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.


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)


The Constitution (1787)

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Roe v. Wade (1973)


Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" (1852)

Mark Twain, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884)

Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged" (1957)


Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner” (1814)

Irving Berlin, “God Bless America” (1938)

Woody Guthrie, “This Land Is Your Land” (1940)


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)


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)


Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (1863)

Maya Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982)


Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address (1801)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address (1933)

Ronald Reagan, “The Speech” (1964)


The Pledge of Allegiance (1892, 1954)


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. shep

    what do I want to see in the American Bible?? A big picture of Mitt Romney that says this is the false prophet I warned you about.

    June 25, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  2. kindness

    I Follow Christ . I never wanted proof. I just had faith.

    HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord (John 8:12). By these words
    of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and
    free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus
    The teaching of Christ is more excellent than all the advice of the saints, and he who
    has His spirit will find in it a hidden manna. Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often
    but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ. Yet whoever wishes to understand
    fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

    What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you
    displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous
    life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it.
    For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the
    philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity,
    except to love God and serve Him alone.

    This is the greatest wisdom—to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the
    world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court
    honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire
    things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and
    to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and
    not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not
    to look ahead where eternal joy abides.
    Often recall the proverb: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with
    hearing.”1 Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring
    yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences
    and lose the grace of God.

    See for yourself.

    June 25, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Frank

      "I Follow Christ . I never wanted proof. I just had faith."

      Lol...you didn't just say that! I hope that is sarcasm.

      June 25, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  3. derp

    ust staple a bunch of fast food menus to a regular bible and you have the American bible.

    June 25, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  4. Kindness

    This is my experience... Thank you.

    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 25, 2012 at 1:10 am |
  5. elias godinez

    JESUSCHRIST is the PRINCE OF PEACE, He never prompted to their apostls to war or guerrillas, the apostls are the light of this world in order of the stableshment of a new one, in justice, harmony, love. If there are evildoers is to note the diference the judge day and is coming soon, amen.

    June 24, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  6. gsaners

    A POLITICAL CONUNDRUM (What's wrong with our 2-party system of government ever since George Warned against it in his "Farewell Address" in 1796):

    Problem: “What’s the best way for a group of people to make a collective decision?”


    You’re part of a large group who want to go to a restaurant together. The three options are
    Chinese food, seafood, and pizza. Half the group loves Chinese food but hates seafood;
    the other half loves seafood but hates Chinese food. Everyone, however, likes pizza.
    Where should you go?


    What's the obvious best selection for where the group goes?...and what simple voting method will select this? [Hint: it's not OUR voting method, nor the one used in Egypt...nor used ANYWHERE in the Free World]


    June 24, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • gsaners

      minor correction -> "...GEORGE WASHINGTON warned against it..."

      June 24, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  7. chief

    i guess the takeover of the land and basic etermination of the Amrican Indians is in that part of genesis where the nephalim came down and no one wants to talk about it

    June 24, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  8. Seyedibar

    American bible?? How about Pecos Bill? or Paul Bunyan? Paul Bunyan > Jesus.

    June 24, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  9. Mark

    God is love. No one word could describe Him better.

    June 24, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Seyedibar

      i have a better one... "figment".

      June 24, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Frank

      The one word you are looking for is "fictitious".

      June 25, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  10. Happy and I know it.

    No book, no written paper or person can validate your own personal experience on the matter of your own power and understanding. The true validation is in your existence itself and at once knowing thy true self inside and out. Anything else is just puddling mud at waters edge.

    June 24, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  11. Toma Joel

    Thus says The Lord concerning that which is obvious, a warning made plain, which shall go greatly unheeded by those with veiled heads: This is but the first of many things, which men in the churches have built up in their pride, that shall be struck!...

    For they build themselves up for show, a false goodness...

    Foolish servants, who forsake the poor and the needy,
    In favor of the praises of men...

    FALSE GLORY! Says The Lord in His jealousy.

    For their works are perverse in My sight, and their words contemptible. Therefore, because they have robbed Me, I will rob them. I will tear them in pieces, with every foundation collapsing... No wall shall be left standing... And they shall become as those, whom they have forsaken. And they shall no more preach from their finely-crafted pulpits, standing tall among all their expensive ornaments, broadcasting lies with all their purchased devices.

    I am The Lord!...

