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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. vince

    Law should include Marbury vs. Madison
    Genesis might include "The Federalist Papers"
    Prophets should include William Lloyd Garrison and maybe John Brown
    Psalms should include the Battle Hymn of the Republic
    Chronicles should include Democracy in America by de Toqueville, and perhaps "The Lost Cause" by Pollard

    June 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Stephen Prothero

      Hey Vince, Good suggestions all. But what to cut then? Part of the problem here is figuring out how to make it a book instead of an encyclopedia. That said, some of your suggestions ARE here, but they appear as commentaries rather than as core texts. E.g., the Federalist Papers appear as commentaries on the Constitution.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  2. Dale

    God is real and someday we will all have to account for our belief or un-belief of his son, Jesus.

    June 16, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Get Real

      And your verified evidence for that is...?

      June 16, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • ArthurP

      When he shows me his long form birth certificate I will accept he is/was real.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • jacob

      To "get real" and "arthurP"... here is a debate between the top Christian Apologist (Dr. William Lane Craig) and one of the 4 horsemen of Atheism (Christopher Hitchens).... If you really want evidence of the existence of God, seriously take some time to watch this debate and listen to the arguments presented for Gods existence and against. Rather than probably just repeating what someone else has said about "no evidence for God" take some time for yourselves to research. Like C.S.Lewis said "if Christianity is false, it is of no importance, if it is true, it is of infinite importance". Here is the link:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KBx4vvlbZ8

      June 16, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  3. jungleboo

    Separation of Church and State. We are not a Christian nation now, were not founded as such 200 years ago, and any attempt to hijack the United States and turn it into a theocracy must be shot down immediately. Religious people are more than welcome to strut their stuff inside their temples, churches and tents, as well as inside their heads. But they overstep the line of decency and Americanism when they try to force their line of "thinking" onto their fellow citizens.

    June 16, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  4. Mickey

    For heaven's sake, what makes so many of you still believe that 'the bible' is from Christians?

    People who became Christians refused to believe the Original ... and made up their own based on the Hebrew Talmud, etc. They took what they wanted in order to entice pagans to their fold then brainwashed the new uneducated into believing that anyone who is not a Christian who believes in and prays to a Jew will perish if they don't convert.

    For Jews who refused to convert, the Christians murdered them. Plain and simple - and historic fact.

    June 16, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • jacob

      And what evidence do you have to substantiate these claims? You sound like you "know" what you're talking about but you provide no references for the claims you've mentioned? "Christians refused to believe the Original" How do you know this? Have you ever heard of the dead sea scrolls and the impact it had on textual criticism (of the bible)? Which family of manuscripts have you studied and compared? The Alexandrian Text? the Sinaiticus ? Have you seriously studied the Antiochan text and come to this conclusion? Oh, and FYI.. the hebrew Talmud is completely against Christianity – hence the Jews (a group of them) of the 1st century crucified Jesus. To say that Christians stole from the Hebrew Talmud is just plain ridiculous and really shows that you really have no idea what you're talking about... Have you ever even read the Bible?

      June 16, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  5. ArthurP

    If you are wrong, then what? "Oops, my bad?"

    No God being loving and merciful will sit down and listen to your reasoning, which you developed using the intelligence He gave you, accept your argument and then will let you into Intelligent People heaven. You know the one filled with adults.

    June 16, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  6. XDrifter4JC

    Am I the only Christian who is deeply troubled by the "American Bible"? 1 Corinthian 3:11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. Where is Christ in this "gospel"?

    June 16, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Smite Them

      Read the dang article, doofus.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • GauisCaesar

      The author of this and other CNN blogs is only a Christian in name. From his past blogs, you can tell he doesn't even know the substance of the Bible, and always errs on the side of human secularism. (You can't be both a human secularist and Christian since they offer 2 completely different paths).

      June 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Smite Them

      p.s. But I guess that is asking too much for you, who lives your life according to headlines, bumper-stickers and Bible quotes.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Pheadrus

      @GauisCaesar

      'No True scotsman' fallacy. Look it up...

      June 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Greg Powell

      I appreciate your commitment to the Bible as God's authoritative word to humankind. But I think you are missing the point of this article and this book. Please see my comment above.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  7. Linda

    I was mourning the loss of "Leaves of Grass" until I saw "Civil Disobedience." Thoreau and Whitman were active in such a pivotal time in our country's evolution. Then I realized our country in many ways wakes up in a new world everyday and each of the works chosen for "The American Bible" represent a pivotal time! "Ain't I A Woman?" is one of the most powerful speeches ever given by anyone so I'm very glad it's included in the book although I've always thought "Ain't I An Individual?" would spark some debate today-we women have always had to remind men we're people just like they are. I'll be getting this book to add to the shelf in my library where I keep Caroline Kennedy's "A Patriot's Handbook."

