NYTimes warns: Evangelistic speech near the National Mall!

Are there any GetReligion readers out there who remember the mini-media storm back in 1999 when the Southern Baptist Convention published a series of booklets to guide church members in their prayers for the conversion of members of other faiths?

As you would expect, some faith leaders were quite offended by this, especially Jews who — readers with really long memories will recall — had previously been involved with a Southern Baptist or two about issues linked to prayers and Judaism.

I went to an event in 1999 at a Washington, D.C., think tank in when some Jewish leaders dialogued with Southern Baptists, in a very constructive manner, about the wisdom of these guides, the centrality of evangelism to Baptist theology, etc., etc.

In the question-and-answer session, a Washington Post scribe asked, in a rather blunt manner, why Southern Baptists were allowed to print and circulate these kinds of materials.

I was stunned. So was the very liberal rabbi in the chair next to me. I asked a question that went something like this: “Did I just hear someone from the Washington Post question whether evangelistic speech is covered by the First Amendment?” The Reconstructionist rabbi said, “I think that’s what just happened.”

Why do I bring up this story? Well, this is what I thought of when I hit an interesting passage in a New York Times story about the Green family (of Hobby Lobby fame) and its attempt to build a massive Bible museum on prime land in Washington, D.C.

Here is the key pasage from the report:

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 Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and the son of its founder, has referred to the Bible as “a reliable historical document,” and, as part of the museum project, he is developing a curriculum to “reintroduce this book to this nation.”

Fear of evangelism again, you see. Fear of free speech?

Wait a minute. We are talking about a private museum, built on land purchased by the Green family, with the intent — logical for evangelicals — to promote education about the Bible — from an evangelical perspective — and, yes, the potential conversion of non-believers.

What is wrong with this private effort?

The story continues:

“This nation is in danger because of its ignorance of what God has taught,” Mr. 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, Wis. “My instincts would tell me that they are choosing Washington, D.C., because they intend to influence Congress.”

Ah, this would be privately funded conservative Bible education and evangelism as political speech.

Now, hear me out: It is totally logical to quote people who are opposed to the museum. What I am asking is why the Times team didn’t probe the idea that these forms of speech and assembly, with private funds, are considered dangerous. The implication is that they should be stopped. I mean, the elder Green once used his own money to purchase pro-Christmas and Easter ads in public newspapers. We are talking about dangerous stuff.

What would be in the museum?

Specifics of the exhibits have not been released, but the traveling show of Mr. 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 Mr. Green has made his personal views on the matter clear.

Remember, we are not talking about taxpayer-funded exhibits in a branch of the Smithsonian. This is an article about a private museum?

If there is a political danger here, where is the other side of the debate about the First Amendment and Bible education, the First Amendment and evangelism? Is anyone — aside from Times hints — calling for legal actions to prevent the building of this private museum?

Just asking.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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