Bible Nation

The United States of Hobby Lobby

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Candida R. Moss, Joel S. Baden
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691177359.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Green family of Oklahoma, owners of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., are perhaps best known for their involvement in a landmark 2014 US Supreme Court decision that ruled that closely held for-profit corporations could deny contraception coverage to their employees on the basis of their owners’ religious objections. However, the authors of this book, Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden, suggest that we should all be paying more attention to a host of other initiatives undertaken by the Green family to reshape American culture in line with their conservative evangelical beliefs. Moss and Baden, both biblical studies scholars, offer a remarkable account of the varied educational, scholarly, and public engagement projects funded by the Greens and Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. in the past two decades, which aim to “use the Bible to shape the religious climate of the United States” (viii). Written more in the style of investigative journalism than an academic monograph, Bible Nation is deeply personal, sharp, and incisive. Its authors admirably tack between detailed description and nuanced critique while raising important issues that extend well beyond the case study at hand.

Moss and Baden conducted interviews with many of the key figures involved in the various Green initiatives, including members of the family themselves. Bible Nation is also informed by recent scholarship on American evangelicalism and by the “business turn” in American religious history. Each of the book’s four chapters centers on a particular project, offering a coherent account of its genesis and development and of the underlying beliefs and assumptions informing it, while also noting its intellectual and ethical blind spots. In the first chapter, Moss and Baden detail the Green family’s efforts to amass the largest collection of biblical antiquities in the world. They also delve into the troubling questions of provenance and authenticity that have dogged the Green Collection since its inception. In chapter 2, they take on the Green Scholars Initiative, which has opened the Green Collection to academic study under very restrictive conditions. In what is probably the most personal of the book’s chapters, they reflect on how the Scholars Initiative promises (threatens?) to reshape their own field of biblical studies. Next, they recount the Green family’s efforts to promote a bible curriculum in American public schools alongside other education-related initiatives. Finally, they turn to the Green-funded Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington, DC, in fall 2017. Not yet constructed at the time of the book’s writing, Moss and Baden analyze its plans along with a traveling exhibit that preceded it in order to show how, despite public statements to the contrary, the Museum aligns comfortably with the Green family’s conservative evangelical commitments.

This disconnect between public presentation and underlying worldview forms the central theme of the book. Especially in recent years, the leaders of the Green family initiatives have insisted on their “nonsectarian” character, yet Baden and Moss repeatedly show how they are indelibly shaped by an often uninterrogated set of Protestant Christian assumptions (and, in that respect, may not be so different from the American public sphere writ large?). Baden and Moss are quick to allow for the Greens’ sincerity in their public pronouncements. They go out of their way not to accuse the Greens of disingenuousness, but instead to show how they simply cannot escape their own positioning. All of their decisions about who to hire, what materials to include, and how to frame those materials are predetermined by the particular story that they are already committed to tell. “Indeed,” Baden and Moss write, “part of what makes the Greens so compelling is that they are both so transparent in their essential faith commitments and at the same time often unable to see the assumptions they bring with them to this project and the impact that those commitments have on the projects that they pursue” (19).

In the end, Baden and Moss are right to fault the Greens for their willful ignorance, their cultivated naiveté, which allows them to turn a deaf ear to the numerous warnings and objections they have received. Yet this conclusion is precisely what makes the authors’ repeated insistence on the Greens’ sincerity (I counted at least a dozen instances) so puzzling, for they persuasively show that the Greens’ sincerity is largely beside the point. Baden and Moss clearly want to insulate themselves from certain kinds of attacks on their work. Yet given the ways that sincerity itself is a deeply Protestant category, and my own lingering frustration with how quick the US Supreme Court was to grant the Greens’ sincerity in the Hobby Lobby case, I would have preferred for Baden and Moss simply to set the question aside in this otherwise pitch-perfect book.

Ultimately, though, Bible Nation is important because of the broader issues it raises that transcend the specific matter of the Greens. Baden and Moss offer a devastating critique of the inevitable consequences of privatizing and corporatizing academic knowledge. The oversight, ownership, and control of Hobby Lobby, Inc., shapes every aspect of the Green initiatives. It (mis-)directs priorities, devalues scholarly expertise, and encourages reckless disregard of ethical norms, while not incidentally, thanks to generous tax write-offs, directly bolstering the company’s bottom line. It shows what happens when a society comes to accept that success in business should translate to authority in other arenas, as well. At a time when scholars in the humanities are facing increasing pressure to seek private sources of funding to support their research, the issues raised by Bible Nation should be of deep concern to us all.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Isaac Weiner is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Comparative Studies at Ohio State University.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Candida Moss is Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham.

Joel S. Baden is Professor of the Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

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