Robert Wright’s BloggingHeadsTV is often the best place on the Web for highly intelligent conversation about politics and culture. Particularly excellent is a new episode, posted today, in which Wright interviews Bruce Feiler, author of the new book America’s Prophet, Moses and the American Story. Wright is a scholar of the history of religions, so the conversation is thoughtful, challenging, and enlightening. Wright finds himself astonished, by Feiler’s thesis, but admits that upon reading the evidence, it is irrefutable. As the book’s promotional material states:
The Exodus story is America’s story. Moses is our real founding father. The pilgrims quoted his story. Franklin and Jefferson proposed he appear on the U.S. seal. Washington and Lincoln were called his incarnations. The Statue of Liberty and Superman were molded in his image. Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked him the night before he died. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama cited him as inspiration. For four hundred years, one figure inspired more Americans than any other. His name is Moses.
I will say that Feiler’s thesis is not at all startling to some of us who have studied religious rhetoric in American history. As when in 1858 Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, one of the founders of Reform Judaism in America, declared that the American Independence Day was a second Passover: “the fourth of July tells us the glorious story of the second redemption of mankind from the hands of their oppressors, the second interposition of Providence in behalf of liberty, the second era of the redemption of mankind, the second triumph of right over might, justice over arbitrary despotism, personal and legal liberty over the power of the strongest and most warlike.”
When Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were chosen by the Continental Congress in 1776 to design a Seal of the United States, both proposed an image of the Exodus. Adams described the picture: “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
Second Amendment advocates had no trouble seeing the connection between the iconic images of Moses parting the Red Sea (in the film The Ten Commandments) with an upraised staff, and NRA President Charlton Heston proclaiming liberty throughout the land while holding high the Kentucky Rifle. Regardless of whether a viewer is inspired or annoyed by the juxtaposition, it’s another example of how, even in the 21st century, the story of Moses and the Exodus continues to play an important role in American public life.