The Museum That Places the Bible at the Heart of America’s Identity

The new facility tells a national story through the lens of the holy book.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The Museum of the Bible has officially opened its doors, flanked by two giant golden tablets of scripture. The building stands just blocks from the National Mall and offices of the House of Representatives; the top floor offers a spectacular view of the Capitol nearby. Unlike the taxpayer-funded Smithsonian, the museum is privately owned. Even so, it has been positioned by its creators as a national museum, physically placing America’s religious history at its political center.

Other private institutions—the Newseum, Madame Tussauds, the Spy Museum—also dot downtown Washington, but the best comparison points for the Museum of the Bible are actually thousands of miles away. The Israel Museum, along with its next-door neighbor, the Bible Lands Museum, are both strategically positioned in Jerusalem’s central hub of universities, government buildings, libraries, and banks. They both use ancient artifacts to tell a story about national identity and to emphasize religious history. And like the Museum of the Bible, their claims to authority are contested.

While skeptics charged that the Museum of the Bible would be limited to promoting the worldview of its evangelical funders, the project is actually bigger and more ambitious: emphasizing and reinforcing the roots of America’s national identity in the Bible. This story is uncommon to Washington, but it’s precious to millions of people around the country—and may establish the Museum of the Bible as a powerful hub in the capital.

Prior to the museum’s opening, scholars and literati raised concerns about its leadership and methods—including in a feature story in The Atlantic. Steve Green, the influential evangelical businessman who runs the Hobby Lobby crafts-supply chain, spearheaded the project. Under his guidance, the museum acquired artifacts at an extraordinary pace, collecting roughly 40,000 objects over the course of just six or seven years. This summer, Hobby Lobby paid a $3 million fine to the U.S. government for purchasing ancient artifacts illegally smuggled out of Iraq. The Greens have also been controversial in recent years for their role in the Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which challenged the birth-control mandate in the Affordable Care Act on religious grounds.

In recent weeks, the museum has been challenged for its biases—not enough attention to Islam, too much faith in the Protestant idea of sola scriptura,which teaches that the Bible speaks for itself. Scholars have also expressed doubt about the authenticity of its Dead Sea Scroll fragments, which allegedly come from the massive cache of biblical manuscripts discovered in the Qumran Caves of the Judean Desert.

But in large part, the culture-war boogeyman some expected has not materialized in the museum’s display cases. “All the mystery is gone,” said Jeremy Burton, the director of communications. “Are we going to be evangelicals? Are we going to be not enough Jesus? Judge for yourself.”

Strolling through the exhibits, it’s clear the museum has a story to tell about the arc of the Bible, from its roots in ancient Israel to its role as a worldwide political and cultural force today. The layout has a zigzagging logic, starting with antiquities and “Amazing Grace” in the basement, art from the Vatican on the ground level, displays on the Bible’s contemporary significance on the second floor, reconstructed historical scenes on the third, and finally the history of the Bible and more antiquities on the fourth and fifth. The varied and engaging formats seem targeted at the non-scholarly observer. The vastness of the museum sometimes feels like the point. Colorful book displays show just how many languages the Bible has been translated into; winding galleries encompass a history that stretches from antiquity to the Jewish teacher Maimonides, who shows up in animated form, through the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, also animated.

The museum emphasizes the ties between Judaism and Christianity and seeks to anchor the Bible in ancient lands. Some of the most prominent ancient objects are actually on loan from Israel, including a temporary display from the Bible Lands Museum and a long-term exhibit curated by the Israeli Antiquities Authority. At the museum’s dedication, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer placed a mezuzah, a small box with Hebrew verses tucked inside, on the doorway to the Israeli antiquities gallery as Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, the head of the rabbinic cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, said a blessing and joked about placement technique. The rabbi found it meaningful that the museum emphasizes the Bible’s link to the land of Israel. “If you like the book, you’ll love the country,” he told me.

The strong Israeli footprint in the museum is no accident. It’s not just that the Bible has its roots in Jewish civilization. The new museum is also trying to tell a story of American identity that’s similar to the narratives presented by similar Israeli institutions, with religious civilization at its center.

“Imagine bringing the word of God into the nation’s capital.”

Around the time of Israel’s founding, leaders “realized that if there was something that could unite all of the Jews all over the world, it was the Hebrew bible,” said Adolfo Roitman, the curator of the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls collection at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. “The Hebrew bible became central to the identity of the nation.” Ancient artifacts played an important role in the country’s project to establish itself as a distinctively Jewish nation. Placing the Dead Sea Scrolls—“our Mona Lisa,” Roitman called them—in a museum next to buildings like the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and the Israeli Supreme Court formalized the Jewish character of the government. “We function, and we are seen by the visitors, as the national museum,” Roitman said, “even though we are not.”

Something similar is at work with the Museum of the Bible. “Imagine bringing the word of God into the nation’s capital,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who heads the Catholic archdiocese of Washington. Rick Warren, the California megachurch pastor who serves on the board of the museum, was similarly pleased with the location. It “had to be in the capital,” he told me at the opening.

Although the museum takes a global perspective on the Bible, it is preoccupied with the question of whether America is a biblically rooted nation. While the exhibits portray some conflicting views, the message is clear: The country was forged through Christianity. Video clips show black-shirted actors reciting speeches from the Founding Fathers on religious freedom and the importance of Christianity. Displays explore how Christian preachers used the Bible to justify slavery, revisit the 1920s Scopes trial over evolution, and highlight the Supreme Court’s role in shaping public prayer. Careful attention is paid to the black-church tradition and the history of gospel music; Martin Luther King Jr. figures prominently in the contemporary gallery on the second floor.

It is a one-sided story of America, or perhaps a multi-faceted look at a limited narrative of history. The museum is not focused on non-Christian religious minorities or secular culture; it’s not all that interested in the deism of Thomas Jefferson or the Ku Klux Klan’s religiously justified violence. Perhaps that’s not the mission—after all, the museum is dedicated to the story of the Bible. The question is whether its telling is too neat and straightforward, or whether it presents a narrative its visitors are expecting to find.

This is not an easy challenge to overcome—and it’s common to all curators. At the Israel Museum, for example, “most of the people who come to the [Shrine of the Book] are non-Jews,” said Roitman. “They are looking for Jesus. They are looking for John the Baptist. They want very much to make the linkage between these artifacts and the characters [in the New Testament].” While all curation involves some sort of interpretation, he said, “I’m very careful not to say what they expect from me to say.”

Museums constantly have to grapple with the question of who they’re for—and in the case of Bible-related museums, whether they have a pluralistic or particular interpretation of what the Bible is. “We do not teach religion,” said Amanda Weiss, who oversees the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. “We are a universal institution for people of all faiths. We take that extremely seriously, because the Bible is a history book that has been written by many different hands over generations.” The idea that a museum could present the Bible through the lens of multiple cultures is relatively new in the world of museums, Weiss said: When she first started, “to talk about the Jewish roots of Christianity, people would look at you like you were a little bit crazy.”

The museum may disappoint those who expect to “be hit over the head with Christianity.”

The Museum of the Bible is a strong signal that alliances between certain communities of Jews and American Christians are becoming more common, in that it emphasizes a shared Jewish-Christian history of the book. And the museum’s leaders claim to take a universal approach to the Bible, similar to Weiss’s. “We want to make sure we’re inclusive … to not over-represent some groups over others,” said Seth Pollinger, the director of content at the museum. “We’re not focusing on proving or demonstrating the truth of what’s in the Bible or advocating its historical accuracy.”

It has had to overcome significant suspicions in the process, though. When Weiss first considered a partnership with the Museum of the Bible, she was wary of proselytization. Eventually, she agreed to a joint exhibit in Jerusalem. After “some bumps on the road,” including a misunderstanding over displaying a depiction of the crucifixion in a museum heavily trafficked by observant Jews, “the learning curve of the Museum of the Bible team was phenomenal,” she said. Weiss keeps a picture of herself, Steve Green, the Museum of the Bible’s president Cary Summers, and Benjamin Netanyahu on the wall of her office.

The memento is an appropriate symbol of the Museum of the Bible, which was brought to life by powerful backers. During the opening ceremony, the gospel giant CeCe Winans sang “Amazing Grace” and her song “Let Them Fall in Love,” asking God to bless those who don’t follow him. Eric and Lara Trump, the president’s son and daughter-in-law, were among the attendees at the museum’s opening gala. Earlier this year, museum leaders hosted a luncheon that included Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and several cabinet-secretary spouses, according to Johnnie Moore, who runs a Christian public-relations firm. He estimated that “easily … half” of America’s most influential and affluent evangelical families took part in the museum’s opening festivities.

While the museum may disappoint those who hope or fear “to walk in the door and … be hit over the head with Christianity every step of the way,” as Weiss put it, it is still a remarkable assertion of American religious identity in the nation’s capital. Those who visit now have “this other point of reference,” Wuerl said. “A political point of reference, and a spiritual one.”