The new Museum of the Bible tries really hard to be apolitical. But is that even possible?

Evangelicals embrace ecumenism. Sort of.

CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

The most surprising thing about the Museum of the Bible, the newest addition to the string of museums dotting downtown Washington, D.C., isn’t that it’s particularly controversial. It’s that it tries so hard not to be.

That’s not to say the museum, which is officially dedicated on Friday, isn’t rife with potential pitfalls some visitors may find off-putting. To be sure, the specter of politicized evangelicalism has loomed large over coverage of the new attraction, primarily because it’s a product of entrepreneur and evangelical Christian David Green and his family — the founder of craft store giant Hobby Lobby who is probably best known for the 2014 Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. That court case, which allowed his company and other “closely-held corporations” to accrue religious exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraception mandate, was celebrated by conservatives as a victory for “religious liberty” and derided by other people of faith as unfairly privileging right-wing religious groups, particularly conservatism Catholicism and evangelicalism.

The high-tech building — which boasts cavernous hallways, grand artistic designs, and massive LCD screens — is vaguely reminiscent of the glitzy aesthetic popular in America’s innumerable evangelical megachurches. Though it appears to be a contemporary nod to the cathedrals of old, it feels a bit more Vegas than St. Vitus.

CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

And it’s hard to miss the clearest evidence of the museum’s conservative Christian origin: A giant stone wall near the entrance, adorned with the chiseled names of individuals and companies that, presumably, financed or facilitated the whole experience. “Hobby Lobby Stores” is front and center, and tucked in the corner is the “Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation”—the same Betsy DeVos that currently serves as the Secretary of Education, where she strives to build “God’s Kingdom.” Gateway Church, headed by Trump faith adviser Robert Morris, is also listed, as is Republican Congressman Steve “wives should voluntarily submit to their husbands” Pearce and his wife Cynthia.

The crowd at this week’s sneak-peak tour also reflected the stereotypical image of modern-day American evangelicalism. Megapastor Rick Warren, head of the California-based Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, grinned and glad-handed with attendees as he and his sharply dressed entourage meandered through exhibit halls. Johnnie Moore, a faith adviser to President Donald Trump, wandered about with his family (his Kairos Company is helping run media operations for the museum’s opening). The crowds were overwhelmingly white, and the chattering of Southern accents—some with a Texas twang, others with a deep-south drawl—echoed off the polished walls.

But for all this evangelical packaging, the actual content of the museum is surprisingly diverse, relatively speaking. In fact, it often evokes a sometimes awkward and frequently uneven embrace of ecumenism, working to model a vision of the Bible that engages as many American Christian traditions as possible. The finished product is something that will likely be a source of acclaim and irritation for Christians of all theological and political stripes, but offers little comfort to those wanting to conflate their faith with the rhetoric and policies of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, or even David Green.

An evangelical version of inclusivity

You first encounter this strange version of inclusivity on the ground floor, which includes entire exhibits on loan from the Vatican Museum and the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem — a hint at administrators’ dedication to ecumenism. But things get even more multifaceted when you hit the second floor, which uses an bewildering array of high-tech tools to trace the “impact” of the Bible.

The result is an experience that does not appear to reinforce the Trumpian vision of Christianity often lifted up by some of the president’s faith advisers.

Shrinking slightly less than 2,000 years of biblical “impact” into one floor is a laughably impossible task, and exhibit designers work around this by focusing on the Bible’s influence on American history. This predictably leads to discussions of Founding Fathers invoking faith during the Revolution, such as one video-based section showcasing an actor reading a letter from Benjamin Franklin calling for the U.S. seal to feature Moses. But there was a noticeable lack of modern-style Christian nationalism—e.g., claims that America is an inherently “Christian nation”—as exhibits often repeatedly gesture to the variety of faiths present in early America.

Screens with people describing how the Bible has impacted their lives. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)
Screens with people describing how the Bible has impacted their lives. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

To their credit, exhibit designers acknowledge the Bible’s more sordid uses. There is an entire section addressing the holy book’s role in the institution of slavery, for instance, and while it leans heavily on the history of Christian abolitionists, it displays examples of preachers who invoked the Bible as a justification for owning human beings.

