Earlier today I sat down at my desk to write an article about the soon-to-be-opened Museum of the Bible. Steve and Jackie Green granted me an interview about the museum recently and I was anxious to get something written in advance of the grand opening later this month. Before digging into the project, I did my usual unadvisable visit to Facebook, and I saw there a link to an article from the Washington Postabout the museum written by the paper’s local arts reporter, Peggy McGlone. The article was clearly negatively slanted: Snarky in tone and fixated on points of criticism. The relationship between Hobby Lobby, the Green family, the National Christian Foundation, and charity is ‘murky,’ the finances ‘tangled’. This foundation supports ‘key soldiers’ for Christian values. “Murky.” “Tangled.” “Soldiers.” What is this: a Travelogue of Mordor or a Museum review? The museum is the Green’s ‘pet project’ from which it has ‘enjoyed large tax breaks’.
One searches the archive of Ms. McGlone in vain for similar suspicious treatment of other artistic projects on the DC scene. Is there anything political going on at the Kennedy Center or the African American Museum? (These are favorite topics of the writer.) Did their donors/founders receive tax deductions for their contributions? If they hadn’t, they should fire their accountants. Donations to qualified 501c3 entities (educational, religious, charitable, etc.) are deductible. The article provides zero evidence that the Greens got anything other than the standard write-offs, and yet the ordinary tax advantages which any group of donors gets when it founds a museum seem to be of great importance in this piece.
And then there’s the smuggling issue. Do a search on ‘smuggle’ or ‘smuggling’ and Museum of the Bible and you’ll get to read a lot of innuendo and accusation. The Washington Post piece is technically accurate (it’s the Washington Post after all) when it says, after raising, but not establishing, a string of troubling concerns about the museum, “These questions come on the heels of Hobby Lobby’s agreement this summer to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit thousands of artifacts that federal authorities said were smuggled out of Iraq.”
However, it leaves out details of the story which tend toward the exculpatory. It gets “Hobby Lobby” and “smuggled” into the same sentence. But surely there must have been a way to find space to include the finding of the official government report that it was the shipper, not the recipient, which was found to have mislabeled the boxes. Hobby Lobby paid the fine, because under American law, post-911, the importer assumes certain specific liabilities, even when they are the victim of improper behavior on the part of the shipper. The Greens and Hobby Lobby appear to have been taken advantage of by an unscrupulous dealer who broke faith with them. They’re the victim. Naïve, yes, but still the victim. Would it really have been that hard to find room in this Washington Post piece for that part of the story? Perhaps cutting the expert commentary from the Freedom from Religion Foundation (mere opinion from an ideological opponent) could have freed up enough room for a few more facts. And if one believes that the nuance which includes Hobby Lobby’s side of the story was already abundantly clear in this piece, one might take a look at the comments section to see how it was interpreted by the readers.
I’m not saying that the Museum of the Bible is perfect (I haven’t even seen it yet) or that it deserves nothing but puff pieces. I have some concerns myself, which I hope to add to a balanced evaluation of the project… once I’ve seen it. But the guilt by association angle does nothing but reinforce culture-war biases (again, glance at the comments section) and invites less fair commentators than me to do the same thing to the Washington Post: look at funders/owners with political agendas and raise specters about biases and control. But let’s not go there. In both cases, I say, let the work speak for itself.
Speaking of biases and funding, let me put more of my cards on the table than I am required to. Journalists are supposed to reveal when they have received money from those they cover. I have received no money from the Greens, the NCF, the museum, or anyone else in this alleged ‘tangle’ of supporters. I have, however, given money to the project. I think a museum about the Bible is a good idea, and putting it in DC is an even better one. That’s one town which could use a few reminders about things like not bearing false witness.
I sat down across a Skype line from Steve and Jackie Green recently to talk about all things Museum of the Bible. It was edited for clarity and you can listen to it right here.