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Mark Noll

The Bible in American Public Life, 1860-2005

Dilemmas at the center, insights from the margins.

This country is, as everybody knows, a creation of the Bible, … and the Bible is still holding its own, exercising enormous influence as a real spiritual power, in spite of all the destructive tendencies … "1 These words, spoken 102 years ago, came from an unexpected source. Yet as part of an address delivered by Solomon Schechter at the dedication of the main building of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, they echoed what was then a common assertion about the biblical character of the United States. Much more frequently, of course, similar words came from Christian commentators and with specific reference to the Christian character of the Scriptures.

Thus, only a few years after Schechter's address, the governor of New Jersey addressed a crowd of about 12,000 in Denver on the subject, "The Bible and Progress." The occasion was the 300th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version. In his speech, Woodrow Wilson called Scripture "the 'Magna Carta' of the human soul," and he summarized the burden of his remarks like this: "The Bible (with its individual value of the human soul) is undoubtedly the book that has made democracy and been the source of all progress."2 What Schechter and Wilson wanted to say is that without full consideration of the Bible, no adequate account of American national history or of American national ideals was possible.

A century and more later, much has changed. Political, social, legal, and cultural developments have altered the practice of religion, and of everything else, in American life. Yet despite manifold changes, reading of the Bible, reverence for the Bible, reference to the Bible, and debate over whether and how to use the Bible continue as constant features in American public life—evident most recently in the Supreme Court decisions regarding whether and how to display the Ten Commandments in courthouses and other public spaces.

In this ongoing negotiation, two notable Americans provide examples ...

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