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 Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and the son of its founder, has referred to the Bible as “a reliable historical document,” and, as part of the museum project, he is developing a curriculum to “reintroduce this book to this nation.”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

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.

  • Carlh

    The phrase “raising concern in some quarters” is about as rich as this stuff gets!

    • Joshua Little

      Exactly! Raising concerns in some quarters of the nytimes newsroom, perhaps? What are they concerned about exactly?

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Actually, tmatt, I do remember the dust-up on the SBC thing. I also remember when the SBC had their convention in Salt Lake in 1997 or 1998 and were evangelizing near Mormon Square — it wasn’t a pretty sight.

    But this piece is scary. There is no other word for it. Maybe the Times would have been OK if the Greens planned to build it in the middle of a Nebraska corn field, that way it would have been less dangerous to the empty minds wandering the streets of Washington, D.C. But placing it in the middle of the capitol city — I mean, isn’t there something about the separation of church and state in the Constitution? Should there even be churches in D.C.? You never know — some Congress member or White House staffer might just wander into one and be converted. Oh, the horror!

    • John Pack Lambert

      I’m surprised they do not next published an article on the horror of an LDS Temple just outside of DC with a very active visitors center, that constantly runs programs to disseminate information about the LDS Church. Actually, their friend Harold Bloom tried to raise that among the horrors of Mormon influence on the public during Romney’s run for the presidency. I am still very offended by Bloom’s insinuations that Mormons in US service have some sort of dark and ulterior motives, and I am shocked that any respectable media outlet ever published his rabid anti-Mormon diatribes.
      This article shows how opposed to the freedom of others some leftists are.

  • fredx2

    The Times story is junk on so many levels:.

    “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.”

    “Just” two blocks away? Is there some sort of requirement that Evangelicals stay a certain distance away from the National Mall? As if they were diseased or something? As if our National Mall cannot be contaminated by.the presence of ..a bible museum?

    “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. ”

    What? For some reason, the Times is the arbiter of what is education and what is evangelization? The two are somehow incompatible? And why would they care, in a country where free speech is allowed?

    Even worse, the City Council has begun telling them what they can and cannot say in their own private museum:

    “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.”

    It’s called content based discrimination, Ms Alexander, and it is a violation of the First Amendment.

    No kidding – to the right of the NYT story on this, an ad for another story in the Times appears on my computer: “Dating Naked on VH1″ The Times does not get the irony. Dating Naked is OK, but a bible museum is a horror.

    • wlinden

      Well, I recall there was an insistence that a “mosque” must stay a certain distance away from the sacred footprint of the World Trade Center… but nobody demanding that it be moved “somewhere else” was willing to say what this distance was, or how many other “forbidden” sites there were in the city.

      • John Pack Lambert

        And groups like the Becket Fund openly spoke in favor of the Mosque, while it was the NYT’s good friends the Anti-Defamantion League that were some of its most vocal enemies.

    • wlinden

      See Washington ask to be hit with an RLUIPA suit.

    • John Pack Lambert

      I am glad that Alexander was open on her willingness to engage in content discrimination. This now will mean that if DC tries to stop it, they almost certainly will loose a law suit. Luckily for us the NYT is either not ideological enough to realize when they are giving away true violations of the 1st amendment, or they are so trapped in their narrow world-view that they can’t see them.

  • Kevin Spencer

    Perhaps the imaginary analogue of this story would be a mosque being built in the gardens of the Vatican. That is, the inference is that D.C. is sacred ground for the secular. They did all but not state this.

  • Eric83

    Instead of speculating about whether the museum will have an exhibit on contraception or take a literal approach to the first chapters of Genesis, I wonder if the reporter considered asking the museum’s press liaison. I expect better than this from the Times.

  • Darrell Turner

    Given enough space, the Times story might have done two more things: (1) given more background on the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its countless complaints about any public expression of religion by anyone anywhere and (2) sought a comment from Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

  • Julia B

    You can find out what is in the renowned Green family collection in this review of a recent Bible exhibition at THE VATICAN that is mostly composed of the Green family stuff. Amazing. The writer finds some fault with the emphasis presented re: persecution of Evangelicals and not the bad deeds of Christians using the Bible for bad purposes. But it would be great to have this collection permanently housed in DC.


  • Julia B

    And here is an article about Verbum Dei I, part 1 of the bible exhibition at the Vatican. Info about Part 2 is linked in my first comment. There are some short videos of the original Green curator who helped to put together the collection – he no longer holds that position.


  • tmatt

    Once again, clear comments — attributed — from critics? Essential to this story.

    But ditto for those who actually know what the museum is doing and, of course, with info on its financing.

  • Julia B

    Here is the main website for the Green collection and their intentions.


  • John Pack Lambert

    Actually, in general the Southern Baptist Convention’s coming to Utah was much more negatively received by national media coverage than it turned out to be on the ground. Mormon leaders tried their best to avoid a confrontation, and I believe it was J. D. Haws in his wonderful Oxford University Press published book “The Mormon Image in the American Mind”, who was able to trace the incident in SLC was largely one of non-confrontation and building co-existence.