Is Criticism of the Museum of the Bible Unfair?

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Menachem Wecker asks this question in an article published yesterday at Religion News Service.  Read it here.

Such a question arises for several reasons:

First, the Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open this Fall, is the project of the Green family, the founders of the arts-and-crafts chain store Hobby Lobby. While I am sure that many Americans know the name Hobby Lobby for the store’s fine selection of arts-and-crafts supplies, many also cannot separate the store from the 2014 Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.  In this case, the Court concluded that Hobby Lobby, as a “closely held for-profit corporation,” was exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide certain contraceptives for their female employees.

I had mixed feelings about Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.  I do think the Affordable Care Act’s contraception requirement violates the religious liberty of faith-based groups.  I am with the Little Sisters of the Poor on this.  But I was also troubled that the Court concluded that a corporation could have religious liberty. I wondered if a chain store like Hobby Lobby could really be considered, at least in a theological sense, a “person.”  In July 2014, I wrote a piece for Perspectives on History titled “We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident, That All Corporations Are Created Equal.”

But what I think doesn’t matter.  The very fact that the Museum of the Bible is associated with Hobby Lobby and the culture war issues raised by the Burwell case means that it cannot escape, at least for a generation or so, the stigma that it is promoting a religious and political agenda.  I know the Museum of the Bible is trying hard to shake this perception, but I wonder if the uphill climb is just too steep.

Second, the Museum of the Bible, and the Green family specifically, is taking heat for buying stolen artifacts.  Hobby Lobby recently agreed to pay $3 million as part of a settlement for this illegal purchase.  This has tarnished the museum’s reputation in some quarters. It doesn’t look good.

The Museum of the Bible will not appeal to everyone, but it will have a niche audience. It will attract millions of Christians who love the Bible.  Many of these future visitors support the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and will not care about the purchase of the stolen artifacts.

Want to hear more?  I will be discussing the Museum of the Bible in November at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston.  I will be part of a panel on a forthcoming book by Candida Moss and Joel Baden, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.  I also wrote a bit about the relationship between Hobby Lobby and the American Bible Society in my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).  Hobby Lobby gives a lot of money to the American Bible Society.

Here is a taste of Wecker’s piece:

Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history and founding director of Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies, agrees that regulation of the sale of antiquities “is quite intense.”

He, too, doesn’t think that the Greens’ beliefs are the problem. In fact, he said they should be more open about their religious motivations.

“The question for me is not whether the Greens have a religious position, but to make sure that they are upfront that their faith positions are the subject of this museum,” he said. “For me, it is just an issue of transparency. Remember that even by saying Bible, Jews hear one thing, Protestants hear another, and Catholics a third.”

Whatever the Greens’ motivations, McGrath of Butler and Thumma of Hartford said neither the family’s religious beliefs nor the manner of acquiring the artifacts is likely to have any effect on the museum’s future success.

“People will still flock to a Museum of the Bible, seeking reassurances that their faith is grounded in history,” McGrath said.

“Those for whom the museum is intended won’t care,” Thumma added, “and will indeed interpret the U.S. attorney’s action as anti-evangelical bias, or maybe even ‘fake news.’”

Read the entire piece here.