July 3rd, 2012
09:20 AM ET

My Take: Library of Congress's 'books that shaped America' list plays down religion

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

When I first saw the Library of Congress' new list of the 88 “Books That Shaped America,” it looked to me like it was drawn up by the professors who taught me American studies in the 1970s and 1980s.

Unlike E.D. Hirsch’s book "Cultural Literacy," which emphasized the work of dead white men, the Library of Congress' list is admirably inclusive. It includes books by or about various “outsider” groups, from native Americans to gays and lesbians. It attends to the problem of class via Jacob Riis’ "How the Other Half Lives" (not to mention F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby," which is also about class).

It also tips its cap to the environmental movement (Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”), the feminist movement (“Our Bodies, Ourselves”) and the sexual revolution (Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the American Male”).

Moreover, African-Americans are actually over-represented here. Of the 88 books, roughly a dozen are by African-Americans, and another half-dozen or so are about them.

The Library of Congress list also includes lowbrow literature alongside the serious novels you might find in the "Harvard Classics" anthology, most notably children’s books from “The Cat in the Hat” and “Goodnight Moon” to “Little Women” and “Where the Wild Things Are.”

But this list also seems to have the same blind spot that many of my American studies professors had: religion.

Of all the books that shaped the United States, the Bible surely had the most impact. No book has sold more copies here or influenced more Americans more profoundly. But perhaps this book lost out on a technicality: the desire of the Library of Congress to restrict itself to books by Americans.

If so, where are the words of America’s ministers and theologians? Time magazine, another mover and shaper of American culture, has featured dozens of Catholics on its cover, as well as Russian and Greek Orthodox clerics, Mormon and Jewish leaders, the Maharishi (of Transcendental Meditation fame), the Dalai Lama and preachers from Billy Graham and Reinhold Niebuhr to Martin Luther King Jr. and Jerry Falwell.

But these voices are curiously absent from the Library of Congress list, which devotes more space to scientists and science (Carl Sagan, anyone?) than to preachers and religion.

To be fair, the Library of Congress list is by no means absent of religious voices. Two of its autobiographical works, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," are shot through with religion, as is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, "Uncle Tom’s Cabin."

A slave spiritual starts each chapter in W.E.B. DuBois’ "Souls of Black Folk," which also includes a chapter on the history of the black church and appears on the new list. Two early schoolbooks, "A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible" and "The New England Primer," which do nearly as much preaching as educating, also make the cut. And "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau is the mother of today's “spiritual but not religious” bestsellers.

Nonetheless, to read the Library of Congress list is to be presented with an America that produces lots of great novels and good science but is largely indifferent even to bad religion. And that just isn’t the America in which we live. To put it another way, this list is providing more fodder for those on the religious right who believe that elites in the academy are tone-deaf to questions of faith and belief.

In my own effort at canon-making, "The American Bible," I included a number of books that also made the cut at the Library of Congress: Twain’s "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged," Thomas Paine’s "Common Sense" and Noah Webster’s "Grammatical Institute of the English Language" (more popularly known as the "Blue-Backed Speller"), along with "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

In my case, however, I made room not only for books but also for speeches, sermons, letters, essays, songs and even a memorial (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Lin).

If I had restricted myself to books, I would have added at least two of the classics tapped by the Library of Congress: John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel "The Grapes of Wrath" and Betty Freidan’s feminst classic "The Feminine Mystique." But I would have found a way to work in some ministers and theologians, too.

More than any other thinker, 20th-century Christian theologian Niebuhr has shaped the worldview of Barack Obama. Surely Niebuhr deserves a place here, as does King, who also had something to do with the election of America's first black president.

And while we are at it, how about the Book of Mormon? Surely that book, America’s most influential homegrown scripture, played a major role in shaping the man who would be America’s first Mormon president, Mitt Romney.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Bible • Books • History • Mormonism • Opinion • United States

soundoff (217 Responses)
  1. Science

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    Where do morals come from?

    By Kelly Murray, CNN


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    For what...................... ? Make sure to read what the pope said !

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    Learning is fun with facts.......................... and facts work when teaching children.

    Atheist Prof. Peter Higgs: Stop calling Higgs boson the ‘God particle’

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    The ORIGIN story is bullsh-it...............so is the bible............... nasty !

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    Human Evolution


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    BACKFILL on E =mc2.....

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    Decades before atheist scientist and author Richard Dawkins called God a "delusion," one world-renowned physicist – Albert Einstein – was weighing in on faith matters with his own strong words.

    “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends,” Einstein wrote in German in a 1954 letter that will be auctioned on eBay later this month. "No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”


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    Cheech & Chong's History of 420


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    The fact...............the earth is to old ...........time to EVOLVE !.

    Ancient Earth Crust Stored in Deep Mantle

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    May 5, 2013 at 9:18 am |
  2. Shiby

    Wow...this guy gets worse and worse. Which is more shamfull, making a plug for your own book...again, or trying to get a disgusting book of fiction pushed into the general public...again. Face it, science is in the list because it has actaully helped America. The bible is what continues to hold America behind. CNN needs a new religion writter.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • PAUL

      Why Why:


      July 18, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • old lady


      July 22, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  3. Mac B

    It's a list of books written by Americans. If the list was suddenly opened up to everything else in the world there would be many many books written around the world that would have to be on the list. What he's really upset about is that his book didn't make the list and he also gets a chance to toot his horn and drum up sales.

    July 15, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  4. Severinus

    I think the idea was to list books that had a positive impact on American society. Of course the Bible has had an impact all right. It justified and prolonged slavery, delayed Gay rights, delayed civil rights generally, justified not allowing women to vote – the list goes on, but none of it is positive.

    July 14, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Gosseyn

      Apparently Severinus never heard of the Northern abolitionists and their religious arguments opposing slavery, e.g., The Lord siding with freedom for the slaves (the people of Israel) against the the Egyptians, the admonition of Jesus of Nazareth to "do unto others and you would have them do unto you," and so on.

      July 15, 2012 at 2:24 am |
    • Shuazaki

      Religion is a tool when used in politics and swings both ways. For good and for evil.

      July 17, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Violet Weed

      Jesus Christ did not even suggest women should not be involved in the world, including leadership roles and voting. You are mistaken. As for this writer, you are correct, he's not very good, but be gentle with him. He doesn't know that, because he is a 'professor' with a lot of young, unformed 'fans' (aka 'college students') admiring him so it's understandable he thinks he's good at what he does. It just so happens that I have had leadership roles for decades now and thus I think I tell 'great jokes' because so many subordinates laugh at them. duh.

      July 25, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  5. pat

    We run our country based on reason, not religion. We're more influfenced by Plato than the bible.

    July 13, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Arvoasitis

      From the bible to Plato; talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Plato was thoroughly undemocratic, in fact a propagandist for the "thirty tyrants" that ruled Athens after Athenian democracy collapsed after a bloody war (of which too much of our scholarly thinking is still collateral damage). Not that Plato hated democracy, he just believed it deserved its demise. Surrounded by a near perfect storm of catastrophes, Plato escaped the material world into an abstract world of perfection, into a world of ideas. Under his influence, the philosophers, theologians and even politicians (many of whom have studied Plato) dwell in an abstract world and neglect the real world they, and we, inhabit.

      July 13, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • northern light

      @ Pat

      There is no excuse for not including a lot of religious literature in the collection. They just need to file it where it belongs.
      ....on the shelf reserved for.......fiction ....along with the fairy tales.

      July 14, 2012 at 7:30 am |
  6. JohnnyC

    Stephen, I read your book, "God is Not One" and got a fairly creepy feeling from it. I find your work on "religion" to be very peculiar since you have defined yourself as "religiously confused." I am cynical enough now to believe most people commenting for mainstream media sources in America are hired specifically to promote confusion, to weaken faith, and to subvert the truth. On the off-chance you are not an operative of some sort, I respectfully invite you to start attending Catholic Mass - in particular the Tridentine Mass - on a regular basis, and to pray a Novena for guidance. You should not remain like Santayana, forever "standing at the Church door." Authentic practice of the authentic Catholic Faith will lead you to God and to your salvation, which ultimately much more important than musing about religion and culture while remaining unable to reconcile your soul with God. This gentle and respectful invitation, again, is offered on the off-chance that you are not a paid-for operative working on behalf of the Enemy. In that event, may you be richly exposed.

    July 11, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • PAUL


      July 11, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  7. Brian Taylor

    Dear Mr. Prothero: Thank God there are no books about religion, or by noted theologians among the 88. The United State is still a primarily secular society. With the religious right (evangelical christianity) wanting their orientation to be America's guiding principle, it is down right reassuring that the 88 under represent religion.

    July 11, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  8. solidox

    Dear CNN: Please stop clogging your network and site with such useless non-articles.

    July 11, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  9. susanvmayer

    If Dr. Prothero would have actually read the site with the list, he would have noticed this quote from Librarian of Congress James H. Billington:

    "It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”

    The Bible was not written by Americans.

    But his point is taken. I would add Jane Jacobs' "Life and Death of Great American Cities."

    July 11, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • pat

      You tell him!

      July 13, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  10. Jon

    No religious books are included because there is no one religious group which shaped america. Yes, america has been deeply religious, but their deep religiosity has always had great variety (other than the use of the word `God'). One of *the* most characteristic elements of America is precisely this variety. To choose any one book from any one religious group and say that it "shaped america" would immediately cause a majority to say "it didn't shape my america." America as such has nothing to do with one religious group. Even if you want to argue "protestant christianity" dominated America at certain times, that is still waaay too diverse a group to pick any one American book to represent even most of them in even a broad sense.

    July 11, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • sam

      clearly you havent heard of the pioneers who came from britain in the early days and built everything from scratch...they were christians and had their faith and principles in all that they did...and that tradition continued with their generations...and that is really the reason why such a young country like the USA became a super power...because God blessed them...but the last few decades america has turned its back on God and so its missing the blessing...be it economically plolitically,in schools....etc...unless america returns to its roots....the future looks grim....

      July 17, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  11. kro513

    I jerked off all over a bible and Koran the other night. It was hot!

    July 11, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  12. Smiler

    When Mr. Prothero says "the man who would be America’s first Mormon president, Mitt Romney" he is using the word "would" in an idiomatic way. It's like saying the man who could be or wants to be president. Ever heard of the story/movie called The Man Who Would Be King? Oh, I just Googled it and "would be" comes up with the definition "1.hoping to do or be something: desiring or aspiring to do or be something
    2.person aspiring to something.......(etc)" I just wanted to share that.

    July 10, 2012 at 7:03 pm |

    Signs: your energy and time $ always lost. Each everything politics I am not
    Politician we politics analyzer
    Dear gentleman APR 19 2012
    Please Avoid WAR so many people suffer public
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    Many people wounded for military troops mort hen 98 000
    Each every body leaving 60 to 80 year life only
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    CNN WORLD report, in the war 6, 75,000 civilians killed, 7500 troops of USA and its allied forces killed 3 25 000 people wounded and $ 3.5 Trillion Dollar spent for the war. This spending of $ 3.5 Trillion Dollar is the main cause of action for the present economic crises prevailing all over the world.
    After winning the war against IRAQ, the United States of America’s President Mr. George W.Bush, also admitted the same fact, and he openly stated that the Intelligence agency misguided him.
    Later on, even the United Nations Organization (UNO) also certified that the IRAQ has no nuclear weapons.

    m.s.mohamed ansari

    International chamber of commerce life member
    World peace prayer society life member
    USA parliament org economic adviser

    July 10, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • northern light

      @ m.s.mohamed ansari

      "World peace prayer society life member"

      This organization needs to work a lot harder....Mr Assad cannot seem to hear your gods voice in Syria....that is most likely because your god does not exist and you and the "prayer society" are wasting your time.

      July 14, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  14. xinechan

    The final sentence is flawed. Mitt is the first Mormon presidential CANDIDATE. As I understand it the American people plan to hold the election in November. Rewrite your ending or pull your article and wait for Mitt to win.

    July 10, 2012 at 12:27 am |
  15. Howard B. Hassman

    Yes, Martin Niebuhr: "First they came for...." Indeed, Steve, our fundamentalist brethren (which Niebuhr was not) would take over the government if they could, while accusing the state of interfering with their affairs (e.g., worship in public schools). G-d help us all.... HH

    July 9, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  16. Robert

    It's not included because as mythology it isn't considered literature.

    July 9, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  17. AGuest9

    Top library shorts religion? It's about time!

    July 8, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  18. Michael J. Sazy

    Dear Melinda, I am responding to your wonderful program and gutsy response to the bishops and popes to give my humble opinion. First, let me say I was a priest for 29 years and a seminarian for 12 yrs. Retired from the priesthood as a prison chaplain and military chaplain. At any rate I agree with you and want you to know that we are not in sin or believing something that is contrary to de fide teaching. Nothing iin the moral area of church teaching and I mean NOTHING is defined de fide in the moral area. You do have to consider the Pope"s advice a serious lean or sentencia certa toward the more right thing to do and Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae did spell it out . I am surprised that not one bishop has come out and said this. I will say that in his book "IN GOD's NAME" Mr. David Yallop has said that Pope John Paul I was going to change the teaching on birth contro since he believed that it would be better than having children born to only starve to death in Africa and elsewhere. It was one of the reasons he was apparently targeted to be killed according to the book - laundering money in the Vatican bank was the other reason he alluded to for the murder. This was also mentioned in the book "The Vatican Exposed" by Paul L. Williams. For what it's worth I am sincerely yours, Michael J.Sazy

    July 7, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  19. clubschadenfreude

    poor Stephen. As soon as a library doesn't pander to his religion, it's not giving it enough play. Sorry, Stephen but the US was not based on Christianity or any other religion. Christians can't even agree on what they actually think their god "really wants". If we include every Christian attempt to claim that their religion is the *bestest*, all attempts to make myths seem more real, there will be no room for books that really matter. Including the bible, well, which out of the hundreds of "really truly what God meant" versions do we have? What selection of apologetical nonsense do we keep?

    July 6, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  20. Rob

    Maybe the bible wasn't on the list because they wanted to limit works of fiction?

    July 6, 2012 at 2:37 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.