At the Oxford University Press table:
At the Oxford University Press table:
Earlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.
In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics. In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America. In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Life, the culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI. The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice. Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.
The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God. At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy. These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”
The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation. I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.
Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding. He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism. He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.
James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.” Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.
Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America. She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.
Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected. His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”
It was a lively session. I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:
Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers
Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography
I’m heading to Washington D.C. today for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I will be joining thousands of historians in a weekend of presentations, panels, conversations, job-searching, book-browsing, receptions and other history-related activities. As always, we will have the conference covered here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Check back often for updates from this D.C. history-fest!
I will be participating in two sessions. Both will take place on Friday:
I hope to see some of you there!
Separately, critics have seized on a changing mission statement of the museum from its earliest days, when founders said they aimed to prove the authority of the Bible, to a new, more neutral goal of inviting people to learn more about the Bible. Museum president Cary Summers described the change as a natural progression as the project moved ahead.
But John Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, points to the family’s goal of helping people “engage with” the Bible as a telling indication about what the Greens hope to achieve. He said the “Bible engagement” concept was popularized by the American Bible Society in the 1990s amid concern that people who owned copies of the Scriptures weren’t necessarily reading them.
Fea said advocates for this strategy ultimately hope the Bible will inspire a desire to learn more and maybe accept Christ.
“There’s a public face to this Bible engagement rhetoric and then there’s a private aspect of what it really means,” Fea said. “It debunks the whole notion that this is just a history museum.”
Green’s response to such arguments: Visit the museum and decide for yourself.
Read the entire piece here.
Canadians are apparently interested in this week’s opening of the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. I was happy to help Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Matt Kwong make some sense of this museum. Here is a taste of his piece at CBC News:
A museum attraction on the second-floor Impact collection called Washington Revelations is feeding evangelical scholar John Fea’s doubts. The multi-sensory “4D” ride takes visitors soaring over D.C. landmarks to highlight scripture inscribed on landmarks, such as the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the Lincoln Memorial.
To Fea, who teaches history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, the idea mirrors evangelical activist David Barton’s WallBuilders movement, which promotes a view the United States was founded as a Christian nation. A signature program of the WallBuilders is to bring ministers and state politicians on tours of Washington to show them places bearing biblical verse.
“There’s a temptation there to send the message that America is a certain kind of nation, a Christian nation,” Fea said. “A nation where the Bible should be important and prominent in shaping public life. In other words, [suggesting] we were a Bible nation from the beginning.”
Though he admires the museum project in concept, he questions whether the building just three blocks from Congress will service a conservative vision of American Christian nationalism.
Read the entire piece here.
The front page of the website of the Museum of the Bible states: “Learn about the Museum being built and the other initiatives spurring worldwide Bible engagement.”
The Museum of the Bible also describes itself this way:
Museum of the Bible invites all people to engage with the Bible through museum exhibits and scholarly pursuits, including artifact research, education initiatives and an international museum opening in late 2017 in Washington. The 430,000-square-foot, $400 million Museum of the Bible, dedicated to the impact, history and narrative of the Bible, will be located three blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
A page devoted to job openings at the Museum says: “Museum of the Bible is an innovative, global, education institution whose purpose is to invite all people to engage with the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.”
In an introduction to a Christianity Today podcast interview with Glenn Paauw, the senior director of content at the Institute For Bible Reading, says:
A museum experience like this has the potential to widely open our eyes to the fact that the Bible is immersed in real, ancient history, but it’s very different than ours.” Christians should be encouraged by the museum putting the Scriptures in context, says Paauw. “The very first step to great Bible engagement is understanding the Bible in its own world and on its own terms,” he added.
In his recent review of the museum at Christianity Today, Martyn Wendell Jones writes:
But the most enduring questions surrounding the museum will undoubtedly concern its intent. As its leadership has walked back the apologetic messaging of its early days in favor of a more open-handed mission of “engaging” all people with the Bible, skeptics may smell a ruse while some Christians may wonder if the museum is holding back.
In August 2017, the American Bible Society asked its patrons to pray for the Museum of the Bible. The ABS describes it as a “museum inviting all people to engage with the Bible.” Here is a taste of that plea:
There’s a need for increased Bible awareness and increased Bible reading in America. “Over 90 percent of the homes in this country have a Bible. But I think we’re probably less familiar with it today than ever, because we don’t teach it as we once did,” says Steve Green, chairman of the board of Museum of the Bible. “This book claims it’s for all people. So [Museum of the Bible is] an invitation for all people to come and learn about and engage with it, and hopefully they will leave with a curiosity to want to know more.”
In Mark 4:20, Jesus describes his Parable of the Sower. He says, “The seeds that fell on good ground are the people who hear and welcome the message. They produce thirty or sixty or even a hundred times as much as was planted” (CEV).
Museum of the Bible is like the farmer planting seed by sharing God’s Word with others. We have an opportunity to pray for the seed to fall on good soil—to cause hearts to respond to God’s invitation for a relationship with him.
