As my group of five strolled across the manicured grounds, our awkward, self-taught anti-Darwinist tour guide spun a creationist yarn that the spectacular red rock formations that ring the city’s western edge were not shaped by hundreds of millions of years of geological changes, as a city-owned park down the road explains in helpfully scientific signage. Instead, the Creation Tour teaches that these peaks were shaped just 5,000 years ago by Noah’s flood, after which humans and dinosaurs together roamed what was to become America’s evangelical mecca.
I recalled the Creation Tour recently as I walked past the future site of the Museum of the Bible, under construction in a part of Washington, D.C. populated mostly by nondescript federal office buildings, a few blocks off the National Mall. In 2012, the non-profit museum acquired the historic structure, originally built in 1923 as a refrigerated warehouse, for $50 million. The private building amid a sea of public space is a stone’s throw from the Federal Center Southwest Metro station, and walking distance to the Smithsonian museums, the Capitol Building, and other sites frequented by tourists.
The museum will be a living, breathing testament to how American evangelicalism can at once claim it is under siege from secularists, the LGBT rights movement, or feminism—yet also boast of acquiring a prime private perch, strategically located at the nation’s epicenter of law and politics, and nestled among its iconic public monuments. If you ask its creators, it’s meant to protect American Christianity from persecution. But it may be the most strident example yet of how that expression of religion, which in many ways is running counter to trends in American public opinion, continues to flex its political—and financial—muscle.
The founders of the Museum of the Bible are the Green family, the owners of the arts and crafts store chain Hobby Lobby, whose litigation against the federal government over contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act turned their franchise into a new ambassador for the overt expressions of Christianity in public spaces—including workplaces, museums, and even the nation’s courtrooms.
Exactly one year ago, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby, a closely held corporation, had religious rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and that the contraception benefit imposed a “substantial burden” on its religious practice. For those who closely monitor the thorny intersection of religion and public life, the holding was like an earthquake. It represented a key victory in a long-pursued conservative effort to erase the line between private and public religious expression. After Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the workplace has become a place where an owner or a employee must, by religious mandate, “live out” his or her faith, regardless of its impact on people of other faiths, other interpretations of the same faith, or of no faith at all.
In writing about Hobby Lobby two summers ago, before we knew its case would reach the high court, I visited Passages, the smaller, traveling version of the Museum of the Bible, then in Colorado Springs. There, I picked up flyers promoting other museums and landmarks, including the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and the Creation Tour just a few miles away. Inside what appeared to be a defunct box store in a nearly empty strip mall, incongruously transformed into a repository for sacred objects, cheerful docents offered to answer questions to supplement the audio tour I purchased. An introductory video announced the museum’s purpose: “It’s up to us to know and preserve these stories, this Bible, so we’ll never have to wonder what the world would be like without it.”
Bibles on display in Colorado Springs, via Flickr
Now in Santa Clarita, California, Passages has traveled to six American cities, spending several months in each, reaching visitors with a preview of the grandiose new project meant to rival the capital city’s most beloved public spaces. The Smithsonian, of course, is the museum’s secular analog, with its collections of art, expositions of history, including natural history (and evolution!). But the Museum of the Bible will be different, and proudly so. It will serve not just as a museum, but also potentially as a politicized gathering spot for conservative activists who can easily walk to visit the museum from any lobby day at the Capitol or march on the National Mall.
As Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University and author of the book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, told NPR earlier this year, "When there's an anti-abortion rally, an anti-gay marriage rally, an anti-Affordable Care Act rally to be had, what a convenient thing to have church groups coming to see the museum, and then while they're at it, next step on their itinerary is to march down to the Mall for a protest."
Cary Summers, the museum’s president, has denied that characterization. But he fully admits he has an agenda: “The subway stops in Washington are ugly, so we will put on there an electronic billboard talking about the museum,” he said recently at an event for donors. “So when people are just coming to Washington, they’re going to hear about the Bible even if they’re just coming to see Congress.”
At the same event, he describes to donors the vast undertaking, which will house libraries, exhibits, a children’s area with games, a “Disney-esque” New Testament theater, a Nazareth village recreation, biblical restaurant, and a “Joshua machine” that will be like “Times Square on biblical steroids.”
Although the traveling version I saw in Colorado represents just a fraction of the 40,000 items in the Greens’ private collection that will be housed in the brick-and-mortar museum in D.C., its focal points and themes shed light on what the museum will eventually look like. Well, to a point—the exhibit in Colorado Springs was housed next to a Bargain Mart, and in a part of town where the commerce consisted of pawn shops, check cashing joints, rent-a-centers and discount tobacco and liquor stores.
In Washington, by stark contrast, the 430,000-square-foot building will adjoin the world’s center of political power and influence. It will be within walking distance of Congress, whose members, the religious right hopes, will live out their conservative Christianity as legislators. Even closer will be the loathed Department of Health and Human Services, which issued the regulation requiring the contraception coverage, over which Hobby Lobby’s religious freedom claims prevailed.
An artist rendering of the museum. Photo credit: Museum of the Bible
The Passages exhibit in Colorado certainly held some remarkable items, including Dead Sea scroll fragments and original creations of historical figures as disparate as Martin Luther and Salvador Dali. But it also contained some jarring juxtapositions of sacred objects with tacky efforts to bring them to life. There was a replica of the cave of St. Jerome, a 4th century Latin theologian who, legend has it, tamed a lion after extracting a thorn from its paw. In the exhibit, a mechanical lion talked. Via an iPad, a visitor could ask a mechanical St. Jerome questions. He told me that he learned Hebrew and Aramaic so he could translate the Bible into Latin. “To be ignorant of Scripture is to be ignorant of Christ,” he said.
The Protestant Reformation and the Holocaust are the central events depicted in Passages, incongruously bookending each other as cautionary tales of “what would happen if we didn’t have the Bible anymore?” Much space is devoted to the persecution of those who translated the Bible for the masses, and to those who challenged the authority of Rome.
But their tribulations are dramatized with wax museum kitsch, which shares space with sacred and historic objects. In one room, you can see original early editions of the King James Bible. In another, you can see a talking figure of William Tyndale, who was persecuted for translating the Bible into English in 16th century England, as he is tied to the stake. (Ironically, one of Tyndale’s chief pursuers was St. Thomas More, the patron saint of religious freedom who is featured prominently in the Catholic Church’s current religious freedom campaign, which set off the litigation in which Hobby Lobby became a faith-based corporate cause celebre.) A wax figure Anne Boleyn talks, too, telling me she is about to be executed not only for failing to produce a male heir for King Henry VIII, but because of her own devout faith and commitment to Tyndale.
Near the Tyndale display, a poster reads, “the onlooker is left with haunting questions about justice and the ultimate sacrifice that people like Tyndale made to preserve the Bible in the vernacular—something that can be taken for granted in our modern age, where freedom can result in carelessness.”
The Holocaust, inappropriately, is offered as a fulfilled prophecy of that carelessness. One of the last rooms of the exhibit depicts the desecration and destruction of Torah scrolls by the Nazis. An introductory video tells us this room “poses the most alarming what-if. What if the biblical books and scrolls in Passages were relics of people that no longer existed?” The video provides an answer: “No churches, no temples, none of the hospitals, schools, or charities they support, that promote freedom, well-being and human dignity.”
In other words, the lesson isn’t that six million people were murdered in an effort to eliminate all the Jews, but that “it’s up to us to know and preserve these stories, this bible, so we’ll never have to wonder what the world would be like without it.” Left unmentioned and unexplored is Luther’s virulent anti-Semitism, laid out in horrific detail in his book, The Jews and Their Lies, and the ways in which it influenced the Nazis.
Its founders depict the museum as a product of divine intervention. “God had his hand on us being able to acquire” the site, Steve Green, Hobby Lobby’s president and museum’s chairman of the board, told the audience of donors earlier this year. Green has described the D.C. location as “exceptional.” Supporters have responded generously. In the past three years, the non-profit museum has received more than $230 million in tax-deductible donations, according to its tax returns.
Green has repeatedly attempted to assure audiences that the museum will not be a sectarian affair. But the museum’s own materials suggest a muddled attempt to create the broadest appeal, from biblical literalists to curious history buffs. In tax filings, the museum has variously described its mission as “to bring to life the living word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible” and “to invite people to engage with the Bible through our four primary activities: traveling exhibits, scholarship, building of a permanent museum in DC, and developing elective high school curriculum.”
Green has repeatedly stressed that his main mission is education, pressing for the inclusion of a museum-designed bible curriculum in public schools. It “only makes sense that we use this [museum] to educate,” he said at the recent donor event. “Our primary focus is to educate in the public schools in America.”
But Green’s first effort on that front was met with opposition. After church-state separation advocates objected that the curriculum violated the Establishment Clause, last year a Mustang, Oklahoma school district dropped plans to include the course. “Objective study about religion in public schools is permissible, but this curriculum was essentially an extended Sunday School lesson,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and
State, noting that the course would have taught the “inerrancy” of the Bible.
Undeterred, Green then went further afield, taking his curriculum to Israel. In a video posted on the Museum’s Facebook page, Israeli schoolchildren laud the curriculum’s use of “augmented reality” technology, i.e. iPads, to make the Bible more interesting and engaging than just reading it. (No word on whether the Israeli version includes the New Testament.) The museum has expressed its affection for Israel in other ways as well; one floor will be constructed with imported Jerusalem stone, in Summers’ words, “to do whatever we can to support Israel.”
The museum, Green has promised, is “not about a faith tradition or a church or a denomination. It’s about a book.” While that is superficially true, there is no doubt that the museum, like Passages, will be an homage to a narrative that Christianity is in danger of eradication.
That will be a much harder case to make after the museum has spent hundreds of millions of tax-exempt dollars, underwritten in part by the American public, building a monument rivaling the nation capital’s most iconic structures. Or after the museum opens its doors at the very heart of political power, where the religious practice of the museum’s chief benefactors was given special, careful treatment by the highest court in the land.
The Greens, after all, litigated one of the most important religious freedom cases in recent memory, and won the right to impose their religious views on their 16,000 full-time employees—and countless others employed by businesses sharing the Greens’ religious views. They helped expand a federal statute intended to protect the rights of religious minorities to instead protect the rights of business owners who view their employees’ private actions as their religious business.
The Greens say the museum will be about a book, and that is all. But as it becomes an indelible part of the Washington, D.C. landscape, the existence of the museum will say less about the Bible, and more about a billionaire family’s central role in redefining what religious freedom in 21st century America will mean.
Lead photo credit: Bible of the Museum
Sarah Posner is a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches. Her reporting and commentary on religion and politics has also appeared in the Atlantic, Al Jazeera America, Politico, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The Nation, and many other publications.