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Museum of the Bible, funded by conservatives, avoids contentious issues

11/24/2017, 2:17 p.m.
Eight years ago, Hobby Lobby president Steve Green found a new way to express his Christian faith. His family’s $4 ...

Associated Press

WASHINGTON

Eight years ago, Hobby Lobby president Steve Green found a new way to express his Christian faith. His family’s $4 billion arts and craft chain was already known for closing stores on Sundays, waging a U.S. Supreme Court fight over birth control and donating tens of millions of dollars to religious groups.

Now, Mr. Green would begin collecting biblical artifacts that he hoped could become the starting point for a museum.

Last Friday, that vision was realized when the 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible opened three blocks from the U.S. Capitol in what marks the most prominent public display of the family’s deep religious commitment.

The $500 million museum includes pieces from the family’s collection from the Dead Sea Scrolls, towering bronze gates inscribed with text from the Gutenberg Bible and a soundscape of the 10 plagues, enhanced by smog and a glowing red light to symbolize the Nile turned to blood.

It is an ambitious attempt to appeal simultaneously to people of deep faith and no faith, and to stand out amid the impressive constellation of museums in Washington. The Bible exhibits are so extensive, administrators say it would take days to see everything.

Mr. Green said the institution he largely funded is meant to educate, not evangelize, though critics are dubious. Museum administrators have taken pains to hire a broad group of scholars as advisers. Lawrence Schiffman, a New York University Jewish studies professor and Dead Sea Scrolls expert, called the museum a “monument” to interfaith cooperation. Exhibits are planned from the Vatican Museum and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“There’s just a basic need for people to read the book,” said Mr. Green, sitting in a hotel-style suite inside the museum where visiting dignitaries can stay. “This book has had an impact on our world and we just think people ought to know it and hopefully they’ll be inspired to engage with it after they come here.”

The last major splash the Greens made in Washington was over their religious objections to birth control. In 2014, Hobby Lobby persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to exempt for-profit companies like theirs from the contraception coverage requirement in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. That culture war victory has in part colored reactions to the museum even before it opened.

The Oklahoma company also had to pay a $3 million fine and return artifacts after federal prosecutors said the company got caught up in an antiquities smuggling scheme.

Mr. Green said the company had been naive in doing business with the dealers. Items at the center of the fines were never destined for the museum, administrators say. Of the 1,100 items the museum owns, 300 come from the Greens’ personal collection.

But skepticism surrounding the intent of the project has focused more on the Greens’ record of putting their fortune and influence behind spreading their particular religious beliefs. The museum will be the centerpiece of several of the family’s efforts, including sponsoring research on the Bible and promoting a Bible curriculum they hope will be used in U.S. public schools. An initial attempt in an Oklahoma school district was withdrawn following complaints the lessons weren’t neutral.