The Hobby Lobby retail empire is an American success story. In 1970, David Green, a preacher’s son from Kansas, borrowed $600 to start a picture-frame business at his kitchen table. Decades later, his once modest enterprise is now a giant crafting store chain, with 600 stores and $4.3 billion in annual revenue. According to Forbes, David Green has an estimated net worth of $6.4 billion.
The Hobby Lobby story is also very American in that Green and his progeny have used their wealth to further a political agenda—or more specifically a religio-political agenda, with America seen as a Christian country founded on biblical values. One well known example is the lawsuit that the evangelical family filed that objected to mandated contraception coverage on religious grounds. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court ruled that when the Affordable Care Act forced closely held for-profit companies to supply certain contraceptives, it was a violation of religious liberty.
The case was a notable success for the company. But the Green family’s growing public influence has a significant cultural aspect as well. Since 2009, the Greens have been quietly amassing a collection of some 40,000 biblical manuscripts. In articles for outlets like The Atlantic and The Daily Beast, biblical scholars Joel Baden and Candida Moss have chronicled the troubling issues swirling around these artifacts—namely that some were forgeries and others acquired illegally.
Baden and Moss have also tracked current Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green, who is David Green’s son, and his attempt to influence American society with the Museum of the Bible, which opens in Washington D.C. on November 17. The museum bills itself as dedicated to “the book that shapes history,” and in public statements, Steve Green and Museum of the Bible President Cary Summers insist that the approach is nonsectarian. In addition to the Green collection, the museum will display artifacts lent by the Vatican and the Israel Antiquities Authority. But the overall goal, according to Baden and Moss, is to bolster the evangelical narrative of a Christian America with the Bible as a direct force in American history.
With their new book, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, Moss and Baden examine the Green family’s long list of Bible-related projects — and the troubling questions that continue to dog these endeavors. Gordon Haber interviewed Baden and Moss via phone about the book and their research. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
R&P: You’re both religion scholars, but Bible Nation is a work of highly readable journalism. What led you to Hobby Lobby and to writing about it for a popular audience?
CM: I was at a Bible conference in 2013, meeting an old friend from grad school who was working on papyri. He was running into problems because he couldn’t get hold of papyri he wanted. They’d been purchased by the Green family of Hobby Lobby. And I said, “The crafting store people?” At the time, I was very interested in why very wealthy Christians would be buying manuscripts. Were they collectors? Did they believe the papyri had a talismatic property? And as we dug into it and found issues of provenance, and that they planned to open a museum, we thought, “Wow, this is a really big story.” Because the story they tell about themselves was somewhat different.
JB: Candida and I have been writing together for some time. We’d written already for The Atlantic about the gospel of Jesus’s wife when that story was happening. So we had already been writing for a popular audience about what was happening in the world of the Bible, translating scholarly issues into a popular idiom. And this is another story equally worthy of getting out there.
R&P: As scholars, how did you adapt to working as investigative journalists? Was it difficult?
CM: At first it was a little painful for both of us. It’s different to get all of the subordinate clauses out of the sentences in order to convey our message clearly. And there was a steep learning curve in becoming journalists; we were learning skills we hadn’t used before. We’d both written for a popular audience and both written trade books before, but developing journalistic skills, such as avoiding emotional attachments—that was a new experience for me. The Greens and many people involved with the Museum of the Bible are very charming. But then you have to ask yourself if what they’re saying is really accurate while still trying to be really fair. We spent many hours with Steve Green; we liked him enormously. We spent time with [Museum of the Bible President] Cary Summers; we liked him enormously. We loved Lauren Green. And they seem honest and open, and they are trying to be honest and open. But at the same time, some of the things they are saying aren’t quite true, whether they know that or not. And fact-checking them and pressing them on it, that was a new experience as scholars. You know, working on a text, I’ve never been able to ask the evangelist Mark, “Well, are you sure what you mean by ‘son of God?’”
JB: I’m used to simply sitting with a source on my desk. But this kind of research involves live conversation and asking follow up-questions, checking what one person says against what another person says, going back to ask for clarification. Some of what we do as academics translates nicely, that skepticism, that critical eye that we bring to texts. It was an interesting experience to have to translate that objectivity and critical thinking to a person sitting across from you and talking to you.
R&P: The Greens and Cary Summer do come across as engaging people in your book. But you describe the provenance issues, and their lack of transparency, as a kind of massive “naïveté.” And yet considering how many times they have been informed about their misdeeds, and considering their business acumen, you have to wonder when naïveté spills over into lies and hypocrisy.
JB: There is no question that they have excellent business minds there, especially David Green, the patriarch who founded Hobby Lobby. But in terms of the Bible stuff, in our conversation with Steve Green, it was clear he has existed for his entire life within an evangelical bubble. Even when people point out to him or suggest there might be complications, it’s somehow made to be not a problem. The perfect example of this is the Dead Sea Scrolls. Whereas for scholars it was a revelation when we understood just how fluid and unstable the text of the Bible was 2,000 years ago, Steve Green looks at it and says, “It’s amazing how exactly the same the Bible is.” That is what happened at every stage, whether it’s the Dead Sea Scrolls or the place of the Bible in America. He’s surrounded himself his whole life with people who agree with him and support his views. So it’s a kind of interpretative naïveté.
