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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. Anybody know how to read?

    I bet Stephen Prothero thinks the keys to success for his book are the same as writing for an SAT exam, slash, rehash, and mash. I don't believe it should be on anyone's required reading list. This is applicable: 'Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.'

    October 14, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  2. Atheism is Great for Kids and Grown-Ups Too!

    It's really best for all people including children to have an agnostic approach to god, and an atheistic approach to all religion. It keeps things simple for kids, and lets them be all that they can be. They just need to be taught that some things, like all religion, were just made up by salesmen and politicians from long ago. (Yes, charlatan folklore and spam started long before the Bible; what would make you think they hadn't?) And they need to be taught that other things, like God, we really don't know a damn thing about.

    Atheists have strong minds and don't need a religion. Many religious folk have the best intentions. But too often, religious folk run and hide their misdeeds within their religion (and by doing so, they disserve society). And too often, religious folk are easily offended when someone mocks their make-believe characters – and, as we can see they can get really CRAZY!

    Although there are many religious folk with good intentions – some selflessly helping others, religions and religious organizations are, as a whole, just big old clubs – each trying to out do each other and inspiring hate and division (often disguised as love) along the way. The problem is that people too easily buy into religion and don't realize how unfounded it all is. And when they buy into it, they buy into a lot of really old, really weird tenets that are nothing but harmful for the human species.

    Take Christianity, for instance. Just look at all the things that Christians argue about amongst themselves today – abortion, men's and women's roles in the church, celibacy, contraception, acceptance of gays, etc. Most of these issues have their roots in the conflicted, unfounded tenets of early Christianity. Non-Mormons harp on Joseph Smith these days. But we really don't have any more proof at all to believe that Paul, the self-proclaimed "apostle" was anything more than an ordinary man who needed to make up religious "sales literature" to survive and spread his own personal beliefs. And yet a good chunk of the NT is attributed to Paul and accepted by many Christians. And a lot of what he wrote about has to do with many of the issues I mentioned above that have Christians fighting amongst themselves hundreds of years later. It's way too unfounded to argue over.

    Get a good cup of tea, and sit down and collect your thoughts. If you find it helpful to pray to a god (something you know nothing about), fine. But it is really healthier for the mind to leave behind all the characters that people over the centuries have invented or given powers to, for which there is little or no foundation. Because with those invented characters and powers – that's where division and hate join the little party in your mind. That's where, in your mind, you are inheriting the division and hate from ordinary politicians, lobbyists and salesmen from long ago. My goodness.

    mama kindless

    September 20, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  3. tuvia

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyBZhTaf1oU&w=640&h=390]

    September 5, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • tuvia

      B"H

      IMMEDIATE NEWS RELEASE

      PLEASE ASK THE CANDIDATE THE FOLLOWING QUESTION.
      JONATHAN POLLARD HAS SPENT ENOUGH TIME IN PRISON.
      IT IS TIME THAT HE IS PARDONED

      LET MY PEOPLE GO SENETOR HILLIARY CLINTON AND hussein OBAMA. LET JONATHAN POLLARD GO NOW
      LET MY PEOLE GO

      Rabbi Chaim Richman answers President Obama's Cairo speech

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyBZhTaf1oU&w=640&h=390]

      September 5, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
    • Truth of the Matter

      What about the Kurds' right to their land in Turkey/Iraq? What about the Cypriots' right to their land in Cyprus? Also, what about the Armenian Holocaust in Turkey? But no, it's always about the Jews themselves and noone else, ad nauseum. The Jews are God's gift to mankind. GIVE ME A BREAK!

      September 22, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Keith

      Johnathan Pollard is a traitor and the Jews are not America's friends. Friends don't spy on you

      October 17, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  4. путешествие во Вьетнам

    We're a group of volunteers and opening a brand new scheme in our community. Your website provided us with helpful info to paintings on. You've done an impressive process and our whole neighborhood will probably be thankful to you.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  5. Tim

    http://www.indiegogo.com/hopeheal

    August 29, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  6. Eric Meyer

    The Psalms section needs a lot of work. Nice start, but we need about 150 more psalms!

    August 27, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
    • A Prole

      Conicals; Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged" (1957) is he kidding me?

      September 30, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  7. Believe it or not....

    I'm not up much on relgion but readers of "The Speed Bag Bible" say it is very rhythmic and keeps them fit.

