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Moses has finally made it to the White House.
On August 15, 1620 – nearly 400 years ago this week – the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower from Southhampton with 102 passengers on board. Their leader, John Robinson, described them as the chosen people, casting off the yoke of their pharaoh, King James. William Bradford, their first governor, proclaimed their mission to be as vital as that of “Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.”
“The leader of a people in a wilderness had need be a Moses,” Cotton Mather said. “And if a Moses had not led the people of Plymouth Colony,” he wrote of Bradford, then the colony would not have survived.
Yesterday, August 12, 2009, Barack Obama stood up in the East Room of the White House and awarded Presidential Medals of Freedom to a group of diverse leaders that included Harvey Milk, who was called the “Moses of his people.”
Obama made the connection to the Bible’s greatest story explicit in awarding the nation’s highest honor to civil rights pioneer Joseph Lowery. “Preaching in his blood,” Obama said, “the Reverend Joseph Lowery is a giant of the Moses generation of civil rights leaders.” The president went on to quote the Rev. Lowery in words that would have made Moses proud: “There’s good crazy and there’s bad crazy — and sometimes you need a little bit of that good crazy to make the world a better place.”
All the Moseses in American life – from William Bradford to Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King, Jr. – had a bit of that good crazy. Including most of the occupants of the White House.
Obama is not the first president to make the connection between the American spirit and the story of Moses. George Washington compared the American Revolution to the Exodus; Thomas Jefferson quoted Moses in his second inaugural. Jefferson, along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, proposed that Moses be on the seal of the United States.
Two-thirds of the sermons on Washington’s death compared him to Moses, as did the same number for Lincoln. Wilson was compared to Moses for his leadership during World War I, as was FDR during World War II. Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush all invoked the biblical leader. And, of course, Barack Obama claimed to be part of the “Joshua Generation” that would take the work of the “Moses Generation” and finally lead his people to the Promised Land.
This week, 400 years after those pilgrims first invoked the Exodus to inspire their quest for freedom, Americans were reminded once more why the Exodus story is America’s story and why Moses is our real founding father.
This entry is part of a series, “This Week in Moses,” chronicling the 400-year relationship between the United States and its true founding fathe. For more information, and to read the entire series, visit www.brucefeiler.com, or sign up at twitter.com/brucefeiler. America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story, by the New York Times bestselling author of Walking the Bible and Abraham, tells the little-known story of America’s connection to the Exodus and shows how Moses continues to inspire Americans today. It goes on sale October 6.