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June 15th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: How I constructed 'The American Bible'

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Over the past year or so, I have been working on a book called "The American Bible." The hardest part was the table of contents.

“The American Bible” isn’t a new translation of the Christian Bible. It’s my term for the texts that function like scripture in American public life, the voices to which we are forever returning as we reflect together on what America is all about.

In some cases, we refer explicitly to these texts as “sacred” or “immortal.” At a campaign stop in Mesa, Arizona, in February, Mitt Romney implied that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution might be “inspired by God.”

In all cases, however, we treat them like scripture, returning to their words as we ponder the meanings and ends of our country, and invoking their authority in debates over gay marriage and taxes. In other words, these are the speeches and songs, letters and novels that continue to stir commentary and controversy, the voices that bring us together into the collective conversation that I see as the rite of our republic.

But which voices to include in my book? Which texts have “we the people” embraced as scripture? And what are the key commentaries upon them? As I struggled to answer these questions, I knew I'd be criticized for the choices I made.

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When "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know" appeared in 1987, author E.D. Hirsch was widely criticized for producing a list of “core knowledge” that was too conservative and too white. His 63-page list of people, places and events neglected knowledge that is central to the experiences of African-Americans, Latinos and women, many argued.

With Hirsch and his critics in mind, I began the quest for my canon by devising some defensible guidelines. I decided right away that the book should be descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, I would aim not to create a canon but to report upon one; I would include not the voices that inspire me but those that “we the people” have revered.

I then fixed on two criteria. First, I would look for texts that have generated conversation and controversy, books we value enough to fight about. Second, I would look for texts that speak to the meaning of “America” and “Americans,” telling us where our nation has been and where it should be going.

I also decided that I would include alongside my “biblical" books extensive commentary about each, tracking their "afterlives" over the course of U.S. history. In other words, my “American Bible” would look something like an “American Talmud,” with extensive commentaries tracking the conversations Americans had about the Declaration of Independence during the Civil War and about the Gettysburg Address during the civil rights movement.

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When Nathaniel Philbrick referred to "Moby-Dick" as “our American Bible,” he meant that Melville’s classic is a big book that carries inside it the “genetic code” of American life. In my view, however, "Moby-Dick" has not been as influential as either Harriet Beecher Stowe’s "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" or Mark Twain’s "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," each of which has carried considerable weight in our national conversation about race. So I eliminated "Moby-Dick."

Other cuts were more difficult. I am a big fan of “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman's love letter to democracy. But I thought that “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ran even deeper into the American psyche, so "Leaves of Grass" had to go. Eventually, as the book ballooned beyond its limits, I had to let Longfellow's "Revere" gallop away, too. It just hadn’t provoked enough arguments.

Also slighted in "The American Bible" are more recent voices, since it is harder to generate a vast commentary tradition for a work from the 1990s or 2000s than for one published during the revolution or the Civil War. Still, I admit that most of the voices in this collection are those of dead white men. In fact, the only living author of an "American Bible" book is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial architect Maya Lin.

Nonetheless, women, native Americans, African-Americans and Muslims are among the authors of my “biblical” books, and voices of the commentators — from Frederick Douglass to Rosa Parks and Gloria Steinem to Alan Greenspan — are far more diverse.

"The American Bible" also ranges, in its primary and secondary texts, far and wide across the political spectrum. Radical historian Howard Zinn and consumer activist Ralph Nader are heard here. So are conservative activists and intellectuals such as William F. Buckley Jr., Robert Bork, Rush Limbaugh and Antonin Scalia.

When I finished constructing "The American Bible," I was delighted to see that there are lessons aplenty here concerning both what our forbears have said about our country and how they have said it. In a time when party passions threaten to divide the country, it is gratifying to recall the words our fellow Americans have used to try to unite it.

In his Farewell Address, Washington warns us against the "mischiefs of the spirit of party." In his First Inaugural, Jefferson says, "We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists." "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies," says Lincoln. And closer to our own time, Kennedy reminds us that "civility is not a sign of weakness."

My table of contents appears below. How have I done? What did I miss? What should I have cut? It's your book. Let me know.

