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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 • Opinion • Politics • United States

soundoff (741 Responses)
  1. PAUL

    I disn't know there was a difference between Bibles in America and the Rest of World??

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvSo2kdb4_0&w=640&h=390]

    August 4, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  2. Tay

    I would love to share this with you and your guest...It's a truth ministry that can help...
    Please click on the link or go to You tube and type in "TGHC Conroe". New messages are posted every week!

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myUfzeQuEK8&w=640&h=390]

    ...start at 26:23
    and

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fe8ZfFEVArE&w=640&h=390]

    ...start at 22:15

    LOL in Christ

    August 2, 2012 at 3:10 am |
  3. Mike

    The only one I disagree with is "Atlas Shrugged".

    August 1, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  4. Food for thought

    I've seen you repost that paragraph multiple times LinCA

    July 30, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  5. Food for thought

    I believe this sums up my views perfectly. “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is.” Albert Camus. True Christians don't have pastors/priests raping little children. True Christians don't speak of love in the church then go support the war effort the next second or say "god is on your side" True Christians don't claim every natural disaster or horrific tragedy is "an act from god". True Christians don't act hateful torwards others who are not of their religious or moral standpoint. True Christians don't say god is a loving creator yet next second say you're going to hell for not joining their church. True Christians strive to respect everyone, regardless of racial and national backgrounds. True Christians do not get involved in politics. Now, with this information, who would you say are true Christians? And I'm not forcing my beliefs on anyone, atheists or otherwise. If you don't believe in God, fine. If you wanna call Jehovah/Yaheweh/God a fantasy or adult fairy tale, fine by me. This is a world full of many opinions, and I am accepting to them all :).

    July 29, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • LinCA

      @Food for thought

      You said, "I believe this sums up my views perfectly. “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is.”"

      Pascal's Wager fail.

      Pascal's Wager:
      In effect, Pascal's wager states that while we can't know with absolute certainty whether the christian god exists, a rational evaluation should lead to a belief. If having to choose between believing (in the christian god), or not believing, the reward for being correct, and the price for being wrong, tips the balance in favor of believing.

      It says, if you believe and are correct, you will gain heaven, while the price for being wrong is nothing. On the other hand, if you don't believe, it says you will gain nothing for being right, yet lose everything if you are wrong. So, belief results in a win/neutral, and non-belief in a neutral/lose position, tipping the balance clearly in favor of the "belief" position.

      Why Pascal's Wager is a fallacy:
      a) Pascal's Wager assumes that there are only two options.
      b) Pascal's Wager assumes the christian god doesn't care whether someone actually believes, or simply goes through the motions.
      c) Pascal's Wager discounts the price paid for belief before death.
      d) Pascal's Wager vastly overestimates the odds for the reward and the risk of punishment.

      Positing only two options is ridiculous. There are, of course, thousands of possibilities when it comes to gods. Based on the evidence available for these gods, it is not reasonable to assume one is more likely than any of the others. To increase the odds of a positive outcome of this wager, the believer would have to believe in, and worship, every possible god. Including the ones that haven't been invented yet. Aside from the drain on the available time, it presents the problem that quite a few of these gods are pretty selfish. They frown upon believers believing in other gods. In some religions that is enough to not be eligible for the reward (making the belief position a lose/neutral one).

      Also, just going through the motions and pretending to believe may fool your community, but it can't fool an all-knowing god. It is very unlikely that anyone would gain the ultimate reward for simply faking belief (making the belief position a lose/neutral one).

      The price paid for the belief position isn't nothing. It involves going through the rituals, day after day, week after week. It may have severe side effects on physical and mental health. Sex life suffers, too.

      In estimating whether the cost of any given action is worth it, an evaluation of risk versus reward is in order.

      Risk is (simplistically) the chance that a negative event occurs, multiplied by the cost of that event. As an example, being hit by a meteorite carries a very high cost (probably death), but since the odds are extremely low, the risk associated with it is low. Similarly, the chance of getting rained on is pretty high, but the cost is very low, representing also a low risk. On the other hand the cost and chances of, and therefore the risk associated with, a traffic accident are high.

      The choice whether to mitigate a risk depends on, among other things, the severity of the risk, the cost of the mitigation and the tolerance of that risk. In the above examples, the cost to mitigate each risk are; exorbitant, low and high, respectively. Methods to reduce or eliminate the risk of meteorite impacts are cost prohibitive and far exceed the risk. An umbrella and a check of the weather forecast effectively mitigate the risk of getting rained on, and is easily worth the cost. Car crashes, and their after-effects are mitigated to various degrees by expensive technology (from street surface technology to driver training, airbags and traction control). People bear those costs to their financial ability and tolerance for the risk.