The result is an experience that does not appear to reinforce the Trumpian vision of Christianity often lifted up by some of the president’s faith advisers. When you press on a screen labeled “The Bible and the poor,” you’re greeted to a video arguing that scripture calls on followers to welcome refugees and immigrants. It’s immediately followed by a clip of Jesuit priest and Vatican consultor James Martin—who is often associated with more liberal forms of Catholicism—insisting the Bible is unequivocal in its call to aid the poor and the needy. One man nearby grimaced sourly as he watched another video depicting president Jimmy Carter teaching a Sunday School lesson about religious freedom.

This conflict-averse strategy extends to the second fourth floor, where a rash of more “artifact-based” displays work to tell the history of the Bible “through time, technology, and culture.” Here again the museum offers a surprising degree of ecumenism: it showcases seven different versions of the Bible and 14 different versions of the canon, tracing their origin (and nearly endless translations) through various Christian and Jewish traditions. There are even exhibits on early Christian scriptures rejected as non-canonical by most groups, such as the Gospel of Thomas.

One man nearby grimaced sourly as he watched another video depicting president Jimmy Carter teaching a Sunday School lesson about religious freedom.

This approach is likely a byproduct of the museum’s outreach to academics who are more likely to frequent Ivy League institutions than evangelical Christian universities. At one point during the sneak-peek tour, Bible scholar David Trobisch—a former Yale Divinity School professor who was once described as a “a prominent liberal academic”—could be seen holding court with an array of visitors on the subject of biblical antiquities. The gaggle of listeners, who skewed white, older, and Southern, looked noticeably uncomfortable when he referenced the Quran in passing.

But none questioned the expertise of a man whose published work once sat alongside ardent atheist Christopher Hitchens, not that anyone was likely to challenge his authority in that space: Trobisch has been hired to oversee the Green’s 40,000-piece collection of artifacts.

Unlikely to sit well with progressives

Despite this broader understanding of the Bible, the museum is equally unlikely to sit well with religious progressives—at least those who don’t claim an evangelical identity.

There is a tiny forest of vertically mounted screens on the second floor, for instance, each populated with the multiracial faces of people explaining the “impact” of the Bible on their lives (their explanations often come across in ways that are inherently “evangelical” in the traditional sense). The section on religion and science is also brief and somewhat vague, arguing the two have long coexisted by lifting up individuals such as George Washington Carver—an impressionistic approach that dances around the debate’s sharper corners. While one display briefly notes the fraught relationship between Native Americans and the European colonial settlers that were often hell-bent on converting them (or, equally as often, killing them en masse), it expends little energy explaining how Christian concepts of “manifest destiny” were used to subjugate their lands.

Entrance to one of the more Disneyland-esque exhibits. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)
Entrance to one of the more Disneyland-esque exhibits. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

And if there was any sustained treatment of the contemporary debate over same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights, where activists on both sides often invoke scripture, I couldn’t find it.

“There’s no point in us going into controversy.”

“Impact” exhibit designer Jonathan Alger, managing partner at the New York City design firm C&G Partners, insisted the absence of some of these thorny questions is “not a desire to omit” them.

“We knew it wouldn’t be perfect,” he said, adding the exhibit is likely to be updated constantly.

Similarly, those schooled in Bible scholarship will note a few conspicuous omissions in the “history” section. There is no discussion of the disputed authorship of the synoptic gospels, for example, despite a century or two of research arguing they were likely not penned by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but rather by early Christian communities beginning around 66–70 C.E. (Note: even Trobisch once contended that Polycarp, not Luke, wrote much of the book of Acts.)

When I asked William C. Lazenby, whose PRD Group designed the floor, about this approach, he explained the goal was to showcase only what most religious traditions agreed upon, an effort that turned out to be profoundly difficult. The mandate required him to engage with “dozens” of Bible scholars from a range of traditions to discern the least offensive way to present the history of holy scripture.

“There’s no point in us going into controversy,” he said, noting that his constant engagement with scholars often reminded him of graduate school. “We’re here to help people engage with the Bible…We want people to find their own Bible here.”

