge distinction of what is taking place in continental Europe and in the UK vs. that of the US. The US has people coming into it- largely from where you said who hold to a world view that is consistent to that of Europe and that is a huge cultural asset for the US.
Prothero: Right, and the problems you have with Muslim integration into France those are 180 degrees in some respects It is s clash of the civilization model that people have been talking about because France isn’t very Catholic and it’s very secular so you have the religion clash. You have the Islam vs. Catholicism clash. Mexican Catholicism isn’t the same as New England Protestantism, but there is a shared Christian heritage there. It makes it simpler. Then you have the language issues. We have a lot of our immigration is coming from Spanish speakers, but there is a fairly quick integration into English here that doesn’t happen in France, or that makes the French more worried when they don’t speak French right away. I agree, the tensions that immigration can cause religiously and culturally aren’t as powerful here yet we have a lot of debate now. And this is one of the top five issues still for many Americans.
Mohler: Finally I want to ask you to do something for us here, speaking to American Evangelicals in particular, what would you say to us, speaking as one who is in a unique position and with unique expertise to see us from afar, Who are we? How do we fit into America? And what do you think are going to be the great challenges for evangelical Christians moving into the future?
Prothero: You have a fondness for asking big questions. I think one of the challenges has to do with Romney. Evangelicals have largely voted republican in recent years. They did so with gusto with Bush because Bush was one of their own. Bush was a clear born again story to tell. A born again drunk who turned around and accepted Jesus. One of the interesting challenges for evangelical voters is this question of “Is Mormonism Christian?” is Romney a Christian? Are evangelicals going to get behind a non-Christian candidate because he shares more values than the Christian candidate? I think that is a really interesting problem. I have asked my evangelical friends about that in recent days, how does that work out, are you willing to vote for a guy who may not be a Christian? Or does it mean that in the political realm is that you care about political things, and in the religious realm you care about religious things? That’s not a proclamation, that’s a little more of a question or of a challenge that is which side of the hat are the evangelicals pointing towards- is it the political or theological?
Mohler: As tempting as that would be to make that a new conversation, I am going to simply have to move to the next question and then leave it where you left it. Generationally, in particular, I know you have had some insights about these evangelical transitions in terms of American religious groups, speak to us again about American evangelicals, what does that look like for us?
Prothero: Evangelicals are doing a relatively good job of hanging onto young people. They are doing a better job than Catholics, Mormons are also doing a very good job of that. In terms of the millennials in terms of young people, I think Evangelicals are doing a pretty good job, I think the challenge in society is moving away for example very quickly young people are moving towards acceptance of homosexuality in a way that would have shocked a lot of evangelicals at least a generation ago and maybe even still do. And similarly there is a challenge around the question of the relationship between Christianity and the world’s religions because I know that my students at Boston University who are not the best cross section, even the evangelicals there are open to the idea that there is truth in other religions not that there is Truth with a capitol “T” and that there is something defective about Christianity but that there is something useful about talking with other religions. I guess I would say that young people are moving quickly toward broader acceptance of homosexuality and toward more pluralism in terms of the world’s religions and those are both challenges for evangelicals to deal with in the coming generation.
Mohler: The mark of a good conversation is that there are more issues to be discussed than what we can possibly get to, and that is always the case when in conversation with Professor Stephen Prothero from Boston University. Professor, thank you for joining me today for “Thinking in Public.”
Prothero: Thanks for having me it’s always fun.
Mohler: It’s invaluable from time-to-time to look at America’s religious landscape the way that academics look at it. Those in the field of religious studies those who are looking at it not confessionally but rather just in terms of historical statistical demographical and of course world view layout as well. And that’s part of what makes the work of Steven Prothero so interesting.