    June 16, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Stephen Prothero

      Hi Linda, Yeah I really wanted to include Whitman. One of my favorites. But I'm glad I was able to include Thoreau.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  8. Jack

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

    June 16, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  9. Rigor

    The name of this blog really should be changed to 'Gullibility'.

    I believe in Santa Claus. I believe in the Easter Bunny. I believe in the Tooth Fairy. I do not believe in God.
    I have seen direct evidence of the existence of the first three, in gifts under the tree, candy in the basket, a quarter under my pillow. I have never seen any shred of evidence of the latter.

    In fact, the only persuasion towards a God lies in people who stand on a stage and shout "If you do not believe in God, and give me all of your money, you will BURN IN HELL FOR ETERNITY!!!". To them, and to this mythical being, I say FU.

    June 16, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  10. Steve

    And this is how the original Bible was made; pick and choose religious articles that a man thought were good and left others out he did not like. We base our religious beliefs on a text constructed by a man's bias.

    June 16, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • GauisCaesar

      You may want to revise the comment, since it is historically innaccurate. The books that we now call the Bible were put together by a group of people, not one person. Also, they were continuously debated on, this wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. Also, the books chosen were widely in circulation and being read by the majority of Christians. Some books were not chosen because they either didn't subscribe to the other 99% of the Bible (some very very obvious), or they were a rehash of the same info already incorporated in another text. Your comment completely misrepresents your point. You are representing truth with mistruth, which goers against your motive. Bad form!

      June 16, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • ArthurP

      GauisCaesar:

      So it was done by a committee which makes it better somehow. Actually it was done under the direction of the Roman Emperor of the time which then makes the Bible a government publication and we all know how much stock we should put in those.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • jungleboo

      @gauis: "Also, they were continuously debated on, this wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. Also, the books chosen were widely in circulation and being read by the majority of Christians."

      Are you kidding? Reading for the masses is a very new talent, brought about by the public education of American citizens starting in the 1870s. Before that time, the well-to-do were instructed and had tutors for their children. The rest worked on farms and in shops. Are you implying that the Christians who were reading the Bible were all well off? BS. You, sir, are an idiot.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  11. JIm

    All this god wad crap is the reason for most wars, and much of the suffering in the world.
    When are you loosers going to take responsibility for your own lives and quit blaming some puppet master that dont exist

    June 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • GauisCaesar

      if you are one of those that think religion has caused most of the wars throughout history, I can tell you that you know ZERO about history. Most of the wars throughout recorded history were over resources and land, not a belief system or religion. Those that say that show their ignorance for history and destroy their point!!!!

      June 16, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • jungleboo

      Gaius, you have missed the major point that the Christian religion was THE TOOL of subjugation as the crowns went about r.ping and pillaging the world. Go ahead, look the other way. You are way out of line, but apparently that works for fundamentalists.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  12. halfbakedlunatic

    'god' is an idiotic idea promoted by immoral people to control and pacify the weak minded.

    June 16, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  13. Truth

    Benjamin Franklin, “God helps those who help themselves” (1758)
    Subtext: God is not real.

    June 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • ArthurP

      More can be accomplished by two hands working than a thousand clasped in prayer.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  14. ffrankenberry-blog@yahoo.com

    What a colossal waste of time – writing the book and reading this article.

    June 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Admit it – the only reason you commented was to for the free advertising of your oh-so-interesting blog.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  15. abcontador

    Anyone who truly believes this book is highly suspect and probably not too bright. It is time for humanity to move on from religion to something less wasteful and damaging. The most hateful people always seem to rest their elbows on religion.

    June 16, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • JM

      And then we die, meet God...and then what?

      If you are wrong, then what? "Oops, my bad?"

      June 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • SJB

      This isn't so much about religion, it's about the USA and politics. Please read the article.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • ME II

      @JM,
      "And then we die, meet God[, or Zeus, or Odin, or the Great Spirit]...and then what?"

      June 16, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • edmundburkeson

      You are still living in the Enlightenment era! The belief that religion is a crutch is what led to the Post-Modern embrace of all religions – spiritual oddities that we see today – people dying in sweat lodges. why? Because people like you are in denial that it is human to be spiritual. When society threw off the rejection of religion it led to a frenzied embrace of anything that resembled spirituality. some of us are still in denial.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 16, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Mike

      Trolling does not.

      June 16, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • halfbakedlunatic

      Atheists are at the top of the philosophical food chain.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  17. Peter

    Upton Sinclair...The Jungle
    Jane Addams...Democracy and Social Ethics

    June 16, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Peter

      Adam Smith...The Theory of Moral Sentiments

      June 16, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • ME II

      I think the Monroe Doctrine should be included.

      June 16, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Stephen Prothero

      Hi Peter and MEII, Yeah I had wanted to get more texts in there on class. These would be great choices. The Monroe doctrine is in there, however–as a commentary on Washington's Farewell Address, where he argues against either loving or hating another nation too much. ("No entangling alliances," in Jefferson's words.)

      June 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  18. ArthurP

    There is no proof that the Bible is in fact the word of God. It could just as easily be a ruse by the Devil himself. Which come to think of it because of all the mistakes, contradictions and blatant ambiguities within the Bible it actually make more sense to think of it that way.

    June 16, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • MAV

      I would like to recommend to you "The Case for Christ" by Lee Strobel, for proof on the bible.

      June 16, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • VanHagar

      Arthur...exasperating. Go ahead, give us a contradiction...I guarantee you I can beat it. You repeat the same atheist dribble that this blog is famous for...uneducated, uninspired junk.

      June 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • ChazH

      ArthurP
      Only among Christians is anecdote considered evidence. I've read the Case for Christ and I'm still an Atheist.

      June 16, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • ArthurP

      MAV, it does not prove that the Bible is not the work of the Devil himself. It just shows that some historical facts within it may be correct.

      June 16, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • ChazH

      ArthurP
      My comment was meant for MAV-sorry.

      June 16, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • ME II

      The case for Christ is mostly conjecture, implied assertion at best, but hardly "proof".

      June 16, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • edmundburkeson

      One need look no further for inconsistencies than this post. the Bible is a ruse of the devil?

      June 16, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • ME II

      sorry, "circu.mstancial evidence at best" probably would have been more accurate.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • ArthurP

      VanHagar: How is this then.

      Deuteronomy 5:17 – Thou shalt not kill.

      Now that statment is nice, simple and concice with no room for interpretation at all.

      Yet:

      Deuteronomy 17:12 – Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the LORD your God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged from Israel.

      Exodus 22:17 – You should not let a sorceress live.

      Exodus 21:15 – Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death.

      Sounds like a major contradictions to me. (yes there are many many more saying that in essence "Thou shall kill")

      June 16, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • VanHagar

      Arthur...its easy to create contradictions when you yourself rewrite what is written or take the words out of context.. The text in Deuteronomy is (and has always been) translated and understood to mean "murder" not "kill"–a susbtantial distinction which renders your alleged contradiction moot.

      June 16, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • ArthurP

      VanHagar:

      So according to God it is OK to kill just not murder ..... hmmmmm ....

      By the way the word in the original Greek has several meanings, giving the phrase itself several meanings, my favorite being "Thou shalt not be a pest to thy neighbor" second only too "Thou shalt not bring down a pestilence upon thy neighbor."

      June 16, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Janet

      ArthurP- The "original text" you are referring to from the Old Testament is Hebrew, not Greek. The New Testament was writen in Greek.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • VanHagar

      Arthur...Janet is right: The Hebrew word used here is ratsach which nearly always refers to intentional killing without cause (unless indicated otherwise by context). The fact that you can't tell the distinction between murder and killing is more proof of your lack of education (sorry to be so blunt)

      June 16, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • VanHagar

      Artheru...I'd further add that you still haven't identified any contradiction.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • ME II

      @VanHagar,
      There are two genealogies of Jesus that don't match.
      There are two time frames for Jesus' birth that don't match, i.e before and after the end of Herod's reign.
      There's contradictions between Gen 1 & 2, without the usual contextual gymnastics. (And that's just the internal inconsistencies, not even the inherent inaccuracies when compared with actual evidence.)
      There's ethical contradictions in Original Sin, i.e. how did Adam know it was wrong, i.e. evil, to disobey God if he hadn't yet eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil?

      I'm sure I can start googling, if you want more...

      If you want to take the Bible as allegorical/metaphorical/metaphysical "truth" then that's up to you, but it does hold up as literally true.

      June 16, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • ME II

      sorry, obviously meant:
      "... it does not hold up as literally true."

      June 16, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • David O

      MAV

      I would recommend that you read, Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are written by Bart. D. Ehrman. Dr. Ehrman is is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is a leading authority on the Bible and the life of Jesus. It gives a whole new perspective on the supposed inherency of the Bible.

      June 17, 2012 at 4:06 am |
  19. LouAZ

    " . . . intellectuals such as . . . Robert Bork, Rush Limbaugh and Antonin Scalia." HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!

    June 16, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Linda

      I'm with you on that one. Certainly not Rush. While I disagree with nearly all that has been issued from the mouths of said Bork and Scalia, they are intellectuals. Rush is a bombastic clown, set on self-promotion. He found a niche and has exploited it to the detriment of our country. While he has an audience, he is no intellectual.

      June 16, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  20. Mary Downe

    This piece is idiotic.

    June 16, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
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