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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. Pheadrus

    A bit off topic, but I gotta admonish CNN for not letting through a post with more than two syllable words in it. I tried three times to post a reply and it was sent to the ether each time. I realize that CNN Newsreaders can't handle big words, but there are others that read this site that can.

    June 16, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Perihelion of Mercury

      Your post must have been too religious.

      Seriously, google "CNN word filter". Your big words probably had fragments contaiining nasty words in them, like "cum" in "document", and CNN won't let them through if you don't have special privileges like me...

      June 16, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters or some html tricks to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ---
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
      co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, etc.
      co-on.....as in racc-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      cu-nt.....as in Scu-nthorpe, a city in the UK famous for having problems with filters...!
      ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, drift-wood, etc.
      ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, etc.
      ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
      hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      nip-ple
      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
      pr-ick....as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
      que-er
      ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
      se-x......as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
      sl-ut
      sn-atch
      sp-ank
      sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      sp-oon
      sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
      strip-per
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, etc.
      va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!
      wt-f....also!!!!!!!
      There's another phrase that someone found, "wo-nderful us" (have no idea what sets that one off).

      June 16, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  2. No film?

    Americans don't necessarily explore important social themes in written word. Since you have already ventured into music you should allow film to be considered.

    June 16, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Alejandro

      katw0man Posted on my first rebatch lkooed just like that only i used some milk and it turned green.a luminous, unearthly, sick color of green.i think the fragrance used was oatmeal, milk and honey.why, how lovely that was!it is sitting, to this day, in the closet.since i can throw nothing away, itstill sits there unused, unloved, andunappreciated!finally, i am slowly getting up the nerveto try again .only leaving out the milk of course!

      July 30, 2012 at 3:05 am |
  3. Perplexed

    I believe that Jefferson's, "The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom," is a more fundamental and important work than his letter to the danbury baptists and should replace it in your book. Of all the things he accomplished in his life, this was one of the three that he said he hoped to be remembered for. (The other two were the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia.) More importantly, it is a broader and more complete expression of the thoughts that are referenced in the letter.

    June 16, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  4. Jack

    His love endures forever. Everyone is welcome to visit – thestarofkaduri.com

    June 16, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  5. rybl101

    Okay…so there’s this guy named “Jesus.” And he is a cosmic, Jewish zombie who requires you to cannibalize his bread-skin while telepathically swearing allegiance to him weekly. And if you do, you will be saved from the sin committed by a rib-woman who was convinced by a talking snake to eat a magic apple.

    Seriously – how does this sound any more plausible than Zeus throwing lighting or Apollo and his chariot pulling the sun?

    Q: What is the difference between theology and mythology?

    A: Perspective

    June 16, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  6. Oxymoron

    Religion Scholar.

    June 16, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  7. Samuel

    'The Jungle' should be there. I am not sure why it isn't as it had a profound impact on how people looked at the 'infallibility' of big business. 'Cat's Cradle' or 'Slaughter-house Five' should be considered. The Psalms are interesting but nothing in rock and roll? I know it would be hard to chose an American song but that seems to be a major oversight.

    June 16, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Dan

      "Like a Rolling Stone" would be a great candidate, in my opinion. That song changed American music

      June 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  8. Chad

    Pretty transparent attempt to supplant the real bible..

    June 16, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Perihelion of Mercury

      Which of the dozens of versions of that mythbook is your particular "real" one?

      June 16, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Halle

      or perhaps you can read the article and find out what it really is about

      June 16, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Chad

      @Perihelion of Mercury "Which of the dozens of versions of that mythbook is your particular "real" one?"

      =>the original one: (Hebrew/Greek)
      I read a translation (there are many translations, all of which have some minor translation errors which have been noted/corrected).
      And yes, what we have now is over 99% accurate to the original text of each.

