In America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911, the historian Mark Noll picks up where his previous volume on the Bible in colonial America left off. Yisroel Ben-Porat, in his review, comments on the special place Noll assigns to the debates over slavery in the decades leading up to the civil war:
Both sides, as Lincoln famously observed in his Second Inaugural Address, marshaled the Bible to support their views on slavery. In a stunning example of intellectual candor, Noll retracts his earlier position that the pro-slavery advocates held the intellectual upper hand over abolitionists. Instead, he maintains, “the Bible in antebellum America, and understood in traditional terms, offered wider, deeper, and more thorough support for abolition than for slavery. Contingent historical circumstances, rather than the intrinsic credibility of the arguments, created the opposite impression.”
Ben-Porat then turns to the question of where the Jews fit in a biblical, Christian-majority, civilization:
While one might assume that the People of the Book would have outsized importance in a history of the Bible in America, Noll relegates Jews to a place alongside several other minority groups such as African Americans, Catholics, and Native Americans. Overall, Noll’s story is largely a Protestant one, but the balance of material is perhaps justified by the relative size of denominational populations and the undeniable influence of Protestantism.
The stakes of America’s Book are more than merely historical. Noll argues that the Bible not only was important in American history, but that it still is (though not in the same way and to the same extent), and that it should remain a source of wisdom and inspiration. “Christian and Jewish adherents of scriptural religion,” he remarks, “have not been wrong to think that democratic self-government requires virtues of the kind encouraged by biblical teaching; . . . a democratic republic needs something like the Bible more than Bible believers need a democratic republic.”
Notwithstanding Noll’s optimistic outlook, I would like to add a word of caution to those who seek to mine the Bible as a political text for the 2020s. . . . The Bible does not neatly align with any political theory, position, or party. . . . Cherry-picking an individual verse (whether from the Hebrew or Christian Bible) to score culture war points, on either side, cheapens Scripture. To borrow the Sages’ phrase, we should never instrumentalize the Bible as “a spade to dig with.”