“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Not a surprising opener for a speech at a ceremony for Philly’s planned Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, a project of the American Bible Society. But its speaker was Independence Visitor Center Corporation (IVCC) president and CEO Jim Cuorato.
At the November 1 “topping off” ceremony for the $60 million center, Cuorato joined speakers like Father Dennis Gill, rector and pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, and Robert Briggs, interim president and CEO of the American Bible Society. The new center is slated to open in November 2020, and its leaders predict it will draw 250,000 annual visitors and add $10 million to Philly’s annual economy.
Meet the American Bible Society
At last week’s ceremony, Cuorato noted that IVCC was happy to “encourage and support [the center] from the beginning.” The 40,000-square-foot, five-gallery attraction, including a “3D immersive theater,” will face Independence Mall from Fifth and Market Streets. But what is the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center?
It's a project of the Philly-based American Bible Society (ABS), a massive religious nonprofit, which distributes Bibles around the world. In 2017, it announced a new employee policy: sign an “Affirmation of Biblical Community,” which included the goal of abstaining from all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage—or resign from the company within the next year.
In early 2019, the Inquirer reported that a number of employees exited ABS rather than sign the pledge, including several gay staffers. (Religious institutions are exempt from a city ban on workplace discrimination by sexual orientation.)
The Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bible
So, it’s not surprising that ABS’s new Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, billed for “people of all faiths and no faith,” is actually an evangelical Christian complex touting the Bible as one of three founding documents for the United States, alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
It’s already got an extensive library of online materials casting figures including Abraham Lincoln, Frank Capra, John Jay, John Quincy Adams, Sojourner Truth, and many others as champions of Christianity, answering to the divine mandate of a Christian god.
The center’s website also features video interviews with partnering scholars about the centrality of Christian faith in US history. These scholars include Dr. Allan C. Carlson, a senior fellow at the International Organization for the Family—which opposes reproductive rights around the world, and promotes what it calls “the natural family”; i.e., married heterosexual parents and their children.
For another representative viewpoint, check out historian and author Dr. Joseph Loconte on the center’s website. There, he claims “you can’t explain or understand a single important reform movement in the United States … without understanding that the men and women involved in those movements were inspired by the [biblical] scriptures.” (I wonder what Indigenous activists, or climate-change combatants, proponents of reproductive freedom, or folks passionate about gerrymandering, just to name a few movements, will say about that.)
Civil rights are a theme in the center’s existing materials, so at the November 1 event, I asked the center’s chief of exhibits, programs, and public engagement, Alan Crippen, exactly what “civil rights” means to ABS. He alluded to “voting rights” struggles and Jim Crow laws in the mid-20th century, “Native Americans,” and a “dark chapter” for immigrants.
I asked if the center will also highlight these or other civil rights struggles as contemporary issues.
“It’s a great question,” he answered, but “we don’t want to be controversial.”
I asked what they’d deem controversial.
“If we start speaking about contemporary hot-button issues, I think it invites controversy,” Crippen said. By sticking purely to civil-rights challenges of the past, he explained, and the biblical dedications of those who overcame them, the center will allow its visitors to emerge with their own tools to examine current civil-rights issues (which Crippen won’t specify) with the Bible as a “moral compass.”
“All faiths, or no faith”
I also asked him how the center could really welcome “people of all faiths and no faith” if it touts only Christian people and a purely biblical context for US history. Does the “Faith” in the center’s title actually mean “Christianity”?
“It’s biblical faith,” he said, which to him, includes the Judaic tradition. “There are Jewish Americans included in some of the exhibits and stories, and Jewish scholars on our advisory team,” he added. “That’s not to say that there aren’t other faith traditions that have contributed to the beauty that is America and the freedoms that we have,” but Christianity is key. “The holding company is the American Bible Society, so that’s the narrative we want to tell.”
I followed up with Cuorato by email, to ask whether IVCC is concerned about aligning itself with ABS, given the nonprofit’s discriminatory employee ultimatum, its ties to anti-choice and anti-LGBT organizations, or its determination to cast US history through an exclusively biblical lens.
Cuorato called the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center “a history-based attraction that will feature a focus on the Bible’s role in the founding of our nation.” He noted that everyone is welcome at IVCC, which receives high ratings from travelers.
“We expect the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center to be a ticket partner of the IVCC and they will have the same benefits—no more, no less—as our other 65 ticket partners.” He added, “IVCC is not ‘aligning itself’ with American Bible Society any more or less than” with any other ticket partner.
Send in the crowds
But by all