America and its Iconic Bible

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
February 25, 2007

A controversy concerning the use of the Koran in Congressional oath-taking ceremonies raised the question of the Bible's place in American life. Radio host Dennis Prager laid down the gauntlet in a much publicized column when he said, “Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress.”

If the Bible is America's Holy Book, what exactly does that mean? It's true that the Bible is regularly used in a variety of public ceremonies, from swearing in of witnesses to oath-taking by public officials. It's believed that using the Bible in such a way guarantees truthfulness, although there's little evidence that such use prevents either corruption or perjury.

When we talk about the Bible as America's Holy Book, we're not talking about its content; we're talking about its symbolic status. Indeed, that's Prager's point. Therefore, since the Bible is essentially an object of veneration, we dutifully trot it out whenever we deem it appropriate. If necessary, we'll read it selectively in support of our pet projects. Take for instance the Ten Commandments: Many venerate them, but spend little time examining their meaning.

The Bible's iconic value is connected to America's mythical “Judeo-Christian” heritage, something that's apparently now under siege by pluralists and immigrants alike. Reference is often made to the nation's golden age when that heritage is assumed to have reigned supreme. However, a close reading of America's history suggests that the story is much more complicated than that. Besides, there are dark shadows that lay across our nation's religious heritage, from slavery to segregation.
Nonetheless, the Bible is often regarded as synonymous with American life. The tradition of using the Bible to take the Presidential Oath of Office dates back to George Washington, who used his Masonic Bible in that ceremony. We've had presidentially-decreed “Years of the Bible,” while speech writers pepper political speeches with biblical allusions, often taken out of context.
To give but one example: President Bush, in a speech following 9-11, said “the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.” He was referring to America, but the passage (John 1:5) refers not to our nation but to Jesus' entrance into the world. The iconic stature of the Bible, Mark Toulouse writes, “subordinates biblical values to whatever American political thought might need at the moment” (“God in Public: Four Ways American Christianity and Public Life Relate”).

Upwards of 93 percent of us own a Bible, and somewhere around 82 percent believe it to be divinely inspired. No wonder so many people embrace Creationist views. Unfortunately, there's also significant evidence that Americans know very little about the Bible's content. To give an example, in a Gallup poll only 49 percent of Americans could name the first book of the Bible (Genesis) and only 34 percent of us knew who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (It's Jesus by the way).
For the Christian, however, the Bible should be more than simply a national icon that we venerate but ignore in our daily lives. Instead, it should inform our faith and our practice as Christians. The same could be said for religious Jews as well. It should challenge us to walk with God and walk humbly and peaceably with our neighbor (Micah 6:8). And so we who wish to take the Bible seriously need to heed this reminder by Mark Toulouse:

“When the nation uses the Bible in iconic fashion, the nation honors the book as a symbol instead of taking the book seriously for its content. In this context, politicians, and even ministers and Christian social activists, can easily slip into the political misuse of the Bible's content to suit their own purposes.” (“God in Public”).

God hasn't made special covenant with the United States of America. Whatever covenants God has made transcend national boundaries.As one who finds the words of the Bible to be enriching and challenging, I believe its words must be interpreted carefully and very seriously. To do otherwise, especially if the Bible is read or used in a politicized way, could be dangerous. Therefore, I'll take my Bible seriously but not as a national icon.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (
Feb. 25, 2007


Very nice. I'm in total agreement. It's comical how the more people venerate the Bible, the less they read it. Shocking, actually, how little so called "Bible believing" Christians know of this collection of writings.

The exception being Pentecostal and Assembly of God communities where people read the Bible with a frenzied passion. A generalization of course, but one that has been generally true in my experience.

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