Genesis

The Exodus Story

John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630)

Thomas Paine, "Common Sense" (1776)

The Declaration of Independence (1776)

Noah Webster, "The Blue-Back Speller" (1783)

Law

The Constitution (1787)

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Roe v. Wade (1973)

Chronicles

Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" (1852)

Mark Twain, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884)

Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged" (1957)

Psalms

Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner” (1814)

Irving Berlin, “God Bless America” (1938)

Woody Guthrie, “This Land Is Your Land” (1940)

Proverbs

Benjamin Franklin, “Remember that time is money” (1748)

Benjamin Franklin, “God helps those who help themselves” (1758)

Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death” (1775)

Abigail Adams, “Remember the ladies” (1776)

Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a woman?” (1851)

Abraham Lincoln, “With malice toward none, with charity for all” (1865)

Chief Joseph, “I will fight no more forever” (1877)

Calvin Coolidge, “The business of America is business” (1925)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people” (1932)

John F. Kennedy “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” (1961)

Ronald Reagan, “Evil empire” (1983)

Prophets

Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” (1849)

Dwight Eisenhower, Farewell Address (1961)

Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” (1963)

Malcolm X, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" (1965)

Lamentations

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (1863)

Maya Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982)

Gospels

Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address (1801)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address (1933)

Ronald Reagan, “The Speech” (1964)

Acts

The Pledge of Allegiance (1892, 1954)

Epistles

George Washington, Farewell Address (1796)

Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to the Danbury Baptists” (1802)

Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Bible • Books • Church and state • Culture wars • History • Leaders • My Take • Opinion • Politics • United States

soundoff (741 Responses)
  1. John Smith

    Stick to the FACTS and NOT personal interpretations or beliefs.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  2. scot pederson

    Wow! Malcom X! Really? Well, as a prophet it just poisons the whole idea before you even got started.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
  3. Linda P

    NOTHING SHOULD BE IN THE AMERICAN BIBLE ...
    America is a waste of time.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  4. Zaphod

    After thinking about the list, and it's representation of American culture, There is one important shift not represented... the important change in gender roles most sharply highlighted in the fight for women's suffrage and feminist thought.

    I'd say the iconic work comes from the start of the 'second wave' of feminism with The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

    It represents a pretty drastic change in culture and economics, and I feel gender equality is as important as our struggle with racial equality.

    June 27, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  5. Zaphod

    Pretty good list. Most of the things I thought of were there. I'm glad to see the Autobiography of Malcolm X there, as that book is often sidelined by people that only remember the fiery preacher and not who he was after his pilgrimage.

    "I am for truth, no matter who tells it. I am for justice, no matter who it is for, or against. I am a human being first and foremost, and as such I'm for whoever, or whatever benefits humanity as a whole" -Malcolm X

    This slice of truth, and the incredible journey of his life that lead there is something that everyone should read and know.

    June 27, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  6. Jack

    All are welcome to visit ... thestarofkaduri.com

    June 27, 2012 at 12:45 am |
  7. shazam

    ok and this is the situation and as you/we can see the Bible is still being corrupted as it has been for ages(rewritten) The originals are locked away or at least in a place where you cnat touch them

    June 26, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • Robert

      Sorry Shazam,
      The bible has been a work in progress from the beginning

      June 27, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  8. shazam

    Truth be told. the reverse is not possible because the other "faiths" are thousands of years older that the bible

    June 26, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  9. OK, Here is the Situation...

    Have you heard of the new translation of the Bible called 'The Pacific Bible?' It removes all of the violence from the Bible (aka it's pretty short!) Interesting concept. Here's a link to it: http://progressplanet.com/pacific-bible/

    June 26, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  10. Eric

    Of course if this were ever compiled almost the entire text would be "Atlas Shrugged" at 1200 pages.

    June 26, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  11. kindness

    For you.
    My personal testamony
    I Follow Christ . I never wanted proof. I just had faith.

    HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord (John 8:12). By these words
    of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and
    free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus
    Christ.
    The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who
    has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often
    but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand
    fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

    What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you
    displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous
    life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it.
    For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the
    philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity,
    except to love God and serve Him alone.

    This is the greatest wisdom—to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the
    world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court
    honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire
    things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and
    to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and
    not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not
    to look ahead where eternal joy abides.
    Often recall the proverb: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with
    hearing.”1 Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring
    yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences
    and lose the grace of God.

    See for yourself.

    June 26, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  12. matt in nw

    American Bible: Trust in the Great Banker – and yea, i commandth three to form a Federal Reserve.....on this Fed shall be lead by a quarum of servants known as Bank CEOs and they shall make money by any and all means necessary.

    The Great Banker has provided a host of drones - to be known as the Public...and these drones are to be the tools by which the Fed shall create wealth for the favored few. – so commands the Great Banker... the end.

    June 26, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  13. Fronk

    Yes, a new bibble. Just want humanity needs; another rewrite of an already convoluted, man made story of wish thinking. Another person trying to get his part on the control of others.

    June 26, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  14. shep

    What do I want in the Bible? A big picture of Mitt Romney that says this is the false prophet I warned you about.

    June 26, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • bannister

      Yes, and Obama is a man of the people. Please spare us your fairy tales oh small minded one.

