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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. Wim

    Nothing about the American space age in the book?
    Seems like an important iconic story, first man on the moon: "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." No?

    June 16, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Stephen Prothero

      Good point! I remember watching that on TV, and having a poster of the front page news story in my bedroom as a kid. But it really didn't generate all that much controversy. And what would the "text" be? I would list that as a key moment (perhaps among the top 50) in US history. But it's not really a text we argue about.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  2. Reptillian

    Ayn Rand? Instead, how about the Magna Carta or Plato's Republic? Those seem like they were a huge influence on American philosophy. Maybe even some enlightenment philosophers like Kant.

    June 16, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • GAW

      I can understand the influence part but Prothero is looking for texts written by Americans.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Stephen Prothero

      What GAW said . . .

      June 16, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  3. ME II

    I like the dating on the "Pledge". Nice touch.

    June 16, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Stephen Prothero

      Thanks. It really does become something different when God is inserted. Also more controversial.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  4. AGuest9

    Reagan – so glad you included "the Antichrist"

    June 16, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  5. tony

    "exodus" but no Physics. Gimme a break. You'd be better putting genesis 1;14 instead of Exodus. That's the only meaningful line in the entire racism guide called the old testament

    June 16, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  6. Jack

    God is good... his love endures forever. Everyone is welcome to visit... thestarofkaduri.com

    June 16, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  7. Pheadrus

    Everyone has an opinion... Mine is that any work seriously discussing American religion MUST be prefaced with Thomas Jefferson's 'Letter to the Danbury Baptists". This largely ignored work by most American Conservatives sets the stage for freedom FROM religion in this country. How it got twisted to freedom OF religion has always been a mystery to me...

    June 16, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • SciGuy

      The first amendment is the source you want. It expressly forbids the govt to make any law that prohibits the free exercise of religion. The shortened phrase freedom of religion encapsulates this. Freedom from religion does not.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • ME II

      Actually it's "establishment of religion" and "free exercise thereof" but let's not get picky.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • GAW

      It needs to work both ways.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Pheadrus

      @SciGuy

      The First Ammendment, as it applies to religion, prohibits the establishment of a State religion and provides for the 'free excercise' of religion. Jefferson's letter clarifies this, coining the phrase 'separation of church and State'. Where Americans are given the 1st Ammendment right to worship as they please it does NOT allow the right of religion(s) to meddle in the affairs of State. This is 'freedom FROM religion'.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Stephen Prothero

      Hey Pheadrus, it's in there! As one of the Epistles. And I agree it's hugely important. The commentaries on this letter include admirers like you but also critics who believe the First Amendment never should have been interpreted via Jefferson's "wall of separation" metaphor.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  8. dave z

    opps. sorry CNN.. I found them.

    June 16, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  9. Hank M

    Putting Ayn Rand in there is out right offensive.

    Its not a real chronicle of anytbhing nor is at an attempt at a chronicle.

    Its a philosophical exposition. That has always been unpopular with the majority of Americans.

    June 16, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • ME II

      I'm not sure it belongs in there either, although I think it is a great book, but you cannot deny that it have caused a lot of controversy around what some might consider the root of the USA, liberty, and what it means.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • AGuest9

      Why not? Didn't Aesop write that "god helps those who help themselves"? After all, we have the wonderful state of the country to show for Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Stephen Prothero

      Hey Hank, "offensive" is not disqualifying, in my view. In fact, I was looking for texts that are controversial, and Rand's is definitely that. But I ran it with lots of commentary, including plenty of critics of Rand, including people who call her adolescent, egotistical, foolish, etc.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  10. dave z

    where did all the other post from this morning go? gee is CNN now playing the game of Censorship? LOL :) what a joke!!!

    June 16, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 16, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  12. jom

    Ask the Jews from the holocoust, ask the Chinese that built America'sR & then were discarded, what about Native Americans and Black Americans? Oh how God's love endures!

    June 16, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • the Jews

      of the holocaust that reestablished the state of Israel after 2000 years ? The Chinese who opened laundries and businesses like restaurants and prospered to become an essential part of this country? The Native Americans,each tribe with an independent nation within the protection and care of these United States? The Native Americans who have prospered in Casino gaming? The black Americans who have risen to prominence so much so that the President of the United States is among that heritage? Those people you consider discarded? What are you drinking?

      June 16, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Welled

      Israel is a joke. Lets put it like that. With a monetary system just like ours that is nothing but lending and loans. Simple save your miricle 6 & 7 day wars for the tourists. The camps bomb and miraculous re-entry into Jersalem. Where they were persecuted for 1700 or so odd years. Now they are all cleaned up clensed and back. Deal is Gods now a bank officer they have 17 banks with rates worse than ours. Home loans, boat loans, car loan, student loans, condo loans, cc, equity lines of credit. Don't forget the building loans that let them expand territory its not religion its business. You don't think so check the facts. Its a land filled with Usury. So don't give me this oh their all good now after 1700 years and they have learned there lesson. Look closer there are about 9 different semetic peoples that occupy that place you defend. Hebrews are the minority. You better get out of the sky and get with reality. I'm a semite not a Hebrew. I have many friends that are you won't find them in any of this stuff. They don't have the time. You like the fakers and the fake nonsense that was established. You might want to look twice and stop taking everyones word for it. Or some preacher whos up to his eyeballs in debt.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  13. Christopher Hitchens

    If William J. Bennett were any dumber, he could change his name to Stephen Prothero.

