Stephen Prothero: An American Tradition of Reconciliation





Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of, most recently, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.

Every July 4, the citizens of Barnstable, Mass., where I live, dress up in red, white and blue, parade down Main Street and then eat pies and run sack races behind a local church. Collectively, we also manage to forget that in 1776 our town voted 35 to 30 against declaring independence from England.
 
The Declaration of Independence, now enshrined at the National Archives inside a titanium and glass case, has become part of a canon of core texts of American public life I refer to as the "American Bible." Like Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address andMartin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the declaration serves as a touchstone for our common life, sparking the multi-generational conversation "we the people" continue to have about where our nation has been and where it is going.
 
Today the declaration is celebrated for its soaring rhetoric of self-evident truths and inalienable rights, but in 1776 it was seen as little more (or less) than a declaration of war. No sense of the sacred accompanied its production, and it was largely forgotten until Lincoln resurrected it during the Civil War.
 
One of the great debates in U.S. history has concerned the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Which is preeminent? And what does each value? In 1863, in the famous "four score and seven years" opening of his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln calculated that the United States was born not in 1788 with the Constitution's ratification but in 1776 with the declaration. He then went on to state, in perhaps the most momentous sentence in U.S. history, that this nation is "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
 
Through these words, the declaration became a book in the "American Bible," and from Gettysburg to Vietnam to today, Americans lined up to apply its balm to their maladies...


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