      June 16, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  9. Greg Powell

    The word "bible" simply means "book." Christians refer to the Old and New Testament Scriptures as "The Bible" because we hold that this is THE Book above all other books, being the one and only book "breathed out" by God through human authors. But the word "bible" is not actually in the Bible. Instead we have words like "scripture," "law," "word," etc. And certainly these words may apply to many different subjects. So there is nothing wrong with an author using the word bible to describe a work that aims to be a somewhat authoritative and exhaustive treatise on a particular subject, like "The Chef's Bible" or "The Automotive Repair Bible." I am a Christian and a pastor, and I have to say that I'm a bit embarrassed by how some of my brothers and sisters seem to be completely missing the point of this article and this book. As an American, I look forward to reading this book as a history refresher course and as one man's earnest attempt at calling all Americans to join together at the table of discourse. I hope many, from the right and the left, will read this work, and through it be drawn towards a greater understanding of where we've come from, who we are as a people, and where we're headed. And I hope this results in a greater national unity, a deeper humility, and a serious increase in our willingness to listen, dialogue, learn, and grow.

    June 16, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • john the guy not the baptist

      Well Pastor, save your money, that is the congragations offerings I mean, because all the info listed can be found in the public domain, that is where Prothero found it. Putting together a bunch of lets call them testaments, calling it a bible and trying to get on the best sellers list is quite clever. Now if you want to read an orginal tome, may I reccomend Bobby Henderson, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you will have to shell out $15 of your flocks hard earned money but it is worth it.
      RAmen....Peace and Love from the FSM.

      PS: I am sure Prothero added some of his own musings, probably original. I am slightly miffed that he slighted the prophet Bobby Henderson by not including him in the Epistles section.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Chad

      @Greg Powell "The word "bible" simply means "book." ...."

      =>you make good points. I dont worship text, however at the same time, I recognize Prothero's never ending attempts to malign the authenticity/integrity of the OT/NT, and hack away at the divinity of Jesus Christ.

      At every turn, he and others like him seek to inject relativism/humanism into Gods word.

      I dont see Prothero's nonsense as history, I see it as a transparent attempt to construct his own "bible", then pointing to the Judeo/Christian bible as just one of many ways to "seek to better understand ourselves and others for the common good of humanity".

      June 16, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Nicola

      to the boys basketball coach,” you have to be ceurfal of what you say; people's pensions will be involved if this thing gets out of hand. If this matter of inappropriate behavior with minors is as important and fragile as has been presented this past week on TV, then why hasn’t this incident with Michelle styles and the Buffalo Board of Education been thoroughly investigated? Is it because some high-ranking officials will be implicated if this incident is investigated? I hope this warrants the proper attention to reveal the truth of what really happened at McKinley High School. Margaret Sullivan of the Buffalo News was instrumental in helping Williams pull off his escape from prosecution of not revealing what he knew. Margaret Sullivan is the same editor of the Buffalo News who had to apologize and explain her senseless comments on CNN about victims who were murdered in a shooting incident. In one article about the scandal, Sullivan herself vowed to find the truth of the matter. It seems they all knew the truth but did not want it revealed. If these administrators go unpunished, there is no justice. An Anonymous Observer

      August 1, 2012 at 2:09 am |
  10. edmundburkeson

    Under law you should include Blackwell's Commentaries. Common law is a huge influence on the American justice system. It was English, but wholly adopted by American judges.

    June 16, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  11. Bootyfunk

    Prothero makes excuses for christianity. he does it subtly, pretends to be unbiased, but he's just another christian apologist. he takes the easy way out. this book is just a stroke to Prothero's ego.

    June 16, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • GAW

      Here now he may be soft at times but this an open blog for all views. It gives you the opportunity to use your critical thinking skills by evaluating all positions for their strengths and weaknesses.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      not really sure what your point was...? all are free to express their opinions, just as i am. prothero is not just soft, he's an excuse maker.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  12. martin

    wow!!!!!, at last a bible not full of blood sacrifice, myth, religious genocide, and bigotry

    June 16, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Ec1warc1

      The story of America is full of slavery and genocide. Look it up.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  13. Steve - Dallas

    Ayn Rand? Really??

    June 16, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  14. In God We Trust

    Atheists are behind the holocaust and 9/11

    June 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • GAW

      I have reported this as abuse. Time to hunt trolls.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Citizen Cane

      Yeah.... all others pay cash...

