Will the Museum of the Bible Erase the Line Between Church and State?
The new, $400 million institution is just a hop, a skip and a prayer from the Capitol.
Entering Museum of the Bible was a little like getting on a plane to Israel: It was a mess trying to get through security. There was a kind of honeycombed bombsniffing device, tall as a man, that a French correspondent said reminded her of something from “Star Trek.” A newspaper reporter from Alabama wasn’t allowed in the media entrance until he explained that newspaper reporters were in fact members of the media.
Museum of the Bible is located in Washington D.C., the American city wherein one hears the most about “biblical values” but sees them least enacted — if by “biblical values” we mean humility, charity and generosity of spirit. The ostensible point of the $400 million facility, the brainchild of Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, is to help visitors “experience the book that shapes history,” as the website puts it. This is actually a fascinating idea, but there are troubling questions about its execution.
Obviously the Bible in question is the Christian one, which is to be expected. But the scholarly concern is that the museum has an evangelical religio-political agenda — which is pretty reasonable, since Hobby Lobby took its refusal to pay for certain kinds of birth control for its employees all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. Also, there were serious provenance issues as Green amassed his collection, leading to a $3 million fine imposed by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In the latter case, the museum assures us that it’s cleaned up its act. The press materials stress a “rigorous” vetting process. At a press conference for the museum’s opening, Lawrence Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, told me that “the provenance issue isn’t fake news, but it’s old news.”
Schiffman admitted that he works for the museum as a paid adviser on Judaism. When I asked if he could be more specific about his job, he replied: “I walk around. I read things.” When questioned about the possibility of an evangelical agenda, he denied that there is one, speaking instead of the “respect and love” he receives as a Jewish colleague. “This is an amazing moment in Jewish-Christian relations,” he said.
The museum’s own position is that it is “nonsectarian.” During the press briefing, Executive Director Tony Zeiss said that the museum had hired a sofer to inscribe a Torah.
“We do not advocate for one specific faith tradition,” he said. “We advocate for the Bible.”
Maybe so. But the Green family and others involved with the museum at the highest levels, Zeiss included, are evangelical Christians. Green himself has been quoted as saying he believes that the King James Bible is inerrant and that the United States was founded on “Christian principles.” In this light, the concerns of religion scholars seem warranted: that Museum of the Bible will both reinforce the narrative of America as a “Christian country” and undermine the separation of church and state, at least in the eyes of its visitors.
I tried to view the museum with an open mind, but right from the get-go it was hard to avoid a certain tendentiousness even before setting eyes on the exhibits. Museum of the Bible is two blocks from the National Mall and three blocks from the Capitol Building, so it’s going to be quite easy for visitors to conflate it with governmental institutions. Green himself, in the postpress conference media scrum, said that while the museum took a “journalistic” view of the Bible, he wouldn’t mind if legislators came over to see the “biblical connections,” presumably between the text and American governance.
What of the museum itself? Well, it looks great. Built in a former warehouse, its exterior is a straightforward brick building topped with curving glass-and-aluminum additions. The interior is all pale marble awash in natural light. That is probably the place’s greatest strength, as natural light is refreshing for the eyes during a long day of elisions and half-truths.
The fun starts with the “Impact of the Bible” on the second floor, which comprises three exhibits: “Bible in America,” “Bible in the World” and “Bible Now.”
Dominating “Bible in America” is a bizarre series of murals depicting ostensibly watershed moments in American history. We see Native
It feels a little churlish to point out that the colonies were not exactly welcoming to Jews.
Americans earnestly receiving Bible instruction and then earnestly slaughtering colonials; we see a disembodied, presumably divine hand with a quill pen poised above Article VI of the Constitution — which forbids religious tests — and then George Washington swearing the Oath of Office with one hand resolutely on a Bible.
To be fair, “Bible in America” complicates the narrative by displaying passages from Scripture used to both rationalize and abolish slavery. As for the folks who were here first, one small bit of wall text reminds us that “the arrival of European adventurers and settlers proved catastrophic for Native Americans, whose populations were decimated by disease and conflict.” The museum even throws in a couple of women, with a small display dedicated to African-American poet Phillis Wheatley, and a portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Jews are thrown a bone as well, with the inclusion of a Torah scroll in the colonial-era mural; it feels a little churlish to point out that the colonies were not exactly welcoming to Jews, and most of us didn’t get here until two centuries later.
Nevertheless, “Bible in America” does indeed follow the evangelical narrative of American history, which begins with the “Mayflower Compact,” a document that acknowledged the necessity of civic government in Plymouth Colony. Because the compact asserts that it is written “in the name of God,” and the Founding Fathers (supposedly) based the Constitution on the compact, many American Christians believe that America was therefore founded on “biblical principles.” “Bible in America” includes a facsimile of the Liberty Bell, apparently the first object installed in the museum. It is difficult to see how this object relates in any way to the Bible unless one is already convinced that the American experiment is divinely inspired.
It was harder to suss out a coherent narrative in “Bible in the World,” other than something to the effect of the Bible being really great and behind everything that is good about the world. This exhibit features sections delineated by
THAT RINGS A BELL: A visitor tours the “Bible in America” exhibit atthe Museum of the Bible.
LIGHTS, CAMERA,EVANGELIZE: The museum features its very own theater.