    August 27, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  8. dan

    the liberty that once wa

    August 26, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
  9. TUVIA

    IB"H

    IT IS TIME FOR THE AMERICAN PEOPLE TO MAKE THEIR DECISION ON THIS SPEECH
    WAKE UP AMERICAN PEOPLE, TIME TO STOP SLEEPING

    CLICK ON LINK FOR VIDEO BELOWl

    Barack Obama vs the People of Israel

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=947by3X6_RU

    --------------------------------------------------

    -------–_________________________________________________________________________________

    August 21, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Keith

      I am tired of all the trouble that "God's Choosen People" cause

      October 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  10. TUVIA

    IB"H

    IT IS TIME FOR THE AMERICAN PEOPLE TO MAKE THEIR DECISION ON THIS SPEECH
    WAKE UP AMERICAN PEOPLE, TIME TO STOP SLEEPING

    CLICK ON LINK FOR VIDEO BELOWl

    Barack Obama vs the People of Israel

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=947by3X6_RU

    --------------------------------------------------

    -----------–

    August 21, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  11. Ed R

    Another interesting, but somewhat flawed list that attempts to capture a sense of what it means to be an American. The list is far too flavored with social activism to be fairly representational. I would have included SOMETHING about science and technology, for invention and adaptation are central to the American experience. While some of the pieces have had lasting impact on American life, they rest on plagiarism and false experience. A prime example is the anecdotal 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', which inflamed abolition sentiment in the 1850s, but came mostly Harriet Beecher Stowe's imagination, and not from anyone's experiences. She tried the same thing in writing about the experiences of the Highland Scots during the clearances. A couple of British journalists scored her very severely for making up tales rather than interviewing the people who lived through the horrors of the clearances. Her reputation suffered greatly. Several other selections (speeches) suffer from plagiarism as well. It is hard to tell people that John F. Kennedy did not write his 'Ask not' speech. It was written by Ted Sorenson, his speech writer. Sorenson cribbed the famous phrase, 'Ask not' from someone else's writings. It was a well-delivered electrifying speech and Sorenson deserves credit for crafting it, but not for inventing the most famous part of it. It's OK as a list, for all of the selections are easily available in the public domain. Why should I buy the book?

    August 17, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Jenny

      I don't think the point was to state accuracy or the morality or agreeing with the writers. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a fiction writer who knew little of slavery but Lincoln did refer to her as the "lady who started this mess." (mess being the slavery issue exploding and adding to multiple pretexts for open war). And a lot of speeches were not written by their presidents (you think Reagan wrote his?).

      The point is that these writing have encapsulated American values that have shaped how many view the country and its role in our lives, and the world. Some of these values have changed and been lost, but a lot of these speeches are part of American tradition in a way unique not only in it's timelessness, but in its unique "American"-ness (My immigrant friends and family are definitely not familiar with Gettysburg, Letter from Birmingham Jail, or even Atlas Shrugged as it relates to American thought until they come here or have it explained to them)

      September 18, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  12. God Bless You

    The Lord is the light and He giveth his flesh for us. Please check out the message of praise and forgiveness at http://www.fleshlight.com

    August 17, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Keith

      How many stupid Christians went to your site?

      October 17, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  13. myfamilyneedsamiracle

    God bless you all. Please read our story and help if you can. I have a medically needy daughter and I don't know where else to turn.

    http://www.myfamilyneedsamiracle.wordpress.com

    August 14, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • gmax

      how many bibles does it takes to be a chistian? one or two? the bible or the boos of morman? you know they hold there more over than the bible? where the alians from there planet than they belive? me when i say Mitt is not a chistian at all ! he is a morman first ?

      August 30, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  14. gigi

    http://www.amazingfacts.org/free-stuff/bible-studies/study-guides.aspx

    August 13, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  15. gigi

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/08/13/vatican-to-reveal-if-popes-butler-will-faces-charges-over-leak/?hpt=hp_t1

    August 13, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  16. gigi

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1lFYO5zE-c&w=640&h=390]

    August 13, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  17. Jim

    I have just started to read the book and I will read the entire book. However, I almost gave in to the urge to just close the book and never read it when the he said the the battle at Gettysburg would be forgotten, the men who fought at Gettysburg would be forgotten but Linciln's speech would be remembered. The battle will long be remembered and the soldiers while indivually are forgotten will be remerberd for the strenth of their beliefs and the actions they took to support them. They are what captures the American spirit, the belief that some things are worth fighting for. It has been said that the individual soldier fights for his life and that of his comarades and the to a certain point is true. He or she also fights for their beliefs that they have a responsibility to their country because withall it's faults it s still the best country in the world. I hope that at some time in the future you give credit to the people of the armed forced who have stood up for the United States.

    August 12, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
  18. danielwalldammit

    Atlas shrugged? ....UGH!!

    August 8, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • A Prole

      That one belongs in The American Plutocracy Bible.

      September 30, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  19. exlonghorn

    Figures...not one person of science on the whole list.

    August 8, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • JecBeans

      Who would you include?

      August 26, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  20. anthony

    we already have the american bible, it is called the Jeffersonian Bible. it is actually a nice read and far more logical and moral then that of the Traditional bibles (etc. the catholic and St. James versions of the bible)

    August 8, 2012 at 9:25 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.