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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. fintastic

    Religion poisons everything.

    June 20, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  2. Lendog

    What about Mendez vs. Westminster School District (1947). This is the genesis Brown vs. Board of Education. Recognize the facts.

    June 20, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  3. fintastic

    I almost choked on my lunch when I read...

    "So are conservative activists and intellectuals such as William F. Buckley Jr., Robert Bork, Rush Limbaugh"

    Rush Limpdick? are you serious?

    June 20, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  4. madmaninthemiddle

    I like that there is a balance between liberal and conservative voices who have helped shape and influence the national dialogue.

    But Rush Limbaugh? Really?

    June 19, 2012 at 3:29 am |
  5. howart Dao

    Sacre bleu ! How dare you revise the words of god . It is heresy to ever change anything in the bible ! unless you receive a set of golden plates !!!!

    June 18, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • vulpecula

      the original bible was not written in english. in fact not only has it been translated many times losing some of it's meaning, but also there have been errors and omissions, and parts deliberately left out or added afterwords. In otherworks, you've never seen an original bible and never will.

      June 20, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • vulpecula

      Doh! just re-read and saw the "golden plates", discovering the punchline in the sarcasm. hehe

      June 20, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  6. Joshua the Agnostic

    I'm convinced most of you didn't actually read this article and just skipped to the comments section.

    I like what he's done here. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to put this together. Framing it against the Bible is pretty good work if you've read it. However most of you just saw the movie (church) and think you're experts.

    Solid pairing on Lamentations, one of my favorite books.

    June 18, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • HumanistJohn

      I admit I haven't read the article but if he is comparing his work to the bible in even a casual way his book must be about, murder, g3nocide. rap3 and other horrible attrocities.

      June 19, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
  7. Honey Badger Dont Care

    "How have I done? What did I miss? What should I have cut?"

    You should cut out anything with ANY reference to religion. America is a secular nation, as it was create adn as it will always be.

    June 18, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • TC

      That would be silly, as the whole point of this is to address things that form the public dicsourse. You may not like it, but religion is a HUGE part of the public dialog, for better of for worse.

      June 20, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  8. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    And once again, we ask JUST WHAT DOES STEPHEN P HIMSELF BELIEVE ABOUT GOD OR THE GODS which brings us to that famous (maybe infamous) prayer supplied free of charge and vitiating most of Stephen P's new book.

    The Apostles' aka Agnostoics' aka Apollo's Creed 2012: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

    (references used are available upon request)
    =======================================================================================

    June 18, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Joshua the Agnostic

      Oh yeah? Well I think he was an alien and the Star of Bethlehem was a spaceship.

      June 18, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  9. kindness

    MY personal testimony.
    A thought to consider without an ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change) The Holy spirit (within) will convict you beyond what you think you can do by yourself. Grace is given to those who renounce the world. That are" in" the world but not "of " the world.

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome and It's just between you and Jesus

    my testimony

    Romans 10:9

    "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved

    June 18, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • TROLL ALERT

      Don't bother reading this garbage click the report abuse link to get rid of this TROLL!

      June 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • JWT

      Be happy that christ is your lord – just remember that he is not mine.

      June 20, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  10. myweightinwords

    Testing

    June 18, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • myweightinwords

      Sorry about that. My browser is suddenly not showing the button to click after typing a comment or response. I have been trying to figure out why. Still can't see it, but now I know I can click it anyway.

      June 18, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  11. Prothero

    Upcoming article:

    My Take: How I constructed "The Creepy Photo" which I use for the CNN Belief Blog.

    June 18, 2012 at 6:53 am |
  12. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things*

    June 18, 2012 at 4:40 am |
    • Jesus

      *Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!,

      June 18, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  13. mickey1313

    Prothreo is swine

    June 17, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  14. rudyardK

    Tom Tom! Where are you tonight?

    Oh where is TomTom?
    A Dark Sun in the long night
    Alas! I grow cold

    June 17, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hey, there, Rudyard. How are you? I am sorry you're growing cold. Can't help you there; too busy telling off idiots.

      June 17, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • rudyardK

      @Tom Tom: I am fine, thank you. (Was that painful?)

      One blogger
      Suspects that Tom Tom is of

      Both Light and Darkness
      Inner conflict of
      Reactionary
      Desires

      June 17, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  15. Jack

    Happy "Father" Day ... Everyone is welcome to visit thestarofkaduri.com

    June 17, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  16. Dakota

    Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" is a text that seems particularly useful lately. Seems to fit your two criteria, but I suppose is excluded from consideration because the author was French.

    June 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • vulpecula

      I couldn't care less what nationality the author is, only if the book is available in English.

      June 17, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Mark

      Dakota – I completely agree on Democracy in America it would fit well in either Genesis or Chronicles – and I don't think it matters that he was French

      June 17, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 17, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      See prayer work its miracles at prolapsed.net.

      June 17, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Prayer changes things

      do not know prolapsed.net but glad to see the Truth that atheism is not healthy for children and other living things getting wider usage.

      June 17, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Rudyardk

      Just show me the GodFax

      June 17, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!,!

      June 18, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • tom-ay

      i don't recall atheism starting wars, religion definitly. WWII? Crusades? Conflict in Israel?

      June 18, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  18. Old Soldier

    You have done an excellent job...

    June 17, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • fintastic

      Thank you! I try my best...

      June 20, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  19. purnellmeagrejr

    Americna Bible? Hooey. I have a copy of the Real Bible (Old and New Testaments) personallly autographed by God. Unfortunately it's writtten in aramaic so I can't understand a frigggin' word of it.

    June 17, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Ben

      Or in lousy Greek (The Book of Revelation)

      June 17, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  20. Atheism is a religion.Dont deny it

    Case closed!

    June 17, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • vulpecula

      I deny it.

      June 17, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • purnellmeagrejr

      mind closed!

      June 18, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • fintastic

      and not collecting stamps is a hobby.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.