Controversy found the exhibit anyway: One section dedicated to early cuneiform tablets sat conspicuously empty, possibly because the Greens were forced to pay a $3 million fine and return 5,500 artifacts after the FBI concluded they were illegally smuggled out of Iraq.

Take a drive through the Bible. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins)
Take a drive through the Bible. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins)

Inflections of potentially alienating, outward-facing evangelicalism peek out everywhere. In one section showcasing the Bibles of numerous translations, an entire wall is filled with versions printed in languages from across the globe. But the real point of the display appears to be the far wall, where hundreds of blank books sit under the label “to be translated.” Above both sits a giant electronic ticker indicating the number of chapters left until the Bible is available in all languages.

And then, of course, there’s the “story” floor, which purports to recreate Biblical narratives through a series of attractions that can best be described as Disneyland-esque. There is an entire section dedicated to the experience of living in “the world of Jesus of Nazareth,” complete with plastic reconstructions of ancient homes in the Holy Land. Another, currently non-functional area features Indiana-Jones style writing advertising a “drive” through the Bible. Nearby, a 30-minute presentation on Bible stories was flanked with warnings of intense special effects.

“I hear there are fog machines!” one woman whispered excitedly.

These flashy attractions give off a vibe somewhere between a Vacation Bible School and a Ken Ham-style creationist museum—although the Museum of the Bible was largely devoid of creationist rhetoric (I didn’t spot a single person riding a dinosaur). It smacks of an obviously evangelical attempt at ecumenism, constantly in conflict with dual impulses to be inclusive and to celebrate the Bible.

An unclear political future

Ultimately, the most overtly “evangelical” — and political — aspect of the Museum of the Bible is that it exists at all.

While there has been at least one other attempt to create a religion-focused museum in Washington, it was geared toward a celebration of America’s many faiths, not the guiding text of Christianity. By contrast, erecting a Bible-focused museum in the nation’s capital implicitly broadcasts a conflation of Christianity and national identity—an idea that, while rooted in history, has obvious political undertones.

Ultimately, the most overtly “evangelical” — and political — aspect of the Museum of the Bible is that it exists at all.

In fact, the museum was mired in low-level political controversy even before it began admitting the general public. The Washington Post noted this week that its opening gala is scheduled to convene at the Trump hotel, where attendees will pay $50,000-a-table to help fundraise for the Museum.

“The Green family stand for a series of political and religious positions that are on one side of the cultural divide. They’re absolutely entitled to those views but it would be unhelpful if the museum were to be associated with those views,” Gordon Campbell, a Renaissance scholar who has advised the museum, told the Post.

Dr. Anthony Zeiss, Executive Director of the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., said the use of the hotel was coincidence, and had more to do with space concerns that politics.

“That wasn’t political,” he told me. “It was simply that we needed a very very large venue we could find at the time. We looked all over.”

Zeiss also insisted the hotel is dedicated to being apolitical, and they would gladly co-host events with any group that matches the “mission of the Museum of the Bible”

“We’re apolitical so we’ll stay out of [politics]. We won’t get into social debates,” he said. When asked about religious disputes, he added: “We recognize this book represents many faith traditions… We’re ecumenical, non-sectarian.”

Whether or not a Hobby Lobby-funded Bible museum in Washington can actually operate apolitically is, of course, an open question. Yet administrators continue to put forth an image of diversity that at least attempts to reach beyond evangelicalism. The museum’s opening ceremony on Friday, for instance, included a Catholic bishop who will read a statement penned by Pope Francis.

Perhaps the oddest (and possibly accidental) example of this strange ecumenism came at the end of my tour, when I stumbled into the gift shop on my way out. After spending hours inundated with the multifaceted history, narratives, and impact of the Bible, I was curious to see which translations of the holy text the museum would deem worthy for purchase. But there were none to be found.

Confused, I caught the attention of a store clerk and asked whether the museum planned to sell Bibles, and, if so, which versions. After a long pause, she replied: “I think…I think we have some King James Versions on order right now. I think.”

“Huh. That’s weird,” I said.

The woman just nodded and smiled.