R&P: In the book, you refer to it as “willful.”
CM: Yes. They’ve restarted the museum several times. They rebooted in 2012 when [Bible scholar Scott Carroll] left, and then after our magazine pieces, they took the Green name off the Green Scholars Initiative, so the museum could distance itself. When the news of the settlement to the federal investigation came out, they said, “Oh, that was the past, this is the future.” And what we say in the book is that these problems have continued throughout the history of the museum. And that seems willful. How many times can you reboot your museum, have the same problems, not fix them, and say they’re different?
I think it is precisely because they came from the business world that they ended up being naïve. Green gave us an example of when Hobby Lobby was in trouble for copyright infringement. The company paid a fine, and their perspective was, “We made a mistake and learned from it.” But when you contribute to the black market on antiquities, you partake in a market that involves real-life violence, including murder and assault.
R&P: So paying a fine in the latter case doesn’t quite get them off the hook. You did pick up in the book that this particular story is part of the American distrust of expertise, in this case scholarly expertise, and the belief that business acumen is translatable to any realm. When the Greens and their proxies are confronted with very clear explanations of why certain systems, like Biblical studies, don’t work like the business world, they continue to do so anyway. This is a bit of a leading question, but how worried about these guys are you?
JB: Worried in what sense?
R&P: In the sense that the first exhibit they installed in the Museum of the Bible is a reproduction of the Liberty Bell. They’re clearly chipping away at the idea of American governance as secular.
JB: Let’s set aside the Greens’ collecting habits, which are separate from the museum and its understanding of the Bible. The most troubling aspect is their seeming inability to distinguish between the Bible and American Protestantism. Their three-minute promo is fascinating demonstration of this problem. At least half of it is a reenactment of American history which has no bearing on the Bible—the signing of Declaration of Independence, for example, or the Revolutionary War. The worry is that the museum portrays a story of the Bible that culminates in Protestantism and America.
CM: I’m on the same page. It’s not really a museum of the Bible, it’s a museum of American Protestantism. Their whole purpose is to show this country as a Christian country governed by Christian morality. You put that together with donations to legislative campaigns to defend so-called traditional marriage, and you have to wonder what kind of changes they will be able to effect in America. Obviously, they are Christians, and they are entitled to make this country the best it can be according to them. But just because they are nice and well intentioned and they sincerely believe what they are saying doesn’t mean that they aren’t also the religious equivalent of the Koch brothers.
R&P: From your book, it seems that the Greens’ viewpoint—and the museum’s—of religious tolerance is a kind of noblesse oblige—that tolerance is granted by them rather than something intrinsic to the nation.
CM: If you would ask them why we have religious tolerance in America, they’d say it’s because the Bible teaches religious tolerance. So tolerance of other religions is sort of a subset of Biblical teachings. For them, it’s not a humanitarian or political principle, it’s something we have only because of the Bible. According to them, it’s really American Protestantism magnanimously allowing other religions to exist. And you can see the slippage when they say the museum involves “Christians, Catholics, and Jews.” And I think, “Well, I rather thought Catholics were Christians.”
JB: They love Jews in the way evangelicals love Jews. They love Israel in the way evangelicals love Israel. And they love being able to incorporate Jews into their story. Steve Green said that we have to thank the Jewish people for preserving the text of Bible for us. And our reaction was, “You think they did that for you?”
R&P: So clearly with the museum there’s proselytizing. And yet everything they do has a pecuniary advantage. It has a dual purpose in evangelizing and tax write-offs. They buy buildings, refurbish them, and donate them to evangelical institutions for huge tax benefits. They buy huge numbers of Biblical artifacts, driving up the prices, then donate them to the museum for huge tax benefits. They don’t do anything it seems unless there is a financial advantage.
JB: In this they are in line with the practices of museums and wealthy collectors. This is how collectors go about financing their collections, this is how museums go about acquiring their collections. If these tax laws weren’t in place, museums would have a very hard time accessing all kinds of materials. What makes it look sketchy is that Steve Green is donating [the artifacts] and Steve Green is chairman of the nonprofit to which the donations are being made. In light of the provenance issues, they insist they will adhere to the highest ethical standards when accepting donations. That helps to solve the problem moving forward. But it doesn’t answer the question of seven to eight years before this. We just don’t know what’s in the Green collection or what they donated to the museum because there is no transparency. You’re right to feel ethically icky about it. It is, however, totally legal.
CM: What struck me was when I saw how little money it took to get these kinds of tax deductions. Hobby Lobby pays $100,000 to purchase a particular institution, and that yields a $20 million tax write-off over ten years. I thought, “Hang on, I could have clubbed together with some friends and not paid taxes for ten years.”
R&P: You’ve had a lot of access to the Greens and their proxies. Do you think these guys will still take your calls after the book comes out?