Photo Credit: Joel S. Baden, Mike Ross
An interview with Candida R. Moss & Joel S. Baden, author of Bible Nation The United States of Hobby Lobby
What does the crafting store Hobby Lobby have to do with the Bible?
For those who know Hobby Lobby simply from its hundreds of stores, the connection with the Bible may not be immediately apparent. But the owners of Hobby Lobby, the Green family, have been major players in the world of evangelical Christianity for many years. In the last decade or so, they have been working toward the opening of a new Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open in November 2017 in Washington D.C., just a few blocks from the National Mall. To this end, they have been collecting biblical artifacts at an astonishing rate: around 40,000 items in total. A group of scholars has been recruited to study and publish much of this material. The Greens have also created a Bible curriculum, originally intended for public schools, and now marketed to home-schoolers. The question we try to address in the book is how the evangelical beliefs of the Green family have influenced these various Bible-oriented ventures, and what it means for the kinds of products, including the museum, that they are producing.
Forty thousand items— that sounds like a lot!
Indeed. Most collections of that size take generations to build, but the Greens acquired the bulk of their collection in just a few years. The speed with which they went about this came with some complications, though, as was featured in the news earlier this summer: thousands of cuneiform texts from Iraq had been illegally imported to the U.S. and were seized by customs officials, with the result that Hobby Lobby had to forfeit them. In the early years of their buying spree, they seem not to have been especially careful to observe the proper cultural heritage laws.
What about their Bible curriculum?
Originally, the curriculum they developed was going to be used in American public schools, as part of an elective course. When the ACLU got their hands on the draft of the curriculum, however, it quickly became apparent that this was not a purely secular view of the Bible that was being presented. It was basically an evangelical Protestant curriculum, and it was eventually withdrawn and retooled. Now it is available for homeschool communities. But it still suffers from some of the faith-based biases of its creators, subtly offering a Christian understanding of the Bible and challenging many of the commonly accepted scholarly claims about the Bible—maintaining, for instance, that Moses may have written some parts of the Torah.
Why are they putting their Bible museum in Washington, D.C.?
There is a good reason that so many museums are in the capital: it’s a major tourist destination, especially for museum-goers. More people will experience the museum in D.C. than they would almost anywhere else. At the same time, though, the Greens believe that the United States is a deeply Christian nation, and that the Bible played a major part in its formation, going back to the Founding Fathers. The placement of the museum just a few steps from the Capitol building is meaningful for them: they want to make sure that members of the government know how important the Bible has been, and take the Bible more into consideration as they lead the country.
What’s wrong with evangelicals wanting to bring public attention to the Bible?
Nothing at all—they are private citizens, and they have the right to spend their money as they like, and the right to attempt to educate and influence however they see fit. Where they run into problems, at least in our view, is in the way that they describe their project. They don’t see themselves as putting forward an evangelical Christian view of the Bible—they’re different from, say, the fundamentalist Creation Museum in Kentucky. They strenuously claim that everything they do is “non-sectarian,” and is simply trying to tell the story of the Bible in an objective manner. But the story they are telling is, in fact, a very Protestant one. Our concern is that they are misleading the public, presenting a particular faith’s version of the Bible as if it were the truth, full stop. In their defense, it’s not clear that they’re even entirely aware that this is what they are doing. They are so steeped in their faith tradition that they seem at times simply ignorant that what they are saying might not be accepted by everyone outside it.
How did you become interested in Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible in the first place?
It began with an innocent conversation at a professional conference. A friend of ours mentioned that he had been trying to track down a particular papyrus to study, but learned that it had been purchased by Hobby Lobby. This was before most of their plans, including the museum, were widely known, and we were mystified: what would a crafting chain want with biblical artifacts? As we learned more about their collection—which was already massive—we thought it was a story worth telling, and we began writing a piece on it for The Atlantic. The more we researched, the deeper we got, and the more we learned about not only the collection but the curriculum, the scholarly initiatives, and the planned museum. We quickly realized that there was more than just an article here—that this was a book, and one that would hopefully open a window onto a much wider set of issues, such as the intersection of private faith and the public sphere. And though the book is finished, the story is still ongoing.