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Review: Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden’s “Bible Nation: the United States of Hobby Lobby”

Remember the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision that permitted “closely held for-profit corporations to be exempt from a regulation its owners religiously object to,” i.e., offering insurance policies (Obamacare) to their employees that cover certain contraceptives the owners find objectionable? Billionaire David Green and others in his family, who own Hobby Lobby, took their case all the way to the highest court, and the decision in their favor chipped away—among other things—at the supposed separation between church and the state. Shortly after the decision, Mother Jones published an article exposing the true character of the plaintiffs: “The Company’s Retirement Plan Invests in Contraception Manufactures” to the tune of millions of dollars. Christianity in the United States has fed its roots on hypocrisy. No surprise, then, that the Greens are about to go nation-wide in their determination to monetize and proselytize their religious beliefs with the November opening of The Museum of the Bible, in Washington, D.C., located as close to the government museums on the Mall as possible.

Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden—two respected academics of religious studies—go out of their way to be objective in their reporting on the Green family’s growing influence on matters concerning the Bible in our country today. But the Greens and their surrogates are exemplary in exposing their own ignorance, their duplicity, and their downright dishonesty in their obsession with ramming the Bible down the throats of all Americans in order to convince us that we are a nation shaped by their narrow biblical interruption: evangelicalism. Bible Nation could not be more damning of these people, yet I can already predict that Donald Trump will be present at the opening ceremony of the Museum, singing their praises for promulgating the “Christian Smithsonian.”

You may have read within the past few months that the Greens (David and his two sons, Steve and Mart) have been caught violating the Antiquities Act, still another example of their relentless dishonesty. An article in The New York Times (“Hobby Lobby Agrees to Forfeit 5,500 Artifacts Smuggled Out of Iraq”) states that packages sent to various Hobby Lobby outlets were identified “as tile samples,” yet they contained “ancient clay cuneiform tablets that had been smuggled into the United States from Iraq.” Hobby Lobby “wired payments to seven separate personal bank accounts” in an attempt to conceal what they obviously knew was a violation of the Antiquities Act. Hobby Lobby was forced to return the objects and pay $3 million, “resolving the civil action.” And Steve Green, bless him, said that “the company had cooperated fully with the federal investigation” into the case. Claiming ignorance, Green said that “Hobby Lobby was ‘new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.’”  Shouldn’t these people be in jail instead of opening a museum close to the Mall?

Moss and Baden explain one of the reasons the Greens (father and his sons and their curators) always fall back on their ignorance. The three of them have no higher education. Why would such education be necessary if you have the Bible? (Isn’t this the same fall back the climate change deniers provide—the Bible says nothing about climate change?) Last time I read the Bible, it said nothing about electricity, automobiles or the Internet, yet these deniers of reason, these alt-Christians, pick what they want from the Bible—to hell with everything else they ignore—in order to tell “a single story” that supports their evangelicalism. What a country we’ve become, celebrating ignorance.

Moss and Baden further demonstrate that almost everything the Greens have done collecting biblical artifacts is questionable. Hobby Lobby purchases the artifacts with no concern of their authenticity, buying cheaply, and then after supposedly authenticating them—which increases their value—they donate them to museums (including their own), claiming the much larger value as a taxable deduction. They own crates of undocumented artifacts, and some of their dubious authentication is done by undergraduates and university professors with no papyrological experience or expertise—part of what the family has described as the “Green Scholars Initiative.” These students and professors sign a nondisclosure agreement so they cannot report about their work. And the students, especially, gain no training in papyrology. The Greens and their surrogates, thus, dismiss expert opinion in favor of laymen. The published results (publications of the organization) assert their authenticity, though the authors of Bible Nation state that all the Greens have done is “launder” potentially illicit antiquities.

“The monetary value of items in the Green Collection is not merely an abstract calculation of the Greens’ net worth. The Green Collection plays an important role in the financial calculus of the Green family and Hobby Lobby. Every artifact that the Greens purchase is intended eventually to be donated, either to the Museum of the Bible or to some other institution. And every donation comes with a tax write-off of the item’s appraised value. Thus whenever an artifact’s value can be increased after purchase, the amount that the Greens receive in tax benefits from donating it also increases.” Sounds as if the Greens have been working with Donald Trump.

The Greens have also spent years formulating a biblical curriculum for public schools, replete with questionable conclusions about sections of the Bible. True, they haven’t been particularly successful in convincing schools that they should use the curriculum, but that doesn’t appear to dampen their intentions. However, into the Republican Party’s 2016 platform, the Greens managed to sneak in this sentence: “A good understanding of the Bible being indispensible for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage state legislatures to offer the Bible in a literature curriculum as an elective in America’s high schools.” What about a good civics course? Or one in business ethics?

It will come as no surprise that Moss and Baden proclaim, “the ultimate goal of the museum [of the Bible] seems to be to proselytize.” Steve Green told them “one purpose of the museum is to educate legislators about the biblical foundations of American government.” The museum has cherry-picked its scholarship, though is professes that it promotes a secular interpretation of the Bible. “It is possible to read the story of the Greens and the Museum of the Bible as a case of well-intended self-deception and large-scale naiveté.” Sure.

Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden’s Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby is a brave book in these dishonest times. The Greens alt-Christianity is perhaps no worse than Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel—narrow minded, based on ignorance and greed—but also a barometer of the bleak times we live in, where two suckers are still born every minute. Why not take advantage of them?

Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden: Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby
Princeton, 223 pp., $29.95

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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