American Jesus: How the Son of God Became an American Icon

Stephen Prother
Religion, Boston University

Date: February 10, 2004

Event Recap

In his book American Jesus: How the Son of God Became an American Icon, Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religion at Boston University, provides a cultural account of how the idea of Jesus has become assimilated, popularized, and integrated into a variety of American sub-cultures and religions ranging from Buddhism to the Ku Klux Klan. Prothero traces the rise of Jesus across American history from a status as the Son of God to that of an American icon. He points out that in the Colonial period, Jesus was a relatively inconsequential figure relative to the figure of God. Christian thinking in this period was more Hebraic, emphasizing God the Father. It was not until the early republican period when Jefferson effectively begins to separate the idea of Jesus from the system of Christianity that Jesus begins to take on a separate and distinctive status that transcends Christian religion. Prothero demonstrates Jesus’ evolution into an American icon with a collection of pictures, postcards, and popular art images that show how the Jesus figure is appropriated by new immigrant groups that absorb him and make his message their own in a variety of ways. He discusses that the United States has moved, over the past 200 years, from being a God-fearing nation to a Jesus loving nation. The image of Jesus, Prothero contends, has been particularly malleable because of the various accounts that exist in the four Gospels that allow him to be perceived in multiple ways.