      June 16, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Nancy

      "Atheists are behind the holocaust and 9/11"

      Hitler was a Catholic, a Christian, look it up. He simply wanted to rid Germany of any "un-pure" races, mainly the Jews. Hence the Holocaust. Al Qaeda was behind 9/11 and they are radical Muslims.

      So your statement is false. Nothing to do with atheism.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • martin

      in LAW we trust

      June 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      oh, and The Great Lollipop Caper, atheists did that too!

      June 16, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • GAW

      I guess you can't delete foolishness. Nowt it's on display for all to see.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • truth be told

      Hitler was an atheist.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Perihelion of Mercury

      Hitler was a Christian:

      "My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before in the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice.... And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people.... When I go out in the morning and see these men standing in their queues and look into their pinched faces, then I believe I would be no Christian, but a very devil if I felt no pity for them, if I did not, as did our Lord two thousand years ago, turn against those by whom to-day this poor people is plundered and exploited."

      -Adolf Hitler, in his speech in Munich on 12 April 1922

      June 16, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      First off placing your trust in your imaginary friend speaks of your immaturity.
      Second, Hitler was a Catholic
      Third' Where have you been for the last 10 years or so? 9/11 was Muslims (you know the people who believe in a different imaginary friend then you do)

      However how about we start speaking of the atrocities of theists...the crusades, the inquisitions, the Salem witch trials, the Scopes Monkey trials...all those deaths are the result of the belief in the same imaginary friend that you have. Kudos for believing in such a wretched, immoral imaginary friend.

      Now go to google and read some real articles...perhaps ones that don't include anything from the buybull. Then you can come and speak to the adults...only children and schizophrenics have imaginary friends.

      June 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  15. Rene

    I also recommend "We Hold These Truths" by Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J. It should be a required reading in my opinion, thanks. Good start!

    June 16, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  16. Rene

    Roe vs Wade has got to go on the fact that all men are created equal, where are they created equal if not inside the womb and are therefore persons?

    June 16, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  17. Wanderer81

    Once CNN and people like Prothero get done bashing Catholics, Protestants, Mormon's, etc. I'd like to see them turn on the Jews...even better yet the Muslims. Y'all chicken?...beating on the "turn the other cheek" crowd will get boring eventually. Step up to the plate and be men.

    June 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Get Real

      I've been reading these blogs for quite a while now. There have been several Muslim and Jew-oriented articles, and I'm sure that there will be more. They don't seem to elicit very many comments from readers though.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      in america, christianity is the biggest problem, not islam or judaism. when's the last time a rabbi or iman knocked on your door? christians try to change laws according to crazy biblical dogma. christians try to prevent g.ay marriage and generally stick their nose in everyone's business and then cry "why are people criticizing poor little us?"

      June 16, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Bootyfunk, if your biggest problem is an unwanted person knocking on your door you must be unaware of the people picking your pocket through the power of fractional reserve banking. I don't think they are Christians either.

      June 18, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  18. Ed Walsh

    I could only read it if it had a Nihil Obstat and an Imprimatur from the Roman Catholic Church and it's authority!

    June 16, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Citizen Cane

      I really, really hope you jest...

      June 16, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  19. Jack

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

    June 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • tony

      Just loved the loving Tsunamis

      June 16, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • midwest rail

      I wonder how ( your ) God would feel about you hijacking a public commentary section to promote your website via free ( stolen ) advertising ?

      June 16, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      unless he's drowning everyone on earth or murdering the first born sons of egypt or sending a bear to kill 42 children or destroying the entire world or...

      June 16, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Jack is another troll out there trying to convert people who his brand of delusions.

      June 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  20. cii

    Cnn, please stop pushing your religious propaganda. Thanks.

    June 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • GAW

      That's odd some people think it's anti religious propaganda.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Citizen Cane

      This has nothing to do with religion... read... listen....

      June 16, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      honestly, this guy is a terrible journalist.

      June 16, 2012 at 2:18 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.