    June 16, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • SciGuy

      Hitch, I thought you passed.

      June 16, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • GAW

      Must be another guy with the same name.

      June 16, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  14. SciGuy

    Lincoln's Malice toward none, charity for all is hypocrisy with a vengeance.

    June 16, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  15. mklsgl

    Noam Chomsky needs to be included, as would Toni Morrison, Hemingway, and Bob Dylan.

    June 16, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Stephen Prothero

      Good suggestions, all, esp. Dylan. I wanted to include "The Times They are a Changin'" but I didn't have enough room. Maybe next time around . . .

      June 16, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  16. GAW

    I wonder if the same type of approach could apply to movies. It's time to canonize Zombieland and put it in the apocalypse section.

    June 16, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • GAW

      ....and let us now turn to hymn number 666 :"For Whom the Bell Tolls"

      June 16, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Canadian Bacon

      Wasn't Jesus a zombie – dead, then rises from the dead? And what about Matthew 27: 52-53: "The graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many." Sounds like a plague of zombies.

      June 16, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • GAW

      You never know...

      June 16, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  17. ArthurP

    An atheist will never tell an impressionable young child that they will burn in Hell for some imagined wrong. An Atheist will never tell a Father that the reason his child is dying is because he is studying the evolution of dinosaurs.

    June 16, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • SciGuy

      "The fool says in his heart, No God." In his heart, because in his mind he knows better. And in his heart because it is his passion for self-regulation that rejects the notion of accountability to his creator.

      June 16, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • GAW

      But SOME of them might call their kids idiots, morons or delusional if they entertain any belief in God life or the supernatural just sayin.

      June 16, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • GAW

      ...on the other hand if the ones calling people idiots, morons and delusional are lards and trolls living in their moms basement who will never get married this name calling to kids wont ever become an issue.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • AGuest9

      You claim that any belief in the supernatural isn't delusional?????

      June 16, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • ME II

      @SciGuy,
      The scripture quote aside, what are you saying?
      "... it is his passion for self-regulation that rejects the notion of accountability to his creator."
      Do you mean self-determination? Why would regulating oneself reject accountability to ones "creator"?

      June 16, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • SciGuy

      Me too, I mean as in self-rule. The atheist cannot abide the idea of another one ruling over him. God is his ruler, not himself, and he hates this notion.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • ME II

      @SciGuy,
      Ok, I see.
      But if God never shows any "regulation" whatsoever, why would anyone be worried about it?

      June 16, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • SciGuy

      Me2, God has shown it in at least three ways. First in his general revelation in nature where his presence is made manifest with the implied preeminence among all creatures. Second, in our consciences, where no one else sees, but his spirit convicts us of his truth and righteousness and our guilt, and finally in his written revelation in which he openly expresses his righteous standards to which we are all subject and the future death and judgment that await us. The atheist rejects all three of these, and particularly seems to despise the last one due to its explicit nature.

      June 16, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Ahh. But I guess your god thinks enslaving another race is A-OK, huh?

      June 16, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • ME II

      @SciGuy,
      "First in his general revelation in nature where his presence is made manifest with the implied preeminence among all creatures."
      I don't see how nature reveals anything like a god's presence.

      "Second, in our consciences..."
      Culture and empathy drive our conscience. In the pre-Civil war south many people had no qualms about owning slaves, a thing that is not condemned in the Bible by the way, and yet few in decent society today would accept any kind of slavery as right. Didn't "his spirit convict [them] of his truth..."?
      If God's spirit drove our conscience, then wouldn't we expect all cultures throughout history to agree on basic things like slavery, killing, toture, etc. instead of finding that the "norms of society" vary across pretty much the entire spectrum of human activity, i.e. everyone would agree on right and wrong from the begining.
      In fact, if God's spirit drove our conscience then why would He have ever needed to write the Ten Commandments? Wouldn't they have been instictual?

      "...and finally in his written revelation..."
      Well, that's not really 'showing' His ruling is it? That's stating the rules. This, of course, means nothing if you can't show that God exists and that He wrote/inspired this revelation and that He wasn't lying.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  18. alfranken

    The "Jefferson Bible" should be the "Mathew" of this so call American Bible.

    June 16, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  19. Daniel from Birmingham

    I think this is a fascinating approach to American History. I will certainly buy it when its out. The one thing I wish you had included in it was George Kennan's "X Article" that laid out containment policy against the Soviet Union. It more or less set the entire framework for the Cold War and I consider it essential to understanding the last 70 years of our history.

    June 16, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Stephen Prothero

      Kennan's "X" article is a REALLY good suggestion. I actually didn't consider it, but I should have. I wrote about it in college, I recall. And it WAS hugely influential. My only reservation is that it was influential only in certain circles (foreign policy, academics, etc.).

      June 16, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  20. Jack

    God is good – his love endures forever. Everyone is welcome to visit... thestarofkaduri.com

    June 16, 2012 at 10:07 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.