Why a National Museum of American Religion matters in Washington DC and how two LDS men are spearheading the effort. You can be a part of this effort.
In 1995, my high school geometry class in south-central Montana was scheduled to learn about the ubiquitous ratio pi. Hoping to broaden their mathematical outlook, I told the students to bring in a Bible the following day, if they had one, and we would see that the author of 1 Kings gives us an early value of pi by using the measured circumference and diameter of Israel’s “molten sea,” or baptismal font (which they calculated to be three – accurate if not precise).
The students were both unified and somewhat militant in their cry: “We can’t bring the Bible to school. That’s unconstitutional. What about the separation of church and state?” In case you think this is too far removed from us in time, I gave my two children attending our local public high school the same scenario just the other day and heard almost the exact same response.
We are all familiar, and most of us even are comfortable, with this avoidance of faith at school, work and play. However, because most of us still believe religion is indispensable to the country, we’ve also hoped that our public square, void of religious talk and behavior, would be compensated by private worship that would give us robust religious understanding and pious behavior. This isn’t happening as too many indicators show.
The Profound Influence of Religion
Religion, in all of its manifestations, has profoundly influenced the sweeping American narrative, perhaps more than any other single force. Though religions’ impacts, both beneficial and detrimental, are everywhere to be found in United States history, they are nowhere to be found, in any comprehensive way, in the storied museums of the nation’s capital. Thus Americans comprehend neither their history nor themselves.
Darin Lowder and I, who originally met as roommates at BYU, along with a board of nationally acclaimed scholars and influencers intend to change this oversight. We hope to create on the Mall in Washington D.C. a National Museum of American Religion which will bring this moving story to the fore, and help visitors experience and comprehend the powerful and ever-present thread of religion in American history.
Just how important is religion in our nation’s history?
Did you know that in 1864 when given a special Bible celebrating the emancipation, Abraham Lincoln called the Bible “the best gift God has given to man.”
Did you know that Sunday morning Aug. 10, 1941, Pres. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met aboard the H.M.S. Prince of Wales and attended Divine Service on the quarterdeck singing “Onward Christian Soldiers”?
Did you know that religious groups were the driving force behind most of the social reforms that changed America during the Progressive Era?
Did you know that in a 1950 newspaper interview, Jackie Robinson emphasized his faith in God and his nightly ritual of kneeling at his bedside to pray saying, “it’s the best way to get closer to God?
Or how about this remarkable story?
“[B]efore Lend-Lease was finalized, President Roosevelt felt it necessary to tell Churchill and the British cabinet that the United States was committed to their survival. In January, he sent Harry Hopkins to London to confer with Churchill and impress upon the British a sense of Anglo- American solidarity. “The President is determined that we shall win the war together. Make no mistake about it,”
Hopkins told Churchill shortly after arriving in an England under siege. “He has sent me here to tell you that at all costs and by all means he will carry you through, no matter what happens to him—there is nothing that he will not do so far as he has human power.”
Weeks later, at a dinner in Glasgow, Hopkins imparted the same message with a great deal more emotion. Rather than try to emulate Churchill’s soaring rhetoric, Hopkins simply quoted from a passage in the Book of Ruth (1:16): “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Even to the end.” Hopkins had meant to be reassuring, but the effect of his words was far greater than he had intended.
According to Churchill’s personal physician, who was at the dinner, the prime minister “was in tears. He knew what it meant.” Hopkins’s impromptu sermon “seemed like a rope thrown to a drowning man.” Though the comments were censored for fear of antagonizing isolationists in the United States, presidential speechwriter Robert Sherwood recalled that “word of it spread all over Britain.”
Lord Beaverbrook, in charge of Britain’s wartime industrial production, told Sherwood that Hopkins’s biblical pledge “provided more tangible aid for Britain than had all the destroyers and guns and rifles and ammunition that had been sent previously.” [i]
The National Museum of American Religion invites Americans to explore the role religion has played and does play in shaping the social, political and cultural lives of Americans and thus America itself. The museum’s presence on the Mall in Washington D.C. highlights the centrality of personal and organized religion to America’s history, and the museum’s vibrant exhibits explore individuals and movements whose beliefs and values have contributed to the rich legacy of our nation.
What we don’t celebrate in our history, we may forget.
Three centers are contemplated to be housed in the Museum itself, to assist in fulfilling its purpose: The Williamsburg Charter Clearinghouse, dedicated to teaching the history and salience of religious liberty; a K12 Public Education Center which will work with school systems throughout the country to assist them in designing and implementing American religious history curricula and encourage and work with school field trips to the Museum itself; and the American Religious History Research Library, specializing in connecting the religious history collections of all the major research libraries in the nation and world.
James Madison wrote that “the Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.” In this spirit, the National Museum of American Religion will do at least three things: (1) present U.S. religious history as objectively and comprehensively as possible; (2) present no “true” or “preferred” American faith or denomination; and (3) refrain from judging whether American religion has been beneficial or detrimental to the country. Visitors will decide this for themselves.
The museum must be philosophically built around what some have called our greatest export, the 1st Amendment’s dual religious liberty clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The museum’s narrative will be both thematic and chronological. It will feature three major narrative strands – religious liberty, religious diversity and social reform – organized by chronology. This approach will give the exhibits depth and meaning, and will also capture the dynamic quality of American religion as it has changed and evolved over time.
From the earliest settlements, the colonists faced two related questions: would people be free to worship – or not worship – as they chose? Or would the state dictate their religious beliefs and practices? These questions were legally resolved with the passage of the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, nor prohibit the free exercise thereof.” Since its passage, Americans have tested the limits of these two clauses and the struggle over their meaning has decisively shaped the nation’s religious history.
Religion in the Marketplace
Outside of the religious beliefs and practices of the Native American peoples, what we now call the United States presented itself as a virgin land upon which one could plant, theoretically at least, any and all religious creeds. Congregationalists, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians all competed for followers in a vibrant religious marketplace. Some sects and denominations that challenged the dominant Protestant ethos were regarded with suspicion and inhospitality. Over time, these faiths, including Mormons and Catholics, found acceptance and were joined by Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and an array of non-Protestant faiths. Today the United States is arguably the most religiously diverse nation in the world.
Throughout American history, religion has driven social reform – the movement for public schools, the abolitionist cause, the temperance movement and the civil rights movement of the 20th century. Drawing inspiration from the meaning and message of the Bible, reforms have fought to eliminate poverty, guarantee liberty and promote equality. Yet their opponents have also turned to the Bible ; in the Civil War, proponents of slavery found warrant for their cause in scripture. But such examples are exceptions.
Like the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter interactive exhibit at the National Museum of American History in which actors lead visitors in a vivid re-enactment of a sit-in, imagine participating in a mock trial of Mary Dyer, hanged in the 1600s for violating Massachusetts’ law against Quakers, or acting as a juror in the Scopes Monkey Trial or as a Supreme Court justice in the 1962 Supreme Court school prayer case (Engel v. Vitale) that is still hotly debated today. Other rotating museum exhibits may include:
- Religion and the Presidency – campaigns and daily presidential life
- America as Zion
- A day in the life of an Amish family
- America’s influence on religion
- Religion’s influence on the founding
- Religion and war – it’s influence on the wars America has fought and how war has changed religion in America
- Humor and religion – uneasy, but constant companion
- Religion’s influence on the great American civic movements
- Faith-based charities role in America historically and today
- Religion and slavery
- Religion and Millennials
Overall, religion has inspired and fueled an array of causes intended to make American society more fair, just and equal. A visit to the National Museum of American Religion should cause the museum-goer to leave profoundly moved, no matter their personal faith or lack thereof: “religious liberty has written that much of the American story?”
The Museum has assembled a broad, diverse and respected set of advisors from academia and other institutions that touch on religious liberty and religion in America. These advisors include the Robert George, Doug Laycock, Michael McConnell, Josh Perelman and Leigh Schmidt.
Each citizen, now and in the following generations, needs to be thoroughly reminded of America’s religious history, judge it for ourselves and decide on a religious path of progress forward with at least some thought given to the country’s long-term health. The National Museum of American Religion would be a treasured jewel in the crown of the many other celebrated museums in Washington that exist as testaments to, and teachers of, this country’s wonder, progress and endurance.
If you would like to donate to this important project go here. https://storyofamericanreligion.org/contact/
See the video for the National Museum of American Religion
[i] Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 2012), p. 349.