The evangelical Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby, the chain of craft stores, made history two weeks ago when the Supreme Court overturned the Obama administration’s mandate that family-owned companies must provide contraceptive coverage to their employees.
Now, the family is looking to build a permanent presence on the Washington landscape, by establishing a sprawling museum dedicated to the Bible, just two blocks south of the National Mall.
The development of a Bible museum has long been a dream of the Oklahoma-based Green family, which has built Hobby Lobby into a $3 billion company in which its Christian beliefs infuse every aspect of the business, from the music played in its stores to being closed on Sundays.
But on the heels of the company’s legal victory, the project is raising concern in some quarters that the Greens’ museum could blur the line between educating and evangelizing. Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and the son of its founder, has referred to the Bible as “a reliable historical document,” and, as part of the museum project, he is developing a curriculum to “reintroduce this book to this nation.”
“This nation is in danger because of its ignorance of what God has taught,” Green, who declined to be interviewed, said in a speech last year in New York. “There are lessons from the past that we can learn from, the dangers of ignorance of this book. We need to know it. If we don’t know it, our future is going to be very scary.”
Such sentiments have stirred fears about the museum among groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which promotes separation between church and state. “I think they are a great threat,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, a co-president of the group, which is based in Madison, Wisconsin. “My instincts would tell me that they are choosing Washington, D.C., because they intend to influence Congress.”
Scheduled to open in 2017, the yet-to-be-named museum would welcome people of all faiths and include rare Torahs as well as historic Bibles.
Starting the Bible museum in the nation’s capital was no accident. After surveying cities, including Dallas and New York, for more than a year, the Museum of the Bible, the Green family’s nonprofit organization that is overseeing the project, chose Washington for its tourists, robust museum culture and national profile.
The museum, which will occupy half a block in southwest Washington, will sit in the shadow of some of the capital’s most prominent institutions, including the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It will replace the Washington Design Center, a hulking, eight-story brick-and-stone structure that was originally built as a refrigerating warehouse in the 1920s, before home refrigeration was common.
Green’s group acquired the 400,000-square-foot space in 2012 for $50 million.
Adding up the value of over 40,000 planned artifacts, the real estate and the cost of renovations, the museum is an $800 million venture. The Green family has been the primary financial backer to date, but a national fundraising drive will soon be underway to help finance the reconstruction.
Details from a filing with Washington’s historic preservation review board showed that Green plans to restore the building’s facade, gut and reinforce the interior, and build a two-story glass addition on the roof. Renderings of the plan echo the transformation of London’s Bankside Power Station, which was remade into the Tate Modern museum.
The proposal still needs final approval from the city because the building, which is considered an important example of Renaissance Revival architecture, is being designated as a historic landmark. According to David Maloney, the state historic preservation officer for the District of Columbia, approval of the museum’s final design is expected by the end of the month.
The genesis of a nonprofit Bible museum came five years ago when Green, a Protestant, took some of the money he made from Hobby Lobby and started scouring the world for ancient manuscripts, Torahs, papyri and Bibles. He spent more than $30 million during his initial buying spree, but Scott Carroll, an archaeologist and historian who advised Green on his purchases, estimated that the collection was now worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
“You’re talking about landmark acquisitions,” Carroll said, referring to items such as a nearly complete book of Psalms on papyrus and the earliest recordings of the New Testament in Jesus’ household language of Palestinian Aramaic. “These are huge things that any museum, to have a portion of them, would be honored to have.”
The Green family’s religious beliefs run deep. Steve Green’s father and the company founder, David Green, has made its Christian identity a conspicuous part of Hobby Lobby’s culture. One year, unhappy with the way local newspapers were writing about Christian holidays, he took out Christmas and Easter ads in hundreds of newspapers across the United States, spreading the message of Jesus and referring readers to a toll-free help line where they could seek spiritual answers.
Thus far, local officials have embraced the museum. Rachel Reilly Carroll, who sits on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission whose district includes the museum site, said that the proposed design had drawn an enthusiastic response from residents because it would rehabilitate the building’s imposing exterior and create a new public space.
Yvette Alexander, a member of the Washington City Council, said that she was also open to the construction of a Bible museum but that the strong views of the Greens on contraception could be an issue if they tried to promote them through the museum’s exhibits. And if the Greens were to turn to the city for money, their position on contraception would be an obstacle.
“They probably wouldn’t receive government funding if they’re trying to push their agenda, which is against what we’re representing,” said Alexander, a Democrat. “I do believe in a woman’s right to choose, and I do believe in contraception.”
Green laid out a sweeping vision for the space during his speech in New York last year to the National Bible Association that described his hopes of “telling the story of a book that is like none other.” He expects millions of people to pass through the museum every year.
Specifics of the exhibits have not been released, but the traveling show of Green’s collection offers some clues. It included theatrical experiences such as hologram recreations of biblical scenes, re-enactments of fourth-century monks transcribing the Bible by candlelight in St. Jerome’s Cave and a multimedia “Noah’s ark experience.”
Whether evolutionary explanations of history will be included, along with those of other faiths, remains to be seen, but Green has made his personal views on the matter clear.
“Discovery after discovery supports the accuracy of this book,” he said. “The book we have is a reliable historical document.”