      June 26, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • shep

      If you think people are attacking Romney in support of Obama, you are friggin' crazy. Harry Reid is a Democrat and a Mormon. He is also a brainwashed lunatic. Politics has nothing to do with it. This is about exposing the Mormon church for the cult that it is.

      June 26, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  15. Tripp Hudgins

    Great stuff...Now, what about Revelation? There are some interesting "American Destiny" speeches that might serve. You could juxtapose the City On A Hill sermon preached on (?) the Mayflower with others' Manifest Destiny speeches.

    June 26, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  16. Mike

    Sounds like another PC book of nonsense.....

    June 26, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  17. Humanist11

    Here is an eye opening story I copied from another poster.

    Colin
    This morning there was a knock at my door. When I answered the door I found a well groomed, nicely dressed couple. The man spoke first:

    John: "Hi! I'm John, and this is Mary."

    Mary: "Hi! We're here to invite you to come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Pardon me?! What are you talking about? Who's Hank, and why would I want to kiss His ass?"

    John: "If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "What? Is this some sort of bizarre mob shake-down?"

    John: "Hank is a billionaire philanthropist. Hank built this town. Hank owns this town. He can do whatever He wants, and what He wants is to give you a million dollars, but He can't until you kiss His ass."

    Me: "That doesn't make any sense. Why..."

    Mary: "Who are you to question Hank's gift? Don't you want a million dollars? Isn't it worth a little kiss on the ass?"

    Me: "Well maybe, if it's legit, but..."

    John: "Then come kiss Hank's ass with us."

    Me: "Do you kiss Hank's ass often?"

    Mary: "Oh yes, all the time..."

    Me: "And has He given you a million dollars?"

    John: "Well no. You don't actually get the money until you leave town."

    Me: "So why don't you just leave town now?"

    Mary: "You can't leave until Hank tells you to, or you don't get the money, and He kicks the guts
    out of you."

    Me: "Do you know anyone who kissed Hank's ass, left town, and got the million dollars?"

    John: "My mother kissed Hank's ass for years. She left town last year, and I'm sure she got the money."

    Me: "Haven't you talked to her since then?"

    John: "Of course not, Hank doesn't allow it."

    Me: "So what makes you think He'll actually give you the money if you've never talked to anyone who got the money?"

    Mary: "Well, He gives you a little bit before you leave. Maybe you'll get a raise, maybe you'll win a small lotto, maybe you'll just find a twenty-dollar bill on the street."

    Me: "What's that got to do with Hank?"

    John: "Hank has certain 'connections.'"

    Me: "I'm sorry, but this sounds like some sort of bizarre con game."

    John: "But it's a million dollars, can you really take the chance? And remember, if you don't kiss Hank's ass He'll kick the guts out of you."

    Me: "Maybe if I could see Hank, talk to Him, get the details straight from Him..."

    Mary: "No one sees Hank, no one talks to Hank."

    Me: "Then how do you kiss His ass?"

    John: "Sometimes we just blow Him a kiss, and think of His ass. Other times we kiss Karl's ass, and he passes it on."

    Me: "Who's Karl?"

    Mary: "A friend of ours. He's the one who taught us all about kissing Hank's ass. All we had to do was take him out to dinner a few times."

    Me: "And you just took his word for it when he said there was a Hank, that Hank wanted you to kiss His ass, and that Hank would reward you?"

    John: "Oh no! Karl has a letter he got from Hank years ago explaining the whole thing. Here's a copy; see for yourself."
    From the Desk of Karl
    1. Kiss Hank's ass and He'll give you a million dollars when you leave town.
    2. Use alcohol in moderation.
    3. Kick the guts out of people who aren't like you.
    4. Eat right.
    5. Hank dictated this list Himself.
    6. The moon is made of green cheese.
    7. Everything Hank says is right.
    8. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
    9. Don't use alcohol.
    10. Eat your wieners on buns, no condiments.
    11. Kiss Hank's ass or He'll kick the guts out of you.
    Me: "This appears to be written on Karl's letterhead."

    Mary: "Hank didn't have any paper."

    Me: "I have a hunch that if we checked we'd find this is Karl's handwriting."

    John: "Of course, Hank dictated it."

    Me: "I thought you said no one gets to see Hank?"

    Mary: "Not now, but years ago He would talk to some people."

    Me: "I thought you said He was a philanthropist. What sort of philanthropist kicks the guts out of people just because they're different?"

    Mary: "It's what Hank wants, and Hank's always right."

    Me: "How do you figure that?"

    Mary: "Item 7 says 'Everything Hank says is right.' That's good enough for me!"

    Me: "Maybe your friend Karl just made the whole thing up."

