Published October 07, 2009
On July 4, 1776, immediately after passing the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress asked Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams to design a seal for the new United States. Six weeks later they made their recommendation: Moses, leading the Israelites across the Red Sea.
Three of the five drafters of the Declaration of Independence and three of the defining faces of the Revolution proposed that Moses be the face of the United States of America. In their eyes, Moses was our true founding father.
Four years ago I set out to look at the role of Moses in American life. I sailed on Plymouth Harbor where the Pilgrims compared their journey to Moses; I climbed the tower of Independence Hall where the Liberty Bell was inscribed with a quote from Moses; I retraced the Underground Railroad where “Go Down, Moses” was the national anthem of slaves; and I donned the robe Charlton Heston wore in "The Ten Commandments."
One discovery surprised me most of all and reshaped my views of the culture wars of today: Moses has been more important to American history than Jesus.
Of course, Jesus was influential in American life. The United States at its founding was 100 percent Christian and is 75 percent Christian today. But as important as Jesus was to Americans’ private lives, he had far less influence than Moses on the great transformations of our public life. The themes of Jesus’ life – love, charity, alleviating poverty – would not make the list of the defining impulses of most Americans.
The themes of Moses’ life, by contrast – social mobility, standing up to authority, balancing freedom and law, dreaming of a promised land – would make any short list of America’s defining traits.
Moses was surely more important to the Puritans than Jesus. On The Mayflower, the Pilgrims carried Bibles emblazoned with Moses; they called King James their "pharaoh;" and they proclaimed their mission to be as vital as “Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.”
Moses was more important during the Revolution, too. Thomas Paine called King George the “hardened, sullen-tempered pharaoh;” Benjamin Franklin used Moses to help pass the Constitution; and George Washington was called “America’s Moses” for leading a beleaguered band of Colonists against the superpower of the day. When he died, two-thirds of the eulogies compared the “first conductor of the Jewish nation” to the “leader and father of the American nation.”
And Moses was more important during the Civil War. Slaves and Abolitionists rallied around Moses because he offered a precedent for escaping bondage; Harriet Tubman was so successful at freeing slaves she was called “the Moses of her people.” Southerners, meanwhile, invoked the story, too, noting that Moses invited slaves to the first Passover.
It took America’s most Bible-quoting president to unite the country. Abraham Lincoln quoted the Exodus at Gettysburg, and, even though he was shot on Good Friday, Lincoln was more often compared to Moses on his death. Eulogizers cited his freeing of the slaves and the fact that, like Moses, he died short of the Promised Land.
Not just American political events were shaped by Moses; American cultural figures were, too. The Statue of Liberty drew inspiration from the biblical prophet. The spikes of light around Lady Liberty’s head and the tablet in her arms come from the moment when Moses comes down Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Superman’s backstory also comes from the superhero of the Torah. Both figures were born to a people facing annihilation, floated to safety in a small vessel, then picked up and raised by strangers, before being summoned to save humanity. Even Superman’s original name, Kal-El, is Hebrew for “swift God.”
But it was Cecil B. DeMille who turned Moses into a hero of the Cold War. At the start of "The Ten Commandments," which was released this week in 1956 and went on to become the fifth-highest-grossing film of all time, DeMille appeared on screen to tell viewers the movie was about freedom versus communism. And at the end of the film, Charlton Heston quotes the words of Moses on the Liberty Bell and mimics the pose of the Statue of Liberty.
As historian Allen Guelzo told me, “The story of Jesus is extremely important. What is surprising is how persistently important the story of Moses remains.
The answer, I believe, is that Moses represents the courage to leave oppression and create a better world. He embodies the American juggling act between freedom and law. And he encapsulates the desire to built a society that uplifts the downtrodden and nurtures the outsider.
For years, the culture wars have debated whether America is a Christian country. That debate misses the point. It was white male Protestants who introduced Moses into the American narrative, and his presence made it easier for blacks, Jews and women to eventually integrate into American society. Precisely because he was invoked by left and right, Republican and Democrat, Jew and Christian, Moses may be the one cultural figure who can remind Americans of our common heritage and help restore a national conversation in how we can become a “promised land” once again.