    I will not share My glory!...

    Neither shall they pollute My name, anymore!

    Behold, all these great churches of men,
    Who have accomplished great gain in the world,
    Shall become the offscouring among the nations...

    Says The Lord.


    June 24, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  12. Big Fish

    What should be in the book: it should codify current practice...how to placate and worship the Jews.

    June 24, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  13. old golfer

    Gee, you left out the best book from a very great American, Thomas Paine and his book, AGE OF REASON.

    June 23, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
  14. Follower of Christ

    I want to find the person who made up the story about Jesus. Because of that person Jesus's name is the most powerful name in the world. Because of that person me and billions of people put our faith in Jesus and would happliy die for Him. Because of that person more songs are inspired by Jesus than any other person. Because of that person Jesus is hands down the most powerful figure known to man. Why oh why did someone make all of this stuff up why. All of this happiness and joy in me is all a lie. Everything was formed and perfectly put together by expolsions and expansions. The unique human race started from monkeys. We were all born for no apparent reason, life is a big coinsidence. WHYYYYYYYYYY.... I cant even keep this going non-believers lol this is how foolish you guys sound when you deny God. Actually worse

    June 23, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Arvoasitis

      Billions of people would happily die for Jesus? When the Muslims were spreading Islam with the aid of the sword, they found that most Christians were willing to convert rather than die. The problem was that the minority of leaders they most wanted to convert were willing to die instead. I think most Christians would prefer to live, rather than die, for Christ.

      June 23, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • keep on believin'

      Christianity is based on nothing more than a collection of Bronze and Iron Age Middle Eastern mythology, much of it discredited, that was cobbled together into a book called the “Bible” by people we know virtually nothing about, before the Dark Ages. The stories of Christianity are not even original. They are borrowed directly from earlier mythology from the Middle East. Genesis and Exodus, for example, are clearly based on earlier Babylonian myths such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Jesus story itself is straight from the stories about Apollonius of Tyana, Horus and Dionysus (including virgin birth, the three wise men, the star in the East, birth at the Winter solstice, a baptism by another prophet, turning water into wine, crucifixion and rising from the dead).

      June 25, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Frank

      You sound like someone who would gladly fly a 747 Jet into a sky scraper.

      June 25, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  15. bjoseph

    This does not sound like a "bible." This sounds like a commentary on what we should do, study or know about our country. How does this compare to the bible? Perhaps some of the information you shared should be taught in our classes in school because I see children who know nothing about our history.

    June 23, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  16. Bob Dobbs

    How about something that American's truly believe in...they need a whole chapter on Money.
    As for "Prophets," Add Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle."

    June 23, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  17. Fronk

    Now another piece of propaganda to make the people subservient. I Will be OBEDIENT now. and PAY HIGHER TAXES. AND WILL LET ANYONE STORM MY HOUSE FOR NO REASON. Yep, the land of the free. Yep, we really have needed another set of man made rules based on opinion and inuendo.

    June 23, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  18. darth immaculate

    i was hoping for a chevy chase christmas vacation speech in there somewhere

    June 23, 2012 at 7:05 am |
  19. opinionguru


    June 22, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  20. briangottesman

    It says in the Old Testament Deuteronomy 13.6-8:
    13:6 If anyone secretly entices you–even if it is your brother, your father's son or your mother's son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend–saying, "Let us go worship other gods," whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, 13:7 any of the gods of the peoples that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, 13:8 you must not yield to or heed any such person.
    I’d like to use this passage as an argument against the Holy Trinity. The argument is that the Holy Trinity is technically another God since it does not have the same attributes as the Old Testament God. Taken from http://amateurlyinsightful.blogspot.com/

    June 22, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • Paul Z

      Don't understand how that relates to the post.
      That being said, I think the author did a good job in representing the varying view points that are part of the American experience. While the history of this country was most heavily influenced (at least officially) by white males, I applaud the author for including voices beyond this narrow spectrum to show the significant contributions of other groups. I like your 'canon'.

      June 23, 2012 at 12:44 am |
    • Arvoasitis

      Ditto on relevance, but I have heard a professor of theology argue that Jesus is a god of war because He is also YHWH, whom the Bible states is a god of war. There is, of course, no scriptural basis for the Trinity, but the Trinity is safe from your argument.

      June 23, 2012 at 9:17 am |
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