by William Trollinger
Tuesday was Hobby Lobby day here at the University of Dayton. And no, that does not mean the campus turned into a gigantic craft show.
Candida Moss (Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham) and Joel Baden (Professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School) were on campus to discuss – at an informal coffee talk, to a crowd of 200+ students and faculty, and at an intimate post-talk dinner – their 2017 book, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.
In this fascinating and important book, Moss and Baden tell the story of the Green family (billionaire owners of Hobby Lobby) and their aggressive and wide-reaching campaign to increase the Bible’s influence in American life. This has included purchasing approximately 40,000 biblical artifacts, or so-called biblical artifacts, as it turns out that many of these are forgeries and many more lack provenance (that is, a history of ownership), which could suggest illegality of one sort or another. That the Greens have not done due diligence is an understatement.
As Moss and Baden detail, the Greens’ campaign has also included purchasing a scholarly patina for their holdings. The “Green Scholars Initiative” involves a tightly-controlled group of scholars – many of whom who work at small evangelical schools – who receive compensation (generally not much) for studying and promoting the collection. In a departure from normal academic procedures, access to the Greens’ collection is limited to those scholars willing to sign a nondisclosure statement that includes the following:
Scholar shall safeguard and keep confidential the Information; and shall not disclose the Information to any party, without the prior written consent of The Green Collection, in any manner whatsoever, in whole or in part . . . Upon written request by The Green Collection, all Information and copies thereof, including that portion of the Information which consists of any and all documents or anything else internally prepared or obtained by Scholar, shall be returned to The Green Collection immediately . . . All Information shall remain the exclusive property of The Green Collection. (73)
The crown jewel of the Green family/Hobby Lobby campaign is the Museum of the Bible (MOTB), which opened in Washington DC in 2017 (weeks after Bible Nation appeared), and which has as one of its purposes “to educate legislators about the biblical foundations of American government” (138).
Importantly, the authors of Bible Nation find there to be a good deal of overlap between the MOTB and the Creation Museum. Both the Greens and Ken Ham share an inerrantist understanding of the Bible (i.e., the Bible is without error, and factually accurate in all it teaches). The president of MOTB, Cary Summers, also served as a consultant for Ark Encounter. Artifacts from the MOTB appear in both the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. As Moss and Baden observe, the “impact floor” at MOTB is simply “a more upbeat reflection” of the “Culture of Crisis” section of the Creation Museum, which highlights – through newspaper clippings about euthanasia and same-sex marriage – that “society would crumble [or, has crumbled] without the Bible” (153). And Ken Ham and his wife Mally were at the MOTB’s opening gala.
In short, MOTB and the Creation Museum are ideological and theological twins. The difference is that, as Moss and Baden emphasized in the book and here at UD, the MOTB is seeking to reach a broader audience than is the Creation Museum. While for all practical purposes the latter directs its message to the evangelical subculture, the MOTB – situated in Washington and not in Petersburg, KY – is aiming to reach the nation and especially the nation’s political leaders. Toward this end, it claims to be a nonsectarian institution, all the while promoting an evangelical understanding of the Bible, and “classic evangelical tropes such as American exceptionalism, Lockean property rights, a Victorian vision of the family” as the timeless ‘biblical worldview’” (193).
As explained in Bible Nation, the Greens hide their evangelicalism and their evangelization under the cover of religious nonsectarianism and scholarly neutrality. And for the authors, this may be the most troubling aspect of the MOTB, especially given it may very well deceive its visitors into thinking that it is something that it is not.
This is not the case at the Creation Museum or the Ark Encounter. In contrast with the MOTB, both Answers in Genesis institutions are quite open about their Christian fundamentalist commitments. But insofar as their apologetics ministry transform earnest Christians into culture warriors, they likely produce their own ill effects on American culture and politics.