The Museum of the Bible and the Politics of Interpretation

By Kenneth E. Frantz | March 14, 2023

The Museum of the Bible (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

White evangelicals have an outsized influence in the public sphere compared to their percentage of the population. This influence was evident in the 2016 presidential election and the pro-life activism that culminated in the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade. And within evangelicalism, few are as influential as the Green family, the owners of the craft chain Hobby Lobby. Their 2014 Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby won the right for some corporations to opt out of supplying birth control to employees if it violated the owners’ religious beliefs. In 2017, the Greens opened the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., a tourist attraction boasting biblical artifacts that the Green family acquired, not without controversy, alongside exhibits that present a particularly evangelical view of Scripture.

In their new book, Does Scripture Speak for Itself?: The Museum of the Bible and the Politics of Interpretation, biblical scholars Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon look at the ways that the museum reinforces white evangelical interpretations of the Bible. They also address how the museum fits within the larger history of evangelicalism and the ideological assumptions and agenda embedded within the museum. Kenneth E. Frantz interviewed Hicks-Keeton and Concannon over Zoom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Religion & Politics: You both write about the Museum of the Bible and how it reflects a white evangelical way of reading the Bible. Why did you consider that an important topic?

Cavan Concannon: When we talk about the Museum of the Bible as being a white evangelical institution, what we’re talking about is that this museum was made within a culture that we identify as white evangelical. And by white evangelical, we don’t mean that this is demographically a white person’s museum, but that it is an evangelical museum that is steeped in a culture of whiteness.

What we mean by that is that it is one among many institutions that have been built over the last century and a little bit more to promote and to amplify and to repeat white evangelical theological and political viewpoints. And so the argument that we make is that this is a museum that is part of a larger machinery that informs and shapes and supports white evangelicalism as a sect within American Protestantism. So that’s the reason why we want to pay attention to it. We want to note that this is a machine that is producing a certain way of thinking about what the Bible is and how it works and what its place is in American society, but that it does so from a particular location within a larger institutional history.

Jill Hicks-Keeton: We’re also paying attention to the Museum of the Bible in a time when lots of people are wondering how white evangelicals have an outsized influence in terms of power in the political sphere. And so we are historicizing the museum as one way in which white evangelicals are publicizing and promoting a platform with which they can, or through which, they can amplify their political ideologies and beliefs.

R&P: You talk about how the Museum of the Bible fits into this history of evangelical entrepreneurs promoting faith and capitalism. How does the Museum of the Bible fit into that trend?

CC: One of the things that we noted is that if you follow the thread lines back in the history of white evangelicalism, what you find is that there are big industrialist names that pop up in that history and that those folks are infusing this movement with capital that they use to then build a series of important institutions. And we pick out a couple of them in the book to focus on because we think that they’re interesting examples of people that are not often talked about in the history of evangelicalism. Because typically when people write histories of evangelicalism, they talk about people like Billy Graham or Billy Sunday or George Whitefield if you go back even further.

But what’s often not talked about are the people who gave the money to support all of these folks and to build the institutional apparatus around which they were able to do their ministerial activities. So some of the people that we highlight are Henry Crowell from the Moody Bible Institute, who was one of the founders of the Quaker Oats Company and was an expert in early corporate methods of branding and who really infused conservative evangelicalism with an interest in branding their theology so that it would appeal to the middle classes. We look at the Pew family who gave a lot of money to try to bring together conservative Protestants of various stripes with libertarian economists and with industrial leaders that eventually laid the groundwork for the fusion of those interests in the current Republican Party.

We are paying attention to these figures because they built the infrastructure that has allowed white evangelicals to sort of stand in a more prominent position in American society than they might otherwise demographically. And we could tell that history with other names like the Walton family or the DeVos family, people who have given money to the Museum of the Bible as well. But we focused in the book on looking at the ways in which the Green family and Hobby Lobby have built their own institution that has now become connected to this larger network that goes back for, like I said, over a hundred years.

JHK: We should probably clarify and emphasize that the reason that this history matters is that we’re tracing a provenance for the Museum of the Bible, which is founded and funded by the evangelical Green family who own Hobby Lobby and are famous Bible boosters.

R&P: You talk about how the museum frames the Bible to help or encourage the attendees to reach certain conclusions: like the Bible is good, the Bible is reliable. Would you talk about how they go about those framings?

JHK: We actually are tracing how the museum not only interprets a Bible or frames a Bible, but itself is producing a Bible. And one characteristic of that Bible is that it is stridently benevolent when it is correctly applied. And the reason that this matters for white evangelicalism is because white evangelicals commend the Bible as an authoritative document that in general they would like to have centered as a foundational document for practice in the nation and as a guide for morality or as a document that provides moral guidance. In one example of how the Bible is made good in the museum is in the “Impact of the Bible in America” exhibit. It treats the Bible as an agent that can exist outside of human tampering such that it’s only being misapplied when we look back on history and historical phenomena that are now deemed to be wrong.

The Bible gets exculpated from complicity in harms like slavery or oppression of women. And its Bible is produced as being good when it’s on what we now deem to be the right side of history. And that is implied in the signage as a use of the Bible as opposed to a misuse by people. And the implication is that the Bible, when left alone, does good.

CC: What follows from that, to build on Jill’s point, is that if the Bible left alone does good things, then that Bible needs to be central to how a society achieves the good. So implicitly, this is an argument for organizing society around biblical authority. And this is one of the themes that you see throughout the exhibit is that when the Bible is let to be authoritative in the way that the museum understands the Bible to be, then that produces good outcomes. And in a context where the Bible is not left alone to do its thing, then bad outcomes happen. So you can see how that is an implicit argument for a kind of Christian nationalism, which is to say a society organized around its adherence to a certain notion of Christian identity. Now, one of the things that we see in other exhibits in the museum, to get to this broader point about what Bible’s being constructed, is that this biblical authority has to be grounded in something.

And it’s grounded in the notion that this is a reliable witness. The Bible, as we have it, is a reliable witness to a kind of pretextual divine Word. This is what we use to understand how the museum tells the history of the Bible on its “History of the Bible” floor exhibit. And in this exhibit, what we see is a story about how the Bible has been reliably transmitted from the people who first heard things that became part of the Bible into the written Word, and how that written Word, aided by various kinds of textual technologies from writing to collecting to translation to the printing press ultimately all the way up to European colonialism, how the Bible has been transmitted faithfully and accurately over time from its origins as a spoken Word from God to the proliferation of Bibles around the planet. So, this is an argument that undergirds the notion of biblical authority because this is an authority that rests upon a clear and reliable line of transmission between its pretextual existence as the divine Word to that Bible that we’re able to purchase and to read in any number of contexts.

R&P: You talk about how the Greens buy influence, both as biblical authorities and also in the political realm. Would you elaborate on that?

JHK: The way that we trace how money is involved in the credentialing of the Green family is to do close readings of books and a political speech that have come out in the wake of the opening of the Museum of the Bible in the last five years. And we noticed that the Green family is marketed as the “founding family” of the Museum of the Bible. We became interested in how in these publications narrate the story about their founding this museum. And so we are doing a re-description of the founding of the museum with close attention to how they are being marketed as the founders.

The other thing we noticed in the self-presentation in these publications is that devotion becomes a credential. So devotion to the Bible is the primary credentialing device, and then the journey is framed in terms of discovery. And so rather than production, what we think is a production of the museum is framed in these publications as a journey of discovery which puts intellectual and ethical constraints on how this biblical capital can be expended. So in our analyses of these cultural products, we’re also thinking about not only how the Greens generate biblical capital through their founding and funding of this museum, but also how they’re expending it. And that is also how we arrive at conclusions about what we call the white evangelical Bible looks like.

R&P: You discuss white Christian nationalism, like you bring up Lauren Kerby, but also Sam Perry, Andrew Whitehead, and Phil Gorsky’s research comes to mind in Christian nationalism. Would you discuss how this book contributes or fits into that narrative or research?

JHK: Lauren Kerby’s book Saving History was a really important influence on us for describing how evangelicals strategically deploy different scripts, when they can both present themselves as founders of the nation who are the quintessential insiders or as marginalized victims who really deserve to be at the center. So it’s a way of negotiating what feels to them like a loss of privilege when the Bible is not treated as authoritatively centered. And this helped us figure out one thing that was happening on the “Impact of the Bible in America” exhibit, which is that they’re toggling back and forth between themes of biblical authority and religious freedom, which is another sort of catchphrase that is associated with the Green family because of their political actions with Hobby Lobby and the Affordable Care Act.

So, Kerby’s work on Christian nationalist heritage tourism in D.C. helped us to think about how white evangelicalism in the museum toggles between wanting the Bible centered because it is doing good things and so that white evangelicals can have moral authority, and then when the Bible is not treated as an authority or is not centered, then they present themselves as victims who want to be recentered. When the Bible is doing something that we all recognize as good, then they want biblical authority because it will be beneficial for everyone universally in their conception. […] When white evangelicals don’t get their way, or when prevailing social norms do not align with what they see as biblical authority, then they want religious freedom.

We’re also contributing to a description of how white Christian nationalism works in the United States right now. So we see this as a contribution to describing Christian nationalism. Though we want to be careful that we are not decrying Christian nationalism as something that is outside of Christianity. Because if Christians are doing it, it is Christian.

CC: I think, to build on Jill’s point, this is one of the things that we would want to push on in the larger conversation around Christian nationalism right now, which is to say that a lot of people who are writing about Christian nationalism present it as a thing that is parasitic on otherwise normative forms of Christian life and practice. And so it’s Christian nationalism corrupts Christianity or it corrupts evangelicalism or it infects a political party. And I think what we would want to say is that Christian nationalism is embedded within a lot of different forms of Christianity in different ways. And so what we’re talking about in the book is a white evangelical nationalism, but there are other forms of traditionalist Catholic nationalism and there are forms of Orthodox nationalism and there are forms of Pentecostal nationalism. And these are forms that exist within theological traditions and their relationship to nation-states.

And there is also a history within liberal forms of Protestant Christianity that associate Christian identity with support for the nation. So we want to be very clear that this is not about talking about Christian nationalism as a dangerous thing. Christian nationalism is something that is part of theological traditions and we’re talking about a specific form of it. And it’s important to talk about the specificity of forms of Christian nationalism because they’re not all the same, which is something that you would not get necessarily from reporting in the mainstream media about this thing that we’re talking about now.

R&P: What is the relationship between the Museum of the Bible and the academy, including with your specialties in biblical scholarship and archeology? 

JHK: I wouldn’t want to speak to the whole guild of professional biblical scholars in the United States, but I will say that studying and thinking about this museum for the past five years has caused me to think about the horizons of what biblical scholarship looks like. And to question the purpose of professional biblical scholars who are attempting to hold the museum accountable to what we might think of as “real history.” And in my early publications about the museum, I was using the museum as a site of public scholarship to teach Bible 101. There’s no such thing as the Bible. There are lots of bibles and holding them accountable to historical critical norms in the field of biblical scholarship. And I’ve become convinced that not only is that not the most ethical position because it is advancing historic privileging of white Protestant, Euro-American men, but also it is not the most intellectually interesting because it’s turning the museum into a conversation partner rather than an object of analysis. And so call me a biblical scholar, but I am hoping that this book is also a contribution to American religious history.

CC: And also as a biblical scholar who happens to do some archeology too, I think that part of what we’re hoping for this book is that it will also encourage biblical scholars to rethink the priorities, the methods, and the orientations of our field, to push us away from doing the same things over and over again. By which I mean trading on the discovery of the original intention of biblical manuscripts written in the first century and towards studying how biblical texts are used and reused and remade scriptural over time in different contexts, in different media. And to pay attention to the concrete conditions whereby biblical texts are made biblical over and over and over again.

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