Is the 'Museum of the Bible' symptomatic of America's lapse of secularism?
Walking around the National Mall in Washington D.C., it is hard not to notice the pseudo-religious nature of the monuments that line it. Abraham Lincoln stares down the gargantuan boulevard, past the Washington monument, his gaze landing upon the Capitol Building and all that occurs within. The presence of Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson is not surprising, as in the canon of the United States, the Union and its free, democratic values, it seems only logical to adorn the epicentre of American political history with depictions of its greatest prophets. This deification of the United States itself is surely central to its success, and indeed, its ability to retain such a tangibly similar identity in the minds of its public today, as it did in 1776. However, the National Mall is soon to be home to another attraction, one which seems to fly directly in the face of the hitherto temple of secularism.
The $500million ‘Museum of the Bible’, which is privately funded, aims “to show and to educate people about the many ways that the Bible has impacted America, not just [its] history but in terms of civil rights and social justice to fashion”, according to Steve Bickley, Vice-President of Marketing for the Museum. However, though the museum appears to be erring towards objectivity, that it exists at all seems to be symptomatic of a wider distortion of the American identity. Indeed, the desire by some conservative factions to envelop evangelical Christian values into the modern day American political discourse, is inconsequential compared to the attempt to retrospectively insert them into its history.
The most obvious way in which the museum appears to be something of an anomaly in Washington DC, is that the United States has long acknowledged the separation of church and state in its politics. In short, though this was not originally part of the Constitution, it was acknowledged by the founding fathers that the function of government should not be impeded by theological issues, especially one being formed in the age of the enlightenment. Since, this has been considered a cornerstone of American politics, and celebrated as a success of bipartisanship. Eventually, it entered the constitution in 1947 through the Fourteenth Amendment, as a Justice Hugo Black wrote: “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another...”.
Let's consider the original, secular makeup of American politics alongside this new enterprise. The pantheon of the National Mall containing a museum devoted to the role of religious text in American society starts to seem peculiar. But, perhaps it isn’t. American politics has been on a long slide towards religious political rhetoric, which has made (at least theatrical) Christianity something of a pre-requisite for anyone attempting to hold the office of President. Previously, this had not been the case. As Julie Butters wrote, Thomas Jefferson’s consistent criticism of organized religion, albeit with support for religious freedom, did not affect his campaign for President in 1800, yet today it seems inconceivable that this would be the case.
With regards to the 2016 election, a poll by the Pew Research Centre found that two-thirds of American voters thought it was ‘important’ that the President have religious convictions, and 40% thought that the election discourse was lacking in terms of spirituality. Indeed, though Donald Trump botched his way through professions of faith – holding up a copy of his book, claiming it to be his “second favorite” behind the bible, citing “an eye-for-an-eye” as his approach to revenge, which Jesus condemned, and referred to a communion wafer as “my little cracker” – it seems engagement with the subject certainly helped Trump connect with the Republican voter base. They, according Pew, are more likely to hold religion as a central matter in their lives, pray more often and lean upon religion for moral guidance than their Democrat counterparts.
It can be seen, then, that the role of religion is changing, and growing ever stronger in the American political psyche, and in turn, the politics and norms of Washington DC are changing to accommodate it. Where this can become a problem, is evidenced in the aforementioned Museum of the Bible. The Museum is owned, founded, and had its collection largely provided by Steve Green, the owner of handicraft superstore chain Hobby Lobby. The company is now infamous for refusing to have their staff healthcare cover birth control, and gaining the support of the Supreme Court in doing so. Green’s collection of biblical relics is at the centre of the case being made against the museum, as it has serious issues with provenance.
Roberta Mazza has written thoroughly about the acquisition methods of the Green Collection, as well as the practices of collection manager Scott Carroll, who was inexplicably able to acquire some 6000 biblical papyri texts, which rarely appear on the market – even individually - in only a few years. It is implied, though not yet proven, that many of these items became available due to the Arab Spring in 2011, and were sold on eBay through a handful of accounts to the Greens, who had many of them sent to various addresses connected with Hobby Lobby as textile or tile ‘samples’.
The implication of this, of course, is that Hobby Lobby’s evangelical Christian owners, are funding militant Islamic groups in order to create an American national monument to Christendom, and yet despite this, the Museum is allowed to proceed, despite the confiscation of parts of its collection. It is hard not to feel that were it not for its subject matter, this might not be the case. Should this Museum have been one concerning the Koran, the Torah or other holy scriptures, it is inconceivable that the sanctions would not beharsher than the artifact confiscation and a three million dollar fine handed out to the Greens, but the government cannot bring itself to halt a Museum dedicated to Christianity.
The reality then, is that while America may wish to acknowledge its Christianity, it must ask itself the cost at which it does so. Having led the way for decades on stopping the illegal smuggling of artefacts, is it willing to allow an institution that so brazenly engages in the practice to adorn the National Mall? Is it willing to allow a private entity to dictate the manner in which American Christianity is presented to thousands of tourists every year? And finally, in privileging the narrative of the Bible’s impact upon America, above that of other holy, or even secular texts, is the United States willing to erode its separation between church and state just a little more?
Julie Butters- Why America can’t separate religion & politics:
Roberta Mazza - The Green collection and the Museum of the Bible: 443,000 square meters of mess: