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Bible Society’s new Philadelphia museum retells American history with a religious slant | Inga Saffron

Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is the latest attraction to use its toe-hold on Independence Mall to claim a piece of America’s founding story.

JacobsWyper Architects opened up the ground floor of a dreary '70s building on Independence Mall to create a new home for the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.
JacobsWyper Architects opened up the ground floor of a dreary '70s building on Independence Mall to create a new home for the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.Read moreInga Saffron / Staff

The first iteration of Independence Mall was such a dud that many of the blocks along the edge of the park sat undeveloped for years and then ended up as sites for high-security government offices. But after the mall was spruced up in the early 2000s with more greenery and a new visitor center, the three-block-long expanse emerged as a hot destination for specialty museums eager to associate themselves with the nation’s founding ideals. Now everyone wants a place on the mall to tell their version of the American story.

This summer, Faith and Liberty Discovery Center became the latest attraction to seek the mall’s spotlight, joining the National Museum of American Jewish History and the President’s House Memorial to enslaved Africans. The center was established by the American Bible Society, the organization that has devoted itself to translating Bibles and spreading them around the world. The Bible Society had long been headquartered in New York but decided to shift its operations to Philadelphia in 2015 when office space overlooking the mall at Fifth and Market became available. As part of the deal, the society also got the rights to the building’s ground floor.

The Bible Society immediately knew it wanted to expand its mission by opening an exhibition space on the corner. Along with distributing thousands of Bibles in dozens of languages, the society had amassed an impressive collection of historic Bibles, including the one used by William Penn. What better place to showcase its story, the group figured, than the city where Penn established a colony founded on religious tolerance, and where the American republic came into being.

» READ MORE: American Bible Society’s Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is opening across the street from Independence Mall

While the location was great, the space was a challenge. Even though Fifth and Market should be a welcoming gateway to Old City, the dreary ’70s office building turned its back on the mall. The ground floor retail space, which had once housed a bank, was tucked behind a dark arcade, and views were blocked by an oversized SEPTA entrance. It didn’t help matters that the Jewish Museum, directly across the street, was built in 2010 with an equally uninviting ground floor. That museum, designed by James Polshek, doesn’t even have a door facing the mall and appears as fortified and dour as the U.S. Mint, just up the street.

After an extensive renovation of the ground floor, the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center began full operations on Independence Day. The Bible Society doesn’t want you to think of the center as a museum of Christianity or a museum of religion — or even as a museum at all. The goal, according to director Pat Murdock, is to show how religious faith of all kinds shaped America’s basic operating system and remains the bulwark of all our freedoms.

While that premise may appeal to some ardent believers, most mainstream historians would say the claim distorts and oversimplifies American history, and is at odds with the founders’ efforts to keep religion out of the discussion. But because the Faith and Liberty Center preaches a message of tolerance — something that is most welcome in these polarized times — I was eager to see how it related its exhibits to the mall’s evolving narrative and used them to activate this dead corner.

With the help of architect David Searles of JacobsWyper Architects and Local Projects, the exhibit designer responsible for the National September 11 Memorial, the society has greatly improved the building’s street presence. The corner is still junked up with SEPTA’s staircases, including one that has been inexplicably capped with AstroTurf. But now a sloping walkway leads from Market Street to a sparkling glass entrance pavilion on Fifth Street. The path is lined with benches that invite passersby to relax. At the glass pavilion, a swirling white sculpture dubbed The Beacon emerges from the roof, helping to mark the place. At night, the sculpture, designed by Local Projects, becomes an actual beacon. The corner feels almost alive for the first time.

Almost, but not quite. Like every other attraction that has claimed a toehold on the mall (apart from the open-air President’s House), the Faith and Liberty Center needs darkness to operate its high-tech exhibits. As a result, two of the three building bays facing the mall on Fifth Street have been covered with white panels. Searles arranged them in a curving form to make the hoardings look more interesting. But a blank wall is still a blank wall.

Those boarded-up windows speak volumes about the whole undertaking. Just as the center’s facade is not as transparent as it should be, neither are its exhibits.

As soon as you arrive at the ticket desk, you are handed a digital wand and encouraged to anoint (er, tap) your favorite texts and images, just as you might light a candle in a church. This is not merely a sign of approval. By touching the wand to the text panels, you can upload the information to your computer after you leave the museum. In the same way that the society places Bibles into people’s hands, it now has the ability to place these exhibits directly in your personal digital space. Just like Facebook and Google, the Bible Society is eager to amass your metadata.