      A similar reasoning applies to reward. The choice whether to pursue a reward is guided by the perception value of the reward, the perception of the odds of gaining the reward and the cost to pursue it.

      In the belief versus non-belief question, believers tend to irrationally overestimate both the reward for belief, and the risk associated with non-belief.

      July 29, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  6. Jokanic

    That is persuasive but you're takling to a guy who only bought a mobile phone just recently despite the fact everyone uses those too.Aside from the technology issues, I just don't like the idea of all that information being concentrated in one company that we all have to rely on. I prefer much more decentralized solutions that are open and free as in speech not as in beer. Besides my brain muscles were getting slack from neglect. Restarting my site is good for me.

    July 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  7. Mehomey

    Gawwd! does anyone acaultly want some stock photo's of scenery with some obviously bog standard microsoft paint text on the top?Who would have that on their sacred desktop!!?

    July 29, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  8. Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

    Atheism changes things

    July 16, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
  9. PAUL

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8XSYpPwPrk&w=640&h=390]

    July 11, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  10. 1927henritta

    Well I would. Say the word of God not man's BS

    July 11, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  11. M.SM.ANSARI

    Signs: your energy and time $ always lost. Each everything politics I am not
    Politician we politics analyzer
    Dear gentleman APR 19 2012
    Please Avoid WAR so many people suffer public
    Global economic crisis
    Climatechnge
    Many people wounded for military troops mort hen 98 000
    Each every body leaving 60 to 80 year life only
    Effected FDI investor . Thing good do good

    Economy improve three way
    No 1 free birds meaning open immigration to all country
    No 2 open business policy according global law
    No 3 all country same currency

    CNN WORLD report, in the war 6, 75,000 civilians killed, 7500 troops of USA and its allied forces killed 3 25 000 people wounded and $ 3.5 Trillion Dollar spent for the war. This spending of $ 3.5 Trillion Dollar is the main cause of action for the present economic crises prevailing all over the world.
    After winning the war against IRAQ, the United States of America’s President Mr. George W.Bush, also admitted the same fact, and he openly stated that the Intelligence agency misguided him.
    Later on, even the United Nations Organization (UNO) also certified that the IRAQ has no nuclear weapons.

    m.s.mohamed ansari

    International chamber of commerce life member
    World peace prayer society life member
    USA parliament org economic adviser

    July 10, 2012 at 1:58 am |
  12. Jesus is the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

    Would you debate with someone who argues that the sky is yellow, up is down, left is right, a tree is a lamp, or black is white? You debating with this person would leave both parties looking like fools. Christians please stop wasting your time on people who argue that our world and galaxy was made from nothing/has no Creator. I honestly believe that many years ago no one predicted that the world would get bad to the point that people are debating that this perfect system of life is a coincidence. Christians dont indulge in foolishness you will be looked upon as a fool as well.
    Romans 1:20-"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."
    John 3:16-"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
    “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is.” Albert Camus

    July 9, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  13. Science Teacher

    I think the LAW section should include the"evolution cases" like Kitzmiller v. Dover – show the disconnect between what is logically, legally,, science, and the unprovable faith position of special creation.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  14. Wally

    Don't you people realize ... the book isn't supporting a certain religious viewpoint, its not supporting the actual Bible or some liberal agenda, it is simply trying to identify rhetoric and texts that have become "sacred" to the American people as a whole ... whether we realize it or not ... Every text in this book is taught in some level of American public education system and the writers of these texts are all recognized for their roles either as an American leader or a key figure in the world of literature ...

    July 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • old golfer

      I notice he left out one of the greatest American's ever, Thomas Paine and his book, THE AGE OF REASON.

      August 6, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  15. Scott

    I don't know what you wrote Stephen but I hate it. You are a liberal that most should know is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

    July 1, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  16. Brian Allen

    The real American Bible shows the quotations of our founders and the ideas they expressed influenced by the Enlightenment. Most of our founders ( the biggest contributors) held the christian bible in destain – Read Jefferson – Franklin – Paine – Madison – Monroe and Adams.....

    See the American Bible edited by Alice Hubbard published by Roycrafters for a better view of Americanism.

    July 1, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  17. Loren Million

    Wow, one more book of incorrectly and poorly understood history applied to Christian myth. What can I say, when will you Americans ever learn, there is no god(s)

    June 28, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  18. BuleriaChk

    Doonesbury

    June 28, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  19. Jerry

    "The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools." This book is folly.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  20. Sam Yaza

    you know now that i think about it let my answer the question instead of being the jerk

    howzabout

    NO PROSELYTIZING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 27, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.