Many people looking at the title of Professor Prothero’s most recent book The American Bible might wonder what exactly it is? After all we know the Bible, the Old and New testaments and we as Christians understand it to be none other than the inerrant and infallible divinely inspired word of God. The selection of which in terms of the cannon of scripture was guided by none other than the Holy Spirit. That’s not what Stephen Prothero is talking about in The American Bible. He does include some scriptural citations of course but what he is looking at here is the collection indeed the cannon of documents which have become very central to the American Conversation over the history of the American experiment. When you look at a book like this most of us will look at it with immediate interest the first question would be, What’s included? What’s left out? But as you look at this book you will come to understand that every single one of the selections that Prof. Prothero made is justified by the fact that it is a part of our national conversation and if it not a part of the conversation of which any individual reader has been a part, it probably will be or should be over time. Of course one of the admissions that Professor Prothero makes is that there is no comprehensive set, there is no definitive cannon of these documents at least nothing that can be contained in a book. America has been a nation in a constant conversation from the very beginning. If you heard Prof. Prothero make the point he said, “we don’t have a national creed.” He suggests that we are not even drawn together by a national idea, but we are drawn together by a national conversation. And any book like this, that helps us to have a better informed more thoughtful more civil conversation is indeed a conversation contribution, not only to our knowledge but also to our cultural health. I think many American reading this book will find it interesting just in terms of the history of these documents. I think Christians looking at this book in particular will be reminded of the fact that there are many documents that are actually essential to our public conversation to our national identity and even to our personal identity as American Christians that actually do not come from the scriptures but from something else. I think one of the most helpful theological insights from reading this book comes from the point when we realize that there are all kinds of influences that come into our lives there are all kinds of documents that live in our heads there are all kinds of narratives and stories that are in our imagination. It is the Christian responsibility to respect those and to be in conversation with those but after all the reformation principal of sola scriptura reminds us that Scripture alone is the final sufficient judge of these things and is to be the establishing center and foundation of our world view, that which is not checked by any other authority. But we are human beings embedded in our own time and culture, without apology we are a part of a conversation that includes so many of these different documents. And it is good to have a conversation about them because it makes us think about them, to think intentionally and hopefully even somewhat objectively about the meaning of these documents in our lives. The historian in you is going to love this book because of the aftermath and the “after life” of these documents how Professor Prothero traces how each of these particular literary selections or even as he says right down to a line such as the “Evil Empire” comment made by former President Ronald Reagan how that enters into our cultural conversation in ways that come up again and again. Generation and generation to come. I will tell you that my favorite part of the conversation was when we turned to Professor Prothero’s analysis of American religion today and that is one of the hottest issues and the reason is as we discussed is because many Americans especially those in the intellectual elites are absolutely shocked that we are still having this conversation. It was to them and is to them a tremendous surprise and even an intellectual scandal that we are still talking about the influence of religion in American Public life. Evangelical Christians often talk to each other about ourselves without pausing about how we look or appear to those who are outside of American evangelicalism. That’s why someone like Stephen Prothero, a professor at Boston University, and one of the leading academics in America, who is looking at us not as an insider but rather looking at us from his vantage point as one who is skilled in religious studies. We need to listen to some of the things he said. We need to listen to the fact that America in terms of its trajectory and the influence of immigrants and the coming into this country of so many others from different cultures is presenting a fundamentally changed mission field for American Evangelical churches. We know that we sense that but it is important that it be affirmed over and over again. America that we knew when we were growing up, the America of our Grandparents and great Grandparents, frankly the America we knew five years ago is not the America that we are going to know in the present or in the years ahead. And that’s where American evangelicals better recalibrate our understanding of America. Not so much in terms of political questions, but of missiological questions in terms of our responsibilities to reach Americans with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Finally I asked him that question about generational transition and I think Prothero is onto something when he says that, “evangelicals have been more successful than Catholics and mainline Protestants in holding onto our young people.” But that is not something we can rest upon as an assured thing. The responsibility of every generation is to pass the faith on faithfully and intact and with passion that will animate a generation to come. The issues that he raised in particular of homosexuality and religious pluralism, many looking in the movement have noted that those are going to be two of the biggest stress points as we think about what it means to maintain the faith once for all delivered to the saints, looking at the evangelical generation to come that’s a wake-up call for us all, and it’s the fruit of a good conversation, the kind of conversation we hope to have every time we meet together for Thinking in Public.
Thanks again for my guest Professor Stephen Prothero for thinking with me today. Before leaving I want to make sure that you know about the first annual Expositor’s Summit a conference taking place on the campus of Southern Seminary October. 30-31, 2012. The theme of this conference is preaching in a post-everything world. Please join John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, and join me for this annual conference. We look forward to seeing you there. For more information visit SBTS.edu.
Thanks you for joining me for thinking in public, until next time, keep thinking.
I’m Albert Mohler.