Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, wants to sell America on the Bible, one teenager at a time. Photo courtesy of Museum of the Bible
On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the controversial Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. case, ruling for the first time that for-profit businesses can hold religious views and that they can use said views to get out of providing birth control coverage to their employees. Depending on which team you play for in the culture wars, the ruling was either a tragic affront to democracy, healthcare, and civil rights, or a rare win for freedom and religious liberty. For the Green family, the billionaire evangelicals who “closely hold” the Hobby Lobby corporation, it was obviously the latter. But it was also an auspicious beginning, an early victory in a larger fight to persuade America that it is a Christian nation bound by the literal truths of the Bible.
Although relatively unknown among unbelievers until the Supreme Court case, Hobby Lobby and its devout owners have long been a powerful force on the Christian right. The Green family is basically to American Christendom what George Soros is to progressive causes, or, perhaps more appropriately, what the Koch brothers are for the Tea Party. David Green, Hobby Lobby’s self-made founder, is worth roughly $5.1 billion, according to Forbes, which estimates that he has given away more than $500 million over his lifetime, including at least $300 million in property donations to evangelical colleges, churches, and ministries. The Oklahoma City–based arts-and-crafts chain employs three in-house chaplains to minister to and convert employees; three times a year, on Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July, it takes out ads in national newspapers celebrating the power of Jesus and America and directing readers to a toll-free number where they can be saved.
But in recent years, the Greens have vastly expanded their philanthropic footprint, undertaking a multimillion-dollar push to study and promote the scriptures. Since 2009, the family has assembled 40,000 biblical antiquities—the world’s largest private collection—and launched an international scholarship program to study the rare texts and artifacts. The family is now building a permanent home for its collection, and is also planning to roll out a Bible curriculum for public high school students this fall.
The goal, according to Hobby Lobby president Steve Green (David's son), is to “reintroduce” a prodigal nation to the “absolute authority” and “historical reliability” of the Bible. “This nation is in danger because of its ignorance of what God has taught,” Green explained in a speech to the National Bible Association last year. “We need to know it. Because if we don't know it, our future is going to be very scary.
“We want to show that this book when we apply it to our lives, in all aspects of life, has been good. Because it has,” he said. “If we can encourage a skeptical world to reconsider a book that can change our world, that is an exciting journey.”
The capstone of this vision is an as-yet-unnamed museum devoted to the Bible located just steps from the National Mall in Washington, DC. The museum, which will cost somewhere around $800 million and is set to open in 2017, will house the Greens’ permanent holdings, which range from unpublished Dead Sea Scrolls and early tracts of Martin Luther to Elvis Presley’s Bible—and Babe Ruth’s Bible, and Johnny Cash’s Bible, and the world’s smallest Bible.
Details about the project are still scarce, but early accounts promise a very interactive experience, heavy on the historical reenactments and animatronics. For example, the Green Collection’s traveling exhibition—a teaser showcase currently on tour in Vatican City, Israel, Cuba, and the Bible Belt—includes a set piece of an “ancient Jewish synagogue” displaying “Torah scrolls that survived the Nazi Holocaust”; a reenactment of “St. Jerome’s Cave, where guests imitate 4th-century monks transcribing the Bible by candlelight”; a replica of the Guttenberg press; and, naturally, a hologram of Abraham Lincoln.
Steve Green and others affiliated with the museum insist that the goal is not to proselytize, but rather to make the story and impact of the Bible more “accessible” to nonbelievers. “We’re not trying to convince anybody of anything,” the museum’s chief operating officer, Cary Summers, said in a March interview with the New Republic. “We’re simply presenting the facts.” He added, though, that the consistency across the Green collection “gives a great deal of comfort that the Bible is true, and it’s accurate.” (A representative for the Museum of the Bible—the foundation that oversees the Green Collection and its related endeavors—declined to make anyone available to me for comment.)
A nun checks out the Green family's biblical trophies at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Museum of the Bible
The scope of the Greens’ proselytizing vision comes through more clearly—and controversially—in the Museum of the Bible curriculum, which is set to debut at the public high school in Mustang, Oklahoma, this fall. An initial draft of the course text is pretty half-baked when it’s not overtly evangelical. A discussion about the accuracy of the book (“How Do We Know That the Bible Is Historically Reliable?”), for example, includes this sentence, apropos of nothing: “Just as historians do not know everything about King David’s reign many centuries ago and about the life of Jesus, we similarly do not know all of Dr. King’s activities during his stay in the Birmingham jail.” (That’s Martin Luther King, Jr., in case you were confused.) In another lesson, a list of the biblical God’s attributes includes “gracious and compassionate,” “full of love,” and “a righteous judge,” conveniently ignoring all the vengeful, jealous bits. At another point, the text refers to "the American film classic" The Birth of a Nation, a cultural aside that is both embarrassingly racist and totally obsolete.
Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, said he was “baffled” by the text, particularly given Museum of the Bible’s efforts to sell itself as a non-sectarian academic endeavor. “I mean this curriculum really had not been vetted,” he said. “It was just such an odd thing for them to roll out.”
The Greens, he added, “have worked hard to make inroads in the scholarly community—they want to be major players. That's what made the Bible curriculum such a jaw-dropper—they have been saying that they are about one thing, but then this curriculum comes out and it’s something else entirely."
Image courtesy of Americans United
Predictably, civil liberties groups have been outraged by all this, and are petitioning the Mustang School Board to cancel the Bible class. “This is just Christian proselytizing in public schools,” said Andrew Seidel, a staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation who has investigated the Mustang Bible curriculum and its ties to Hobby Lobby. “There’s just so much wrong—the entire curriculum is tainted with a Christian bias. It’s totally uncritical. They make assumptions based on their personal Christian faith and treat it as fact.”
The Mustang School Board has said that it is looking into criticisms and working on putting together a new draft before school starts next month. But without significant changes, Seidel said, the school district could face a legal challenge. “We're going to be watching it very, very closely,” he said. “I've never seen a case like this that would be able to stand up to court scrutiny.”
So once again the Greens find themselves in another skirmish over the role of religion in public life. While you may not agree with the family’s belief in the absolute truth of the Bible, it's obviously had a profound impact on world history and Western civilization, and questions about how and whether it should be studied—and revered—are part of a massive debate that America has been having for decades. But after decades of watching the Christian right cede territory—on school prayer, gay marriage, displaying the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses—the Greens seem determined to test the line between church and state.
“I think the Greens do see this as a calling, in the religious sense,” said Chancey, “to remind America of what they see as its Christian origins. There is a clear sense of mission to use these initiatives to spread what they see as the biblical message, for America's own good.”
“I think sometimes it’s hard for them to understand that not everyone accepts their religious views about the Bible as simply fact,” he added. “Not everyone sees things like they do.” He burst out laughing: “I guess that’s an understatement.”
Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.