Bible in America: RAH interview with Robert Alter

Fundamentalists don’t always make the best historians.  American fundamentalists tend to insist on an American past that is far too rosy.  When she was still an up-and-coming Presidential nomination contender, for example, Michele Bachmann insisted that the Founding Fathers had “worked tirelessly” to end slavery.   Though she later tacked away from her statement, noting that she meant John Quincy Adams, it doesn’t take a slanted leftist historical perspective to notice that her claim is just not true.  The Founding Fathers may have accomplished a good deal.  Some of them may even have tried to improve the conditions of slaves, or to hurry the day when human chattel slavery would be abolished.  But overall, the issue of slavery was one that the Founders explicitly pushed off on a later generation.

However, as we’ve noted here in the past, one of the historical claims of fundamentalists in America lines up more neatly with the findings of non-fundamentalist academics.  On the Religion in American History blog, Randall Stephens recently interviewed scholar Robert Alter about his newish book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible.

Alter’s book is focused on the ways Biblical themes and language infuse American literature and culture.  In the RAH interview, he makes the point that American culture in the past was thoroughly Biblicized:

“In nineteenth-century Protestant America, the Bible, almost always in the King James Version, was a constant companion for most people. They not only heard it in church, but very often it was regularly read out loud in the family circle at home.”

Fundamentalists often make the case that America is and should remain a Christian, Biblical society.  They insist on a vision of American history in which early European settlers and Founding Fathers planned to create a Christian Nation.  (For the leading example of these kinds of arguments, check out David Barton’s Wallbuilders articles.)

Academic historians have noted that these historical claims must be treated carefully.  John Fea, for instance, has argued that there was indeed a good deal of Christian intent among the founding generation, but this is often used by activists in unfair and ahistoric ways.

However, it is only fair to notice that in some cases, the vision of the past promoted by fundamentalist activists lines up neatly with that of non-fundamentalist scholars.  According to Robert Alter, at least, American culture in the past really was thoroughly infused with the KJV Bible.