Despite the society’s Bible collection, the books aren’t the main show. In fact, you can barely see them because the lighting needs to be kept low for the center’s interactive displays. As you enter the main room, you are greeted by a series of video interviews with ordinary people who recount their personal stories around faith; it’s the technological version of giving testimony in a church. The exhibit concludes in a circular theater where exhibit designers have re-created William Penn’s stormy journey across the Atlantic on the ship Welcome, complete with virtual rats scurrying beneath your feet.

The Bible Society has gone to some lengths to ensure that the exhibits appear nondenominational and inclusive of non-Christian religions. Murdock told me he wanted people of all faiths to feel comfortable at the center. So, you won’t find the name Jesus anywhere in the center. Quotes from Ben Franklin and James Madison — two skeptics of organized religion who referred to themselves as Deists — abound. In a section called “Changemakers,” there are tributes to Catholic, Jewish, and Black social justice activists, including Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Sojourner Truth, and Philadelphia’s own Rebecca Gratz. Yet for all the ecumenism and striving for inclusion, the framing and word choices struck me, a non-Christian, as deeply Christian.

Most of the story told at the center revolves around Penn, a devout Quaker whose great contribution to American life was his conviction that people should be free to worship in whatever faith they choose. By invoking Penn, the Bible Society attempts to equate faith with tolerance. Of course we know that faith is just as often used to justify intolerance. The Bible Society itself recently began requiring employees to adhere to a strict set of conservative evangelical mores, thus making it impossible for members of the LGBTQ community to work there openly. Nevertheless, the exhibits claim that all the freedoms Americans cherish today derive from freedom of religion. Without faith in some higher force, they assert, there would be no America.

This is not exactly standard history. “The story they’re telling is essentially a fairy tale,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education history at Penn.

» READ MORE: One year after the American Bible Society issued an ultimatum, almost 20% of its staff quit

One could just as easily argue that America came into being in response to the rationalist, humanist ideas of the Enlightenment. Or that American tolerance is a product of our mercantile culture, as practiced by the Dutch in New Amsterdam. That’s the thesis of Russell Shorto’s excellent history of New York, The Island at the Center of the World. In that proto-capitalist time, all that mattered was the Benjamins. The French political philosopher Montesquieu similarly observed the strong link between commerce and the desire for liberty.

In any case, America’s record of tolerating nonwhite, non-Protestant groups is pretty poor. The Faith and Liberty Center could never have set up shop in Boston, Zimmerman noted, because the founding Puritans “were highly intolerant” of every other religion.

To its credit, the center does acknowledge the many sins America committed in the name of faith and the Bible, from the slaughter of Native Americans and slavery, to anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic bigotry. But the center’s contrition is woefully inadequate. From the examples presented, you could be forgiven for thinking we kicked our intolerant habits sometime in the late 19th century. Like everything else in the exhibit, the facts are liberally cherry-picked to support the center’s narrative. There is no mention of 20th-century efforts to suppress Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, and members of the LGBTQ community, or the current efforts by towns around the country to use zoning to keep Muslim Americans from building mosques.

This may not be a museum of Christianity, but it is definitely a museum of Judeo-Christianity. On the center’s website, its chief of exhibits, Alan Crippen, argues that “the Good Book has been an influentially positive spiritual source and culture force for what is good about America.” Unfortunately, that leaves out a whole lot of Americans whose religions don’t use the Bible as the foundation for their teachings, not to mention people who identify as atheists. Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law scholar who began her career clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, told The Inquirer earlier this year that “the Bible did not play the outsize role that they are trying to give it.”

By locating across the street from the Jewish Museum, the Faith and Liberty Center is trying to put both attractions on the same plane. There’s a big difference, however. The Jewish Museum merely suggests that American democracy created the conditions that allowed immigrant Jews to flourish. The Faith and Liberty Center claims that religious faith, primarily of the Christian variety, is what made our democracy possible in the first place.

For all its faults, America did end up more tolerant than most nations and with a greater commitment to the freedoms of speech, assembly and religion. But if you want to understand why, you’d be better off strolling to the other end of the mall and visiting the National Constitution Center.