Katherine Stewart, a friend of Americans United and author of the very compelling book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, penned an interesting opinion column for yesterday’s New York Times about the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. If you haven’t yet read the column, I recommend that you take a look. You’ll be enlightened – and probably disturbed.
Stewart writes that the museum, which opened last year, masquerades as an objective look at Bible but in fact has a clear political perspective.
“If you walk in thinking that the Bible has a single meaning, that the evidence of archaeology and history has served to confirm its truth, that it is the greatest force for good humanity has ever known and that it is the founding text of the American republic – well, then, you will leave with a smile on your face and a song in your heart,” she observes.
Museum of the Bible: A home for Christian nationalists?
Stewart asserts that the museum “is a safe space for Christian nationalists” and notes that the facility has already hosted two conferences led by Religious Right figures – California pastor Ralph Drollinger, who has long run a fundamentalist Christian ministry aimed at government officials, and the actor Kirk Cameron. Cameron’s event was pitched as a “national family gathering” but stressed the idea that the United States can only survive if everyone embraces far-right forms of Christianity.
None of this is surprising when one remembers that the museum is the brainchild of Steven Green, president of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores. Green, you will recall, was so determined not to allow his low-wage retail workers to get access to birth control through the company health care plan that he took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.
Given Green’s extreme right-wing religious and political views, it’s not surprising that his museum would host groups that parrot the “Christian nation” line. But it’s still disappointing, and here’s why: The real story of the development of religious freedom in America is an incredible one; it’s a story all Americans deserve to hear.
Consider this: The Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1620, was an intolerant Puritan theocracy, and its harsh view of church-state relations was exported to other colonies. Yet 166 years later, the Virginia legislature passed Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, a measure that protected freedom of conscience for all people, Christian and non-Christian. The Virginia Statute clearly influenced James Madison’s version of the First Amendment’s religious liberty provisions, which became part of the Constitution in 1791.
The story of how theocracy gave way to a nation that is a haven for religious freedom is remarkable. It’s filled with larger-than-life characters like Roger Williams, Jefferson, Madison, John Leland and a host of others – politicians, pastors, judges and laypeople who joined the struggle for religious liberty but whose names might not be remembered.
We should be proud of their accomplishment. The founders (and the men and women who supported their ideas) left us not a “Christian republic” where the rights of others would merely be tolerated but a country that is a true beacon for freedom of conscience. Today we have a nation where Christians of all stripes, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, Wiccans, atheists, agnostics, Humanists and people who aren’t sure where they stand are free to worship (or not) as they see fit, a place where no person can be molested by the government because of his or her theological beliefs. Our laws recognize no heresy, and our government has no official theology.
That diversity shows that our system has worked, but that’s not the only piece of evidence. Around the globe, people suffering under the iron heel of religious oppression look to America’s arrangement of religious freedom protected by a church-state wall with awe and longing.
The Museum of the Bible does touch on some of these historical topics in a small exhibit, but as Stewart points out, the events it is hosting and the museum’s overall approach indicate that an honest representation of the evolution of religious freedom is not the facility’s true intent.
That is unfortunate. What bothers me about the “Christian nation” crowd is not only that they don’t recognize our country’s incredible achievement, but that they treat it with disdain. They remain enamored with the Puritans’ vision, and they are seduced by a line that has been promoted by every theocrat at every point in history: My religion is right, and therefore it should be embraced by the government and forced onto others.
For hundreds of years, this belief held sway in Europe. And, because there were competing versions of what constituted the “right” religion, it spawned no small amount of conflict, war and violence.
The development of freedom of conscience and religious freedom in the United States showed that there was a better way. The story of how we got there is inspiring and remarkable. It’s a shame there’s no single museum in the nation’s capital to tell it.