Last week in Politico Magazine, Candida Moss and Joel Baden, the authors of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, asked “Just What Is the Museum of the Bible Trying to Do?” The answer to this question is simple. As seen from the quotes above, the Museum of the Bible wants people to engage with the Bible. But what does this mean?
If you want to understand what the Museum of the Bible means by “Bible engagement” (or “scripture engagement”) you need to know something about the history of the American Bible Society. As I argued in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, the American Bible Society invented the phrase. The three paragraphs from the ABS website that I posted above offer a good definition. The Mark 4:20 reference says it all.
The mission of the American Bible Society states:
We strive to the landscape of the Bible engagement in this country by partnering with church leaders in major U.S. cities, advocating for the Bible in American culture, and equipping ministry leaders with customized Bible resources. In the next 10 years, we aim to see 100 million people engaged with God’s word in the U.S.
It is worth noting that the American Bible Society began talking about “Bible engagement” and “scripture engagement” as part of a significant change to the mission of the 200-year old organization. During the mid-1990s, the Society took a turn away from mainline Protestantism and toward evangelical Protestantism. It also shifted from an organization devoted to distributing the Bible around the world, to a Christian ministry devoted to getting as many people as possible to engage with the Bible as the word of God.
I discuss this transition at length in The Bible Cause. Here is a taste:
Under [CEO Roy] Peterson’s leadership, the American Bible Society continues its historic commitment to meeting the spiritual needs of people around the world and building a Christian civilization at home and abroad through scripture engagement. If he has learned one thing from the history of the ABS, it is how to get people excited about the Bible Cause through grand vision statements. By 2025, Peterson wants to see 100 million Americans engaged with the Bible, scriptures available in every world language, and the expansion of the ABS endowment to $1 billion. It’s an ambitious goal, and that is why he has Executive Vice President of Ministry Mobilization Geof Morin, who has been at the ABS since 2007, to help him. Morin represents the future of the Bible Cause. He has worked in global advertising, sung at the Metropolitan Opera, and is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia. He oversees ABS marketing, communications, and Bible technology, and runs Missions U.S. Global, the title given to the Society’s domestic and international ministries. He is passionate about scripture engagement and the role it can play in the universal Christian church–Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox.
In its 2025 “Strategic Vision” statement the ABS defines scripture engagement as “encountering God through the Bible to become faithful followers of Jesus Christ.” Through the help of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship, the ABS has developed a theoretical and theological framework for how such engagement with scripture should take place. At the core of this idea of scriptural engagement is the belief that people can encounter–and have encountered–the claims of the Bible in diverse ways and by multiple means, including public hearings, performances, reading, worship, art, and music, to name a few. Such encounters involve the full range of human faculties: emotions, the intellect, the imagination, and the soul. Inherent within this view of scripture engagement is the belief that God, by entering into human culture through the person of Jesus Christ, has invested this world with meaning and has created human beings for community. To put it simply, the Bible has the potential, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to transform lives when it is experienced with other people and through various forms of culture….
The ABS has entrusted this work of measuring the success of scripture engagement to the Barna Group, a Christian research organization known for its work in observing the state of American Christianity and offering “spiritual indicators” about where the United States is moving on matters of faith and culture. With the help of Barna-created surveys specifically designed for this purpose, Peterson is convinced that by 2025 the ABS will have “defensible numbers” to show that 100 million people in the United States are actively using the scriptures. The ABS also relies upon Barna for its annual State of the Bible Survey. Morin, who spearheads this project, likes to call it a “Bible thermometer.” The State of the Bible report is more than just a fun way for the ABS to let the country know who it is and what it does. Rather, the success of Peterson’s 2025 vision is directly related to its findings. The ABS is just getting to the point where it has enough date to be able to see some trends about what American think about the Bible. The evidence suggests that there is still a lot of work to do. At the moment, the ABS and Barna estimate that roughly 47 million Americans are actively engaging with the Bible. This number will need to be more than doubled in the next decade in order to meet Peterson’s projections.
I don’t have the time or the space to add more to this post, so let me wrap things up with a few points:
In the past week I have done a few interviews with reporters about the Museum of the Bible, a Washington D.C. museum scheduled to open next month. I have written about the Museum before and with the opening less than one month away, I expect to write about it again. A few days after the official opening I will be at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) to speak on a panel devoted to Joel Baden and Candida Moss’s new book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.
A recent Washington Post piece on the museum is revealing. Evangelical historians Mark Noll and Grant Wacker both weigh-in on their experiences with the museum. So does Steven Friesen, an officer at the SBL.
Here is a taste:
Mark Noll, one of the country’s most prominent experts on American Christian history, served as an adviser. He compared the Museum of the Bible to the Newseum, another huge private museum.
“Obviously the museum is there to make people think better or think kindly about the effects of Scripture in U.S. history,” he said. “But I did think they were trying to be as nonpartisan as they could.”
Some remain skeptical that the museum’s viewpoint will be neutral. Steven Friesen, an officer at the Society of Biblical Literature, the largest association of biblical scholars, said there is debate in the academic community about whether to do research involving the Greens’ collection. He would advise fellow scholars to steer clear.
