As the 2012 election approaches and our politics seems to dig deeper by the day into the muck and mire of petty partisanship, it may help to know that we have been here before. The United States has always been extraordinarily diverse, racially, ethnically, religiously, and politically. So our pluribus is forever threatening to overwhelm our unum. But there have always been Americans working hard keep our centrifugal nation from spinning apart--seekers after some sort of social glue to bind the nation together.
Some have argued that America is held together by a common creed or an American idea. But there is no such creed and no such idea. What we share is an informal canon of texts I refer to as "The American Bible," and a practice of arguing about them. These speeches, songs, and sayings are the holy writ of our public life, and the conversations and controversies they provoke are the rite of our republic. While the Christians have their Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we have our Washington, our Jefferson, our Lincoln, and our King.
As the 2012 election approaches, we would do well to return to these books and essays, letters and speeches--to listen to what Lincoln's Gettysburg Address might have to tell us about gay marriage or what King's "I Have a Dream" speech might say about affirmative action. But we shouldn't just heed what these thinkers say. We should heed how they say it--how (at their best at least) they thought of country first and party second, and in the process directed our common life toward conversations that are both civil and informed.
With these Americans and their "scriptures" in mind, here are my 10 "American Bible" classics to know for the 2012 election:
Stephen Prothero is the author of THE AMERICAN BIBLE: HOW OUR WORDS UNITE, DIVIDE, AND DEFINE A NATION, now available from HarperOne.