Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Founding Father

America’s patron saint isn’t Washington or Lincoln, a new book argues—it’s Moses

Jenna Weissman Joselit
November 05, 2009

For more than a century, Moses has exercised the American imagination. The stuff of biography and fiction as well as advertisements, he figured in one late 19th-century sermon as a Greek god, but better; in Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountains, he was a voodoo priest, and in the Metropolitan Casualty Life Insurance Company’s pamphlet Moses, Persuader of Men, he was dubbed “one of the greatest salesmen…that ever lived.” Clearly, there’s something about Moses that speaks loudly and persistently to an American audience. Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet, a sweeping survey of Moses’ recurring role in American history, is no exception. The most recent in a very long line of books to take the measure of the ancient biblical figure, Feiler’s Moses is the quintessential American hero, right up there with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Better yet, he’s close kin to Zelig, Woody Allen’s cinematic creation who pops up just about everywhere. And so it is with Feiler’s Moses who is sighted on Clark’s Island in New England, in the belfry that houses the Liberty Bell, at the Statue of Liberty, along the hidden byways of the Underground Railroad, and in George W. Bush’s White House.

Equally wide-ranging and diverse are the Americans for whom Moses was a household name and a moral touchstone. In their darkest days, the Pilgrims sought comfort by reading about Moses’ tribulations, Feiler tells us, as did the founding fathers for whom the “reluctant leader of Israelite slaves end[s] up as the favorite son.” An affection for Moses also ran in families: Henry Ward Beecher and his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe were quite smitten with him. But then, so, too, were Cecil B. DeMille and Martin Luther King Jr. Feiler’s inventory of Moses’ fans and champions is so encompassing and expansive, you have to wonder whether there was anyone at all in America who did not cotton to the man.

Drawing on dozens of vignettes, the author goes further still, insisting that there’s hardly an American institution that has not been touched by Moses’ staff. Feiler is so taken with his subject, in fact, that he is moved to write in one of the book’s most eye-opening sentences that “Moses is our true founding father. His face belongs on Mount Rushmore.”

In his exuberant telling of Moses’ popularity and far-reaching impact on virtually every nook and cranny of American life, Feiler can’t help sounding a little like the author of The Da Vinci Code. He moves at breakneck speed and peppers his prose with lots of “aha”s. Cycling quickly through broad swaths of time and complex historical phenomena as if they were stops along the Tour de France, Feiler dispatches George Washington’s putative relationship with Moses, say, in a brisk couple of pages before moving on to something else entirely. His account accumulates encounters, quotes, and choice details, overwhelming the reader with a mountain of information.

And yet, there’s nary a footnote in sight. Instead, the book’s authority rests largely on Feiler himself. He puts his quest for Moses the American at the center of the narrative, seeking out thinkers like Peter Gomes, Jonathan Sarna, and Michael Walzer for tête-à-têtes about the biblical character’s impact on America; visiting museum curators; donning the costume that Charlton Heston wore when he played Moses in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments; and even meeting with George W. Bush in the White House for a chat about Moses’ impact on the presidency.

After making my way through America’s Prophet, I don’t doubt that America—then, as now—found the Israelite leader to be a most congenial fellow, bending him to its own political, rhetorical, and symbolic uses. But the Moses who inhabits these pages ends up being so protean and malleable a figure that it’s hard to figure out where he begins and America ends. Feiler’s unabashed celebration of his subject, whom he likens at one point to a “kind of American Hamlet,” leaves little room for nuance, equivocation, and the sifting of sources. The hundreds of references to and perspectives on the man that animate the book end up sounding the same note: three cheers for Moses. The net effect is to flatten rather than clarify his appeal.

In the end, Feiler is so busy trumpeting America’s affinity for the biblical figure that you are left to wonder what the affinity actually proves. What does it say about this great big republic of ours that so many of its leaders made use of Moses and the Exodus story for their own ends—as a call to arms, a rallying point, a cautionary tale? Why did the United States clasp Moses to its bosom when so many other God-fearing nations did not? Where are we to draw the line between religion and politics or, for that matter, between religion and the public square? By the time we put down America’s Prophet, we’re none the wiser. But we sure can cite chapter and verse.

Jenna Weissman Joselit is a professor of Judaic studies and history at George Washington University. She is currently at work on a book about America’s relationship to the Ten Commandments.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.