Friesen hasn’t seen the museum, but he believes from reading the website that its materials subtly promote a singular version of Scripture; indeed, the museum mostly omits discussion about how the Bible was compiled and which religious traditions believe which disputed books belong in the Bible. Museum staffers say the place for discussing issues such as sexuality and abortion, which aren’t mentioned in the exhibits, might be at events hosted at the museum; Friesen thinks those events are meant to draw in influential people to hear the Greens’ opinions on the culture wars.
“My guess is that they’ve worked very hard at covering what they would like to do, trying to hide the agenda that is behind the museum,” he said, defining that agenda as the promotion of their deep faith in the literal truth of the Bible.
The Bible has shaped cultures from Africa to Asia, Muslim to Mormon. But the 20-member leadership of the museum is almost entirely white, male and evangelical.
Grant Wacker, an expert on Christian history, said that he declined an invitation to join the leadership team because he was asked to sign a statement of faith. Wacker said he considers himself an evangelical Christian but that the statement went too far for him.
“It stressed, shall we say, factual accuracy [of the Bible] more than I could endorse,” he said.
Instead, he agreed to be one of the many scholars from diverse religious traditions to weigh in on drafts of some of the museum displays. The leadership team sought input repeatedly during the three-year construction process from experts from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and secular backgrounds.
Read the entire piece here.
Here is a link to a podcast interview I did recently with Franklin Rausch of New Books Network. We talk about The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.
Franklin is the first person to ask me about the cover photo.
For reasons I do not understand, Amazon is selling this book at 77% off the cover price. Not bad for a 384-page hardback with glossy photos inside!
In a recent article at The Hill, American University political scientist Daniel Dreisbach reminds us that the Bible was important in the framing of the United States Constitution. (See his visit to the Author’s Corner here). I appreciate Dreisbach’s work. Many friends who take a more secular approach to the ideological origins of the Constitution have asked me what I think about Dreisbach’s views on the Bible and the founding. Frankly, I think his book Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers is excellent for what it does, namely showing that the Bible should not be neglected as a source of inspiration and ideas for many of the founding fathers. In his interview with me about the book, Dreisbach wrote:
I contend that the Bible had a significant, yet often overlooked, influence on the political thought and discourse of the American founding and, therefore, it should be studied alongside other influences on the founding generation, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and classical and civic republicanism. The book examines the extensive and diverse uses of the Bible in the political discourse of the founding era, combining careful historical research, elementary political theory, and biblical interpretation.
I imagine that Dreisbach has no problem with the idea that the Bible was one of many sources that informed the thinking of the founding fathers.
Here is a taste of Dreisbach’s piece at The Hill: “Liberty under law was always rooted in biblical principles.”
Legal commentators have pointed to additional examples of the Bible’s influence on specific constitutional provisions, including provisions on cruel and unusual punishment, the number of witnesses required in cases of treason, affirmation in the alternative to an oath, and corruption of blood.
Although the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 readily conceded that the document they wrote was imperfect, there was a consensus that it was the best that could be framed under the circumstances. And some, such as Benjamin Rush, “believed the hand of God was employed in this work,” just as surely as “God had divided the Red Sea to give a passage to the children of Israel.”
Even the skeptic Benjamin Franklin, while disclaiming that the Convention’s work was “divinely inspired,” remarked that he could not conceive such a momentous achievement as framing “the new federal constitution” without it “being in some degree influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent and beneficent Ruler.”
Commentators today may disagree that the Constitution was a product of Divine Providence or that it contains elements informed by Christianity, but the Bible was undisputedly among the intellectual sources that influenced the founders. Acknowledging the Bible’s often-neglected contributions to the founding project enriches our understanding of the nation’s great constitutional experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law.
As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, the Bible was important to the founding generation. I was particularly interested in how the Bible was used, but Driesbach’s work goes much deeper and reveals just how much the eighteenth-century was saturated with biblical ideas. Of course how that history is used today raises a very different set of issues and questions. This is part of the reason I wrote a followup to Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? titled Why Study History?
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.
Some of you are familiar with Peter Wosh’s excellent history of the American Bible Society, Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth-Century America (Cornell, 1994). I relied heavily on Wosh’s book in my The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford, 2016).
Wosh recently retired from his post as Director of the Archives and Public History Program at New York University. If his Facebook page is any indication, he is spending a lot of time exploring the historical landscape in his home state of New Jersey and enjoying his New York Mets season tickets.
Today Wosh posted a picture of himself at Citibank Field. It was Mets helmet day! (Posted here with his permission).
When I saw this pic I had to respond. As you can see, my childhood Mets helmet is way to small for my head.
American Bible Society historians stick together. Let’s Go Mets.