    John: "No way! Item 5 says 'Hank dictated this list himself.' Besides, item 2 says 'Use alcohol in moderation,' Item 4 says 'Eat right,' and item 8 says 'Wash your hands after going to the bathroom.' Everyone knows those things are right, so the rest must be true, too."

    Me: "But 9 says 'Don't use alcohol.' which doesn't quite go with item 2, and 6 says 'The moon is made of green cheese,' which is just plain wrong."

    John: "There's no contradiction between 9 and 2, 9 just clarifies 2. As far as 6 goes, you've never been to the moon, so you can't say for sure."

    Me: "Scientists have pretty firmly established that the moon is made of rock..."

    Mary: "But they don't know if the rock came from the Earth, or from out of space, so it could just as easily be green cheese."

    Me: "I'm not really an expert, but I think the theory that the Moon was somehow 'captured' by the Earth has been discounted*. Besides, not knowing where the rock came from doesn't make it cheese."

    John: "Ha! You just admitted that scientists make mistakes, but we know Hank is always right!"

    Me: "We do?"

    Mary: "Of course we do, Item 7 says so."

    Me: "You're saying Hank's always right because the list says so, the list is right because Hank dictated it, and we know that Hank dictated it because the list says so. That's circular logic, no different than saying 'Hank's right because He says He's right.'"

    John: "Now you're getting it! It's so rewarding to see someone come around to Hank's way of thinking."

    Me: "But...oh, never mind. What's the deal with wieners?"

    Mary: She blushes.

    John: "Wieners, in buns, no condiments. It's Hank's way. Anything else is wrong."

    Me: "What if I don't have a bun?"

    John: "No bun, no wiener. A wiener without a bun is wrong."

    Me: "No relish? No Mustard?"

    Mary: She looks positively stricken.

    John: He's shouting. "There's no need for such language! Condiments of any kind are wrong!"

    Me: "So a big pile of sauerkraut with some wieners chopped up in it would be out of the question?"

    Mary: Sticks her fingers in her ears."I am not listening to this. La la la, la la, la la la."

    John: "That's disgusting. Only some sort of evil deviant would eat that..."

    Me: "It's good! I eat it all the time."

    Mary: She faints.

    John: He catches Mary. "Well, if I'd known you were one of those I wouldn't have wasted my time. When Hank kicks the guts out of you I'll be there, counting my money and laughing. I'll kiss Hank's ass for you, you bunless cut-wienered kraut-eater."

    With this, John dragged Mary to their waiting car, and sped off.

    June 26, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • JustLaughing

      Funny story, but if this is about religion I think you are missing the point. Kissing of ass for a reward. I am trying hard to figure out any organized religion that works under that format. Overall, maybe this is a story of the humanist religion. People can do whatever they wish..... eat hot dogs however they like??? People doing whatever they wish has always worked out. Right?

      June 26, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Joe

      Great metaphor for Christianity. I've heard many Christians say that God gave them free will. Having a gun put to your head is not free will, its extortion.

      June 27, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • John Smith

      Yawn, and stop wasting everyone's time...unless of course they're narcissistic like you.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  18. Humanist11

    The American bible should be a science book. It is full of facts.

    June 26, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • JustLaughing

      Actually, science books are theories. I would hate to use a medical journal from the 1850's to diagnose a disease today. Science is ever-evolving, including its understood ultimate truths. Just ask Newton.

      June 26, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  19. Shimon Cleopas

    How will Jesus Christ save the world?

    How will Jesus redeem the Jews?

    How will Jesus gather all religions into one fold, one shepherd?

    The correct answer: with just one iota and in the blink of an eye, just like the big bang – God's Signature.

    In order to present that one iota, Jesus Christ must undergo a long overdue SCIENTIFIC RETRIAL under the Lady of Freedom in Capitol Hill, Washington, DC any day not necessarily on December 21, 2012.

    June 26, 2012 at 6:41 am |
  20. Truth be told

    Funny how people love to point out what christians did (the knights templar) as if we still do it today i.e. (white slave owners. Funny how you can say oh...the bible stole stories from other myths or fables but never considered the reverse. Funny how people will look in the bible and point out it says this and that but never what god said. (FYI: God did not say every word in the bible! Surprise!) One of Jesus's last teaching was to just love one another (but people are too busy spitting venom). Ever listen to a bitter person talk about marrage (They have nothing good to say and they dont believe in it and will try to get others to turn away from it). When all they had to do was love one another. (more difficult then spewing venom. I guess the neh sayers where there when the bible was written and thats how they come to the conclusion of disproving. Even if you do not believe respect is due a dog (if you dont and you try to F*** her she can be a real B***).

    June 26, 2012 at 6:17 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.