In 2010, the owners of retail giant Hobby Lobby started buying something that would never grace the shelves of its crafting megastore: biblical artifacts. Since that time, the Green family has accumulated over 40,000 items that range from fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls to Elvis Presley’s personal Bible. Much of their collection—one of the largest private collections in the world—will be displayed at their new Museum of the Bible, set to open in Washington, D.C. this November. But biblical scholars Candida Moss and Joel Baden question the ethics behind some of the Green’s acquisitions and the way the museum is being presented as a nonsectarian “Christian Smithsonian.” Their new book, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton University Press, Oct.), provides an investigative look into the Green’s collection and their Museum of the Bible, making a case for how the powerful evangelical family is trying to dominate the story of the Bible.
How did you end up writing a book about the owners of a craft store?
Moss: We sort of fell into this story. I was talking to a friend who works with papyri and they mentioned that they had tried to get a particular manuscript but weren’t able to because the Green family—the owners of Hobby Lobby—had purchased it. We started to get interested in what this family was doing and the more people we talked to, the more we understood that what the Green family is doing is much bigger than we thought. They’re an enormously influential presence in the U.S.
You argue in the book that the Museum tells a very particular story of the Bible, one that is based on the Green’s own beliefs. Why is this a problem?
Moss: What’s problematic for us is not that they want a museum; it’s how they’re messaging the museum. They’re messaging it as a nonsectarian national museum that speaks for all Christians and is accessible to all Americans. However, everything about the numerous interviews we did with the Greens and with people who work at the museum led us to believe it’s not a nonsectarian museum. It’s a very Protestant story of the Bible grounded in the Green’s own faith. Additionally, a lot of the museum’s purpose is about the Bible’s role in America, or at least the role that the Greens think it should have, with respect to legislation, culture, and education. They’re making strong political claims that America is and should be run on biblical principles.
Baden: They have every right to do whatever they want with their money. I have, for example, no problem with Ken Ham’s Creation Museum [which features an evangelical perspective of the Book of Genesis]. It’s completely transparent. Nobody is under an allusion that it’s anything other than what it is. It’s the way that the Green’s present the Museum of the Bible that is deceptive, even if unintentionally so.
What do you hope people take away from reading this book?
Baden: On one hand, I hope that people will recognize more clearly when they go to the Museum of the Bible that it tells an evangelical story of the Bible and is not nonsectarian. We also want people to start thinking more actively about the way that our culture permits and promotes a certain kind of influence with regard to religion, politics, education, and money, and how these all tie together—the larger structures that are in place. For example, the way the Greens are using their affluence to try and exert influence over American politics and legislation or trying to put a Bible curriculum in public schools.
Moss: It’s not just a museum and an antiquities collection. The Greens also put a lot of money into politics and legislation, and understanding the way these things fit together is important.