In The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society I wrote about the way the ABS used water as a metaphor to describe its work during the early 19th century:
The ABS owed owed much of its distribution success to burgeoning American infrastructure. The construction of the Erie Canal and other canals reduced by months the time it took to send Bibles from New York to growing river and lake cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis. ABS packages traveled down the Ohio or Mississippi and along the tributaries extending from these mighty rivers. A representative from the Pittsburgh Bible Society described ABS packages as floating “messengers of salvation,” making visits to the “huts of the poor and destitute” on the frontier. Fitting with a nation committed to building itself through travel across rivers, lakes, and canals, the ABS and its auxiliaries often used water metaphors to describe the distribution process. The Bible traveled along “little streams” that flowed into the “mighty river” of the Christian nation that the ABS hoped to forge. The distribution of the Bible was like the opening of a great “flood gate” that poured through the “arid regions” of the country, serving as a “streamlet to water every plant.” The managers of the Indiana Bible Society, using a passage from the Book of Ezekiel, described the process of distribution as “Holy Water” issued from the “Sanctuary” that “spread wide and flowed deep, and all things lived wheresoever the waters came.” Both literally and figuratively, the ABS was using water to link remote and scattered settlements into a Bible nation.
A few years before I started working on The Bible Cause, I was asked to appear on a radio show to talk about the relationship between early American religion and the Erie Canal. I declined the offer. I was busy at the time and I did not think I had much to say on the subject. When they asked me if I knew of anyone else who might be qualified to appear on the program I wish I knew about the work of S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate.
Check out the Hamilton College religious studies professor’s recent piece at Religion News Service, “The Eric Canal and the birth of American Religion.”
Here is a taste:
The first great social space in the United States was not Boston Common, William Penn’s Philadelphia squares or L’Enfant’s great avenues of Washington, D.C.
It was an artificial river, 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, cutting across New York state.
Like the Silk Road in Asia, the Erie Canal not only established physical links across geographic regions, it also remade the social and religious lives of everyone it touched.
Albany newspapers, Genesee flour, Syracuse salt and Western timber traveled on the canal alongside theater groups, former slaves, tourists, industrialists and religious revivalists. This “one thronged street, from Buffalo to Albany,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne phrased it, exceeded its transportation uses to become an empire builder, a political-economic superpower that was inextricable from a spiritual empire.
Physical work on the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817, when upstate New York was one vast wilderness in the eye of the young nation. Within three decades of its opening this “psychic highway” cultivated experimental spiritual groups, including the Mormons, the Adventists, spiritualists, followers of a revived apocalypticism and utopian communal societies such as the Oneida Community, with the Amana Colony and the Shakers passing through. The emotion-laden revivals of the Second Great Awakening also ignited along the way, giving rise to the evangelicalism that we know today.
Read the entire piece here.
AN ACT relating to Bible literacy courses in the public schools.
Create a new section of KRS Chapter 156 to require the Kentucky Board of Education to promulgate administrative regulations to establish an elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament, or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible; require that the course provide to students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy; permit students to use various translations of the Bible for the course; amend KRS 158.197 to permit a school council to offer an elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament, or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible.
A few thoughts:
First, this is nothing new. Several states have passed similar laws. See Mark Chancey’s essay “Bible Bills, Bible Curricula, and Controversies of Biblical Proportions: Legislative Efforts to Promote Bible Courses in Public Schools.” Chancey, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, is the nation’s leading scholar on such public school Bible courses. Check out his website for more resources.
Second, having a Bible course in a public school is constitutional. Perhaps someone can help me out here, but I don’t understand why special laws are needed to teach the Bible in schools. It seems as if the only reason for passing such legislation is to make a political statement. The Government of Kentucky, or at least those men and women who have power in the government of Kentucky, want to let their constituency know which side they are taking in the culture wars and the fight to make the United States a Christian nation.
Here’s some history:
In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington v. Schempp that mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools as an act of religious practice or devotion was unconstitutional. But what many fail to recognize is that Abington v. Schempp did not completely remove the Bible from schools. Here is a taste of Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion:
It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its religious and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.
As I argued in my book The Bible Cause, The American Bible Society (ABS), the largest distributor of Bibles in the world, actually supported the Abington v. Schempp decision in 1963. The ABS replied to nearly every letter that it received about the case from disgruntled supporters by putting a positive spin on the decision. ABS General Secretary Robert Taylor’s response to a writer from Reseda, California was typical: “The American Bible Society is…trying to get people to understand that the Supreme Court decision did not rule out the teaching of the Bible in public schools.” Taylor ripped into local school boards for giving people the opposite impression. In fact, as another ABS Secretary, Homer Ogle, wrote to another correspondent, “the Supreme Court is 100% behind the idea of teaching the Bible in the public schools.” He added that the ABS was planning to launch a nationwide program to make sure that children would have access to the scriptures. The ABS answers to these letters must have been confusing to members who did not understand the complexities of the Supreme Court decision. Rather than seeing Abington v. Schempp as a blow to Bible reading in schools, the ABS saw it as an opportunity to promote Biblical literacy.
Third, parts of Kentucky HB 128 should raise red flags. The bill says that a proposed course on the Bible must “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.” This suggests that the course can and should move beyond the study of the Bible in its ancient context. It requires educators to apply the Bible’s teaching to current events. And what does the term “prerequisite” mean here? Are the lawmakers suggesting that the Bible is the only prerequisite for understanding these various dimensions of “contemporary society and culture?” The bill does not seem to realize that there is no scholarly consensus on the degree to which the Bible and its teachings influenced the American founding.
