This column first appeared in The New York Times on Jan. 6 and is reprinted with permission.
By Katherine Stewart
Looking at it, you’d think that the Museum of the Bible was, in fact, a museum. But the organizers of Revolution 2017, a gathering at the museum featuring speakers who intend to “transform nations” by “igniting a holy reformation in every sphere of society,” know better.
“We wholeheartedly believe the Museum of the Bible represents an ‘Ark of the Covenant’ for our nation, bearing witness to his goodness,” they proclaimed in their promotional material.
Calling it an “ark” may seem premature. But the business about “transforming nations” is quite serious. The Museum of the Bible, which sits a few blocks southwest of the U.S. Capitol, is a continuation of politics by other means.
A typical museum might invite visitors to explore the multiple meanings of the bible and the complex history of its reception in different cultures over time. But this museum is not the place for that kind of inquiry; you’re here to celebrate. The exhibits will rock you — literally, when you take a simulated roller-coaster ride through selected biblical inscriptions on display in the nation’s capital — but they won’t shake your convictions.
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.
The museum is a safe space for Christian nationalists, and that is the key to understanding its political mission. The aim isn’t anything so crude as the immediate conversion of tourists to a particular variety of evangelical Christianity. Its subtler task is to embed a certain set of assumptions in the landscape of the capital.
One individual who definitely gets it is Ralph Drollinger, the founder and president of Capitol Ministries and one of the most politically influential pastors in America. This fall, Drollinger held a training conference for some 80 international associates at the museum on the topic of “creating and sustaining discipleship ministries to political leaders.”
Drollinger believes that social welfare programs “have no basis in Scripture,” that Christians in government have an obligation to hire only Christians and that women should not be allowed to teach grown men. He lays out his thinking in a 2013 book, Rebuilding America: The Biblical Blueprint.
Drollinger was an early, passionate supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. The “institution of the state” is “an avenger of wrath,” he explains, and its “God-given responsibility” is “to moralize a fallen world through the use of force.” Apparently, President Trump excels in these biblical criteria for leadership.
Drollinger is dedicated to communicating those views in weekly bible study groups. The participants in his groups, however, aren’t just anybody. They include Mike Pompeo, the director of the CIA; Attorney General Jeff Sessions; Vice President Mike Pence; Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education; and other senior officials in the Trump administration. Drollinger seeks to institute similar if less-star-studded bible study groups in all 50 state capitals.
Drollinger claims to have planted 24 operations overseas and hopes “to create 200 ministries in 200 foreign federal capitals.” In 2015, his group was invited to “plant a discipleship bible study ministry” in Belarus for the benefit of that nation’s political leaders. His wife, Danielle Drollinger, attended as a representative of the Museum of the Bible, with a promise that the museum’s bible curriculum would soon be translated into Russian.
This past fall, the museum also hosted Revive Us 2, a “national family meeting” organized by Kirk Cameron, a television actor who has become a conservative Christian celebrity. The event was broadcast live from the museum to movie theaters around the country with the message that national unity can be achieved only through a religious “awakening” and allegiance to conservative Christianity.
The intensely politicized religion that appears to be taking up residence at the Museum of the Bible isn’t there by accident. When Steve Green, the museum’s founder and the president of the Hobby Lobby crafts chain, formed the museum’s parent organization in 2010, he informed the IRS that its purpose was “to bring to life the living word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the bible.” In 2012, the language was changed to say that the aim was simply “to invite people to engage with the bible.”
Green rose to fame by getting the conservative majority on the Supreme Court to confer on Hobby Lobby the right to withhold federally mandated reproductive health care coverage from its female employees. The Green family lent artifacts to the Creation Museum in Kentucky and offers support to a “religious literacy” program aimed at public school students detailing the consequences they face if they disobey God.
Joining the Hobby Lobby stores on the donor wall that memorializes large gifts to the Museum of the Bible are a dozen-plus foundations that routinely back conservative Christian causes. There is also a lot of Amway money supporting the museum, including the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation and other foundations connected to the DeVos family.
Given the theologico-political goals of its founders and patrons, it isn’t hard to see that the location of this museum was an act of symbolic and practical genius. If you’re going to build a Christian nation, this is where you start.
That’s why Cindy Jacobs, a leading figure in the fast-growing world of charismatic Christianity, and a featured speaker at the Revolution 2017 event in December, described the museum as “God’s base camp.”
There, in the auditorium of the museum, Jacobs offered this prediction: “The army of the heavens marches into Washington, D.C., and marches out of Washington, D.C.” Soon enough, “they go into North Korea.”
Skeptics may question whether God is really storing his ammo on the corner of Fourth and D Streets SW. But the people doing his work at the Museum of the Bible don’t, and they’re pretty sure that the election of 2016 proved them right.
According to Jacobs, Trump “will be seated and mantled with the power of God.”
Katherine Stewart is the author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.