Moses on the Mayflower: Was the Prophet a Founding Father?

Americas Prophet:
Moses and the American Story

by Bruce Feiler
(William Morrow, 2009)

Bestselling author Bruce Feiler is best known for Walking the Bible, a book (and a spectacularly successful PBS special) in which he traverses the Middle East by “foot, jeep, rowboat, and camel,” looking for a deeper understanding of the biblical roots of our culture—as well as 2002’s Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, a one-man effort to weave reconciliation among the three Abrahamic faith traditions.

Now, ditching Abraham for Moses, Feiler has moved from a global canvas to a national one, believing that the “front line” of the battle is back home. In his new book Americas Prophet: Moses and the American Story Feiler wades into the religiously charged culture wars to promote Moses and the biblical story of Exodus as the unifying narrative for American identity and values. Although he uncovers fascinating tidbits along the way, and highlights some of the often overlooked ingredients in American political life, his overall recipe doesn’t add up.

The Lost Symbol

Following in the mold of his earlier books, Feiler’s newest is a travelogue that mixes pilgrimages to sites, conversations with the keepers of the flame, interviews with leading figures and scholars, and personal reflection. He sets out on a midnight trek on the former underground railway, tries on Charlton Heston’s Moses costume from the 1950s blockbuster The Ten Commandments, and even reports on a private meeting with George W. Bush in the White House. 

In a nutshell, Feiler claims that “Moses is our real founding father.” For Feiler, as for others engaged in the battles to refigure national identity and purpose, this is historical claim is deeply intertwined with a broader normative agenda. He frames his work as a discovery tour, an unearthing of long forgotten facts that leads to the aha! experience: that moment when the true and coherent story of America and its core identity is revealed. In the dramatic hype of his publicist, we are led to believe the book is like a Dan Brown thriller replete with “revelations that would make Robert Langdon gasp.”

On what is billed as his “10,000-mile quest to uncover the real secrets of America’s greatest treasures,” Feiler keeps bumping into references and symbols associated with Moses and the Exodus story. Spanning the generations, from the Pilgrims to our most recently elected president, Americans have found in the biblical story of the Exodus a template and inspiration for their shared life. Along the way he narrates some of the best known examples—such as Martin Luther King’s invocation of the promised land—and the lesser known, such as the many eulogies of Washington as the American Moses, and the proposal by Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams that Moses be on the official seal.

As Feiler makes clear, there are multiple strands of the Exodus story, and Moses is several characters in one. Although perhaps most identified with his role as liberator of his people from slavery, Moses was also God’s lawgiver. The tension and dynamic between liberty and order, freedom and law, that animates the biblical Exodus narrative is for Feiler at the heart of American democracy. It is a story that is variously invoked, at times inspiring rhetorics of freedom and transformation and at times rhetorics of law and control. Whichever dominates an era, the other’s shadow and influence are not far behind. The dynamics of this pattern, and the vision and values that it sustains, constitute the heart of the American story. For this reason, and for the “depth, breadth, and intensity of America’s attachment to the Exodus,” Feiler concludes that Moses is our “true founding father.”

Moses as Action Figure 

Feiler brings into focus a critical strand in the tangled intersections of religion, politics and American identity. In so doing, he effectively counters a misleading version of secularism that imagines that religion is an entirely private affair in American life—or has been until the rise of the religious right. The ready appeal to the proverbial wall of separation between church and state has blinded us to the fusions and collusions of religion and politics in American history. These alliances, far from being always counter-progressive, have produced some of the most transformative movements in our history. The Hebrew Bible, including its accents on freedom, law, covenant, and chosenness, has left a deep imprint on the American story. This isn’t religion as merely personal piety and otherworldy salvation but a politico-religious blend typically flying under a secular banner.

The problem though is that Feiler is using a zoom lens that leaves out a fuller picture of the intersections of religion, politics, and the American story. He lifts up Moses and the Exodus thread as if that can be isolated and insulated from other Enlightenment and humanist traditions through which it is appropriated, fused, and transformed in the American context. His is a highly selective historical portrait, and while it does expose the limitations of overly secularist accounts, it suffers from its own distortions. The challenge is making room for the more kaleidoscopic interactions of religious and secular traditions in American life.

Feiler’s constructive proposal—that Moses might serve as a unifying symbol in these conflicted times— is a non-starter. Moses? This biblical prophet doesn’t resonate widely in 21st-century America, let alone serve as a bridge across our cultural divides. Some will surely take his project to mean we need to place replicas of the Ten Commandments in all our courtrooms and classrooms. Or that elementary schools should stage plays enacting the story of the Exodus. Feiler doesn’t go that route—though we can assume many readers will. His takeaway concerns the critical importance of inhabiting a narrative of hope, justice, and social transformation, and the imperative to act.

Feiler’s selective interpretation of the American story parallels his selective interpretation of the Exodus story. He sidebars the more troubling dimensions of the biblical narrative. He glides past the dangers inherent in the sacralization and absolutization of law and politics. He merely gestures to the ways in which the idea of God’s chosen people morphs into the idea of American exceptionalism—at times underwriting American imperialistic tendencies.

Feiler’s now-formulaic promotion of a biblical figure to resolve conflicts at the intersections of religion and politics may be a successful recipe for book sales. But one wishes that Feiler would use his literary gifts to tell a more complicated story of the interweaving of religion and politics in American life, past and present.

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