The architect of the bill, Representative D.J. Johnson, gives us a better sense of what HB 128 means when it says that the Bible is a “prerequisite” to “contemporary life and culture.” In a recent interview he said: “[The Bible] really did set the foundation that our founding fathers used to develop documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights…All those came from principles in the bible.” This quote comes straight out of the David Barton Christian nation playbook.
In April 2017, during the debate over HB 128 in the Kentucky House of Representatives, Stan Lee of Lexington said, “This country–whether some people want to believe it or not–wasn’t founded as a Muslim nation, wasn’t founded as a Hindu nation, wasn’t founded as a Jari Krishna nation. It was founded as a Christian nation.” He added: “It’s been said on the floor today that teaching the Bible ain’t going to get it done. Well, let me tell you what didn’t get it done: Kicking God out of school, kicking the Bible out of school, kicking prayer out of school.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that. Like D.J. Johnson, Lee is channeling Barton. He is also, I might add, coming very close to violating Abington v. Schempp.
And then there is Dan Johnson (not to be confused with D.J.). In addition to representing Kentucky’s House District 49 he is a bishop in the Heart of Fire Church in southeast Louisville. In his 2016 campaign for a seat in the Kentucky House he came under fire for defending Southern secession, “white pride,” and posting a picture on Facebook of Barack Obama as an ape. When confronted about the picture Johnson said, “It wasn’t meant to be racist. I can tell you that. My history’s good there. I can see how people would be offended in that. I wasn’t trying to offend anybody, but I think Facebook’s entertaining.” My history’s good there? Oh, by the way, Johnson won his election. He now sponsors HB 128.
Representative Tim Moore is also a sponsor of the bill. He co-chairs the Kentucky Prayer Caucus. According to its website, the members of the Kentucky Prayer Caucus are “state legislators committed to advancing policies and initiatives that promote religious freedom, America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, and prayer. It is part of a larger “Prayer Caucus” movement in state legislatures around the country. There is nothing on the Caucus’s website that explains how it reconciles its support for religious freedom with its promotion of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage. David Barton promotes the Prayer Caucus Movement on his Wallbuilders website.
David Barton peddles really bad history about the American founding, but more importantly his faulty understanding of the American past has influenced public policy in places such as Kentucky. (Barton has made it abundantly clear that he is a big fan of Governor Bevin). In the end, it appears that HB 128 is a subtle and shrewd attempt by the Kentucky government to promote a Christian nationalist agenda without violating Abington v. Schempp. If they cannot bring Christianity and the Bible back into the schools in an overt pre-1963 way, they can at least bring it into the curriculum under the guise of history and social studies.
Watchdog groups have a close eye on how the bill will be implemented in Kentucky schools. Kate Miller of the ACLU put it best: “A Bible literacy bill that, on its face, may not appear to be unconstitutional, could in fact become unconstitutional in its implementation.”
Miller and other critics should make sure the Bible is not being used in this class for devotional purposes or Christian preaching. But they should also keep an eye on how the Bible is being used to teach civics and history in Kentucky schools. On the later point, the defenders of the bill will ward off criticism by arguing that this is an issue about competing historical interpretations (David Barton and the Christian nationalist view of history versus mainstream historical scholarship written by real historians) and not a violation of Abington v. Schempp.
In closing, it is important to remember that the ultimate implementation of HB 128 rests with the educators who will be teaching this Bible course. (We are only talking about an elective course, so I imagine only a small groups of students will take it.). I hope many of these teachers turn to the resources page on Mark Chancey’s website to get a sense of what is permissible and what is not. I also hope that they are responsible when they attempt to connect the Bible to “contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”
As some of you know, I wrote a book called Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. In that book I talk a lot about the Bible’s influence on the American founding. I also spend a lot of time, both at Messiah College (an evangelical Christian college in Pennsylvania) and around the country, working with history and social studies teachers. I am happy to help Kentucky teachers think about all the ways the Bible has influenced, and has not influenced, American society and culture.
Earlier today I wrote about my recent visit to Memphis as part of a Civil Rights bus tour I am currently taking. We visited sites from The Civil Rights Movement and the African American history of the city in the 1960s.
In the 19th century, Memphis was a major cotton market and, consequently, a major slave market. This was largely due to its prime location on the Mississippi River.
The prevalence of cotton in Memphis even crossed over into the work of Bible distribution. In my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I wrote a few sentences about the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society and the spread of cheap Bibles into the South during the Civil War:
One of the most interesting parts of the American Bible Society (ABS) distribution efforts [during the Civil War] was the sale of Bibles in exchange for cotton. Since the Union would not accept Confederate currency as a form of donation or payment for Bibles, the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society in Tennessee circumvented this problem by offering the ABS bales of cotton. Cotton was purchased by southern philanthropists and friends of the Bible Cause with Confederate money, and the bales were shipped out to New York. In February 1865, an anonymous donor gave the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society six bales of cotton to help defer the cost of electrotype plates used to print Bibles at the Society’s distribution depot in Nashville. Whatever was left after the plates were paid for was used to provide boxes of Bibles and Testaments for Confederate troops.
Similarly, the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society Society received a request from Monticello, Arkansas, proposing to exchange ten bales of cotton for Bibles and Testaments that would be distributed to citizens and soldiers in the surrounding region. The Memphis and Shelby County Society planned to have the cotton shipped directly to the [New York City] Bible House as soon as possible….The ABS was not prepared to receive cotton in exchange for copies of the scriptures, but the New York Board of Managers were more than willing to accept it if it meant getting Bibles past Confederate military lines.
Transporting cotton through a country torn by Civil War was difficult. The Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society needed the permission of Confederate authorities and generals. The ABS had to obtain special approval from the U.S. Treasury Department. In some cases the cotton, once received in New York, was deposited in a U.S. government warehouse “to the credit of the American Bible Society for special purposes.”
Like many evangelical Christians, the Green family of Oklahoma City believes that America was founded as a Christian nation, based on a “biblical worldview.” But the Greens are far from typical evangelicals in other ways. The billionaire owners of Hobby Lobby, a huge nationwide chain of craft stores, the Greens came to national attention in 2014 after successfully suing the federal government over their religious objections to provisions of the Affordable Care Act. What is less widely known is that the Greens are now America’s biggest financial supporters of Christian causes–and they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an ambitious effort to increase the Bible’s influence on American society. In Bible Nation, Candida Moss and Joel Baden provide the first in-depth investigative account of the Greens’ sweeping Bible projects and the many questions they raise.
Bible Nation tells the story of the Greens’ rapid acquisition of an unparalleled collection of biblical antiquities; their creation of a closely controlled group of scholars to study and promote their collection; their efforts to place a Bible curriculum in public schools; and their construction of a $500 million Museum of the Bible near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Bible Nation reveals how these seemingly disparate initiatives promote a very particular set of beliefs about the Bible–and raise serious ethical questions about the trade in biblical antiquities, the integrity of academic research, and more.
Bible Nation is an important and timely account of how a vast private fortune is being used to promote personal faith in the public sphere–and why it should matter to everyone.
In November I will be part of a review panel on the book at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Here is the session:
S20-246 Use, Influence, and Impact of the Bible
1:00 PM to 3:00 PM
Theme: The United States of Hobby Lobby
In this session, invited discussants will respond to Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden’s Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton UP, 2017).
Mark Chancey, Southern Methodist University, Panelist
Malcolm Choat, Macquarie University, Panelist
Peter Manseau, Smithsonian Institution, Panelist
John Fea, Messiah College, Panelist
Looking forward to it. Of course I wrote a bit about the relationship between Hobby Lobby and the American Bible Society in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.
The Museum of the Bible opens this Fall.
I wrote a little bit about Romans 13 and the American Revolution in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. Over at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz notes that this New Testament passage was also used frequently in the 1840s and 1850s during the debates over slavery.
Here is a taste:
Even at its peak of popularity in the early 1840s, Romans 13:2 still appears only half as often as the single most popular verse for that time period (Luke 18:16, which generally is 5-20 times as common in the corpus as the two verses from Romans 13).
Not surprisingly, when Romans 13 did enter American public discourse at this time, it was usually as part of the national debate over slavery. In 1839, for example, a Congregationalist minister named William Mitchell quoted that passage in support of his argument that “Civil government, however corrupt, is an institution of God.” Orson S. Murray, the abolitionist editor of The Vermont Telegraph, was appalled:
“No matter then how corrupt the government—from the corrupt, hypocritical republic that establishes by law and holds in existence a most abhorrent and diabolical system of robbery, and lust, and murder, down through all the grades of aristocracy and monarchy, originating in, or originating—as a large proportion of them do—popery, Mahomedanism, and idolatry, in all their degrading, dehumanizing, man-destroying, God-dishonoring forms—all, all these corrupt and corrupting institutions are the workmanship of an all-wise, and holy, and just God!!! The consummate absurdity—not to say the involved shocking impiety and blasphemy—of deliberately and intelligently holding to such sentiments, lies out on the face of the declaration. To expose them, it needs no argument or comment. I would not be understood as denouncing, outright, friend Mitchell, as a blasphemer. I am altogether willing to attribute the monstrous heresy to ‘blindness of mind’—the habit of taking upon trust long received opinions—rather than to perverseness of heart.”
Read the rest here.
In Summer 2015 the American Bible Society moved from New York City to Philadelphia. It currently rents two floors in the Wells Fargo building at 5th and Market streets. And according to this article at Philly.com, it is ready to move forward with its $60 million dollar Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.
Full disclosure: At a very early stage of this project I served as a historical consultant. I attended one meeting and offered some suggestions. I am no longer involved in the project.
Here is a taste of the Philly.com article:
This $60 million project seeks to help explain the influence of the Bible on American history. It also hopes to activate the ground floor of the fortress-like Wells Fargo building, improving its interactions with its surroundings.
At Wednesday’s Art Commission’s conceptual review of the project, the managing director of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, Patrick Murdock, laid out the Society’s vision with an assist from the project’s architects.
The Center will seek to enliven the underutilized mid-block pedestrian path just to the north of the Wells Fargo building, which connects 4th and 5th streets.
The public space will feature a new 14,100 square foot building, a restructured garden, wood benches, and a stage area will cover the delivery ramp that trucks use to access the building’s basement. It could be used for performances or gatherings, open to the public, even when it isn’t being put to official use.
All told, the new project covers a total of well over 50,000 square feet.
I wrote about this project in the Epilogue of my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.
Here is a taste:
This brings us to the recent ABS decision to leave New York City after 199 years and move the organization to Philadelphia, where it now occupies two floors in the Wells Fargo Building on 401 Market Street, just steps from Independence Hall. The move was driven by financial concerns. The 1865 Broadway Bible House needed 25-50 million dollars’ worth of repairs in order to meet the city building code. The ABS owned both the twelve-story building and thirty-seven additional stories of New York City airspace. For [CEO Roy] Peterson, the decision to sell the building and move to another location was a matter of Christian stewardship. He imagines what the ABS will be able to do with the money from the sale in terms of promoting its agenda of scripture engagement….
Peterson has also managed to do some revisionist history to help justify the transition to Philadelphia. He suggests that despite the ABS’s 199-year presence in the city, New York was never the Society’s true identity. On one level, Peterson is correct. The ABS was founded in New York because of the hospitality of the New York Bible Society, which supported [founder Elias] Boudinot’s plan for a national Bible society and agreed to host the meeting that established it. While it was certainly possible that the ABS might have ended up in another city, the fact remains that it did end up in New York and it remained there for two centuries. It is hard to dismiss two centuries of history. If, as Peterson notes, the ABS “inadvertently” made New York its identity when “it was never supposed to be our identity,” the fact remains that between 1816 and 2015 the American Bible Society was a New York City institution.
Peterson is quick to note that Philadelphia was Elias Boudinot’s hometown. According to his will (a copy of which Peterson, at least at the timer he was interviewed, had sitting on his desk), Boudinot had left land to the city. The new ABS president is not willing to go any farther with this argument other than to note that an ABS move to Philadelphia, at least as history is concerned, may not be as random as some would like to make it out to be. Peterson, however, is more certain about how the transition to Philadelphia will allow the ABS to connect itself once again to the story of the United States. What better place for the ABS to celebrate its bicentennial in May 2016 than the place where America was born? This was a place where God and country came together in 1776, and with the ABS only a stone’s throw away from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, Peterson is hoping that the Society can help middle-class Americans remember that fact.
Peterson wants to the ABS, with a soon-to-be constructed Bible Discovery Center highlighting the history of the Bible in the United States, to become a Philadelphia tourist attraction. He estimates that after three years in Philadelphia over 250,000 people will come to the Bible Discovery Center to “hear the story of the Bible.” Peterson wants the “best of the best” to help him in the construction of this Discovery Center, and that is why he has turned to the Green family, the owners of the retail craft store Hobby Lobby. The Greens made national headlines in 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled that they did not have to violate their conscience by conforming to a part of the Affordable Care Act that would have forced them to provide certain contraceptives to Hobby Lobby employees. In the last several years, the Greens have been active in a host of philanthropic activities on behalf of the evangelical community and are currently a major ABS donor. Peterson is excited that the Greens have been willing to help the ABS Bible Discovery Center get off the ground by sharing some of the intellectual property it has gathered in the process of building their soon-to-be-opened Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.
The other day someone asked me if my book on the American Bible Society covers the role that Bibles played in “protecting” Civil War soldiers.
Yes, it does.
Here is a taste of Chapter 7 of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).
The chapter is entitled “A Bible House Divided.”
Many soldiers viewed the Bible as a holy book with spiritual power apart from the words contained therein. Even if the Bible was not being read, it still had the mystical power to provide spiritual solace in the most frightening of times as long as it was somehow connected to one’s body during the thick of the battle. It was common for soldiers heading off into battle to pull their pocket Testaments out of their knapsacks and place them in the breast pockets of their shirts. The object of such a move, according to the ABS, was “to have the Word of God with them if they should fall in battle, to be the lamp of their feet and the light of their path, even if called to the last march through the dark valley.” One soldier in Yorktown, Virginia pulled a worn-out Testament from his pocket and told a chaplain that he had carried the book during the entire Peninsular Campaign. He pointed to the outside of his coat pocket where a hole was developing over his heart in the exact size of an ABS Testament. When the chaplain asked him if he had been reading the worn-out Bible, the soldier slapped his hand on the battered Bible and declared, “I would not take five dollars for that book! It has been with me thus far through the war!” Oftentimes the armies used ABS Bibles as a means of identifying dead soldiers on the battlefield in the wake of a particularly bloody battle. One soldier described the Testament as a kind of “headstone.” It was not only a symbol of a dead soldier’s experience with Christian faith, but if he wrote in his Bible, as many were inclined to do, it might be the only means by which anxious parents and friends could identify the body.
Sometimes a Bible in the shirt pocket could save a soldier’s life by stopping an enemy bullet. As might be expected, these stories appeared over and over again in ABS publication. While it is unlikely that a pocket-sized ABS testament was thick enough to protect a soldier from a direct hit from a direct hit, these books were probably capable of shielding soldiers from spent bullets–balls that were near the end of their useful range. The ABS and its auxiliaries were quick to compare the spiritual and physical protections that the Bible offered Civil War soldiers. The Bible could save a soldier’s life and could save a soldier’s soul. John Hampden Chamberlain, a Virginia military officer, jokingly wrote in a letter to his mother that he had yet to meet “the man whose life was saved by a pack of cards in his breast pocket.”
A recent study by LifeWay Research found that Americans have a positive view of the Bible, but they are not reading it.
Here is a taste of Bob Smietana’s synopsis of the report:
NASHVILLE, Tenn.— Americans have a positive view of the Bible. And many say the Christian scriptures are filled with moral lessons for today.
However, more than half of Americans have read little or none of the Bible.
Less than a quarter of those who have ever read a Bible have a systematic plan for reading the Christian scriptures each day. And a third of Americans never pick it up on their own, according to a new study from Nashville-based LifeWay Research.
Small wonder many church leaders worry about biblical illiteracy, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.
“Most Americans don’t know first-hand the overall story of the Bible—because they rarely pick it up,” McConnell said. “Even among worship attendees less than half read the Bible daily. The only time most Americans hear from the Bible is when someone else is reading it.”
Read the rest here.
Smietana also notes, drawing on data from the American Bible Society, that 87% of Americans have a Bible in their home.
And now for some historical context.
All of this reminds me of the story I tell about former American Bible Society CEO Eugene Habecker in chapter 27 of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society. Back in 1996, Habecker was concerned that Americans were not reading the Bibles sitting on their family bookshelves.
For those of you who don’t want to buy the book, I summarize the story in an article at Christianity Today titled “How the American Bible Society Became Evangelical.”
Here’s a piece I wrote on Inauguration Day. It ended up never seeing the light of day at a news outlet, so I am posting it here. –JF
On Friday morning Donald Trump attended a pre-inaugural service at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington D.C.. As part of the service he heard a sermon from Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. The minister was one of the first evangelical leaders to endorse Donald Trump’s candidacy for President.
Jeffress used the Old Testament story of Nehemiah to claim that God had placed Trump in the presidency for a “great eternal purpose.” He urged Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence not to let their critics distract them from that purpose.|
In an interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on the evening before the service, Jeffress explained why he thought Nehemiah was appropriate for such an inaugural sermon. Nehemiah, after all, was a builder. God told him to build “a giant wall around Jerusalem to protect the citizens.” The megachurch pastor described Israel in Nehemiah’s day as a nation that “had been in bondage for years in Babylon” with an “infrastructure” in “shambles.” No one could miss the analogy.
Jeffress’s attempt to connect the Bible to contemporary political issues facing the United States—in this case immigration, infrastructure development, and national security—is nothing new. Politicians and preachers have been using the Bible to promote similar agendas since the American republic was born.
In his famous revolutionary-era pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine tried to convince the colonies to declare independence from George III by invoking the devastating spiritual and political consequences that the nation of Israel suffered after God gave them a King.
Abraham Lincoln quoted from the Sermon on the Mount to bring healing to the nation in a time of Civil War. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan turned to Matthew 5:14 (or at least the 17th-century Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop’s use of it) to extol America’s exceptional role in world affairs. Barack Obama loved to remind Americans, using Genesis 4:9, that “we are our brother’s keeper.”
Patriotic clergymen in American history have not hesitated to mistake New Testament references to the spiritual liberty that Christians enjoy through faith with the political freedoms that all Americans enjoy as citizens.
For over two-hundred years Christian preachers have used their pulpits to argue that God’s promises to Old Testament Israel apply to the United States of America. With this context in mind, it is worth noting that Jeffress’s sermon was just the beginning.
In his inauguration address Trump quoted from Psalm 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” What was originally written as a call for the gathering of Israel to worship the Lord in Jerusalem was used by the new president as a call for Americans to put aside their differences and unite around the Trump presidency.
And it did not stop there. In her closing invocation, evangelical pastor Paula White conflated Psalm 90:17 with the Pledge of Allegiance. She prayed: “Let your favor be upon this one nation under God.”
There were few references to the Bible on Inauguration Day that did not use the sacred scriptures of Christianity to buttress either the United States of America or Trump’s particular vision for it. The closest exception came when Rev. Samuel Rodriguez read Matthew 5—a passage, known as the “Beatitudes,” that reminds Christians to be poor in spirit, humble, meek, pure in heart, peacemakers, and suffer persecution for their beliefs.
If taken seriously, the message of the Beatitudes should serve as a stinging rebuke to the new President as he enters office. Only time will tell if that is the case.
If Trump’s campaign and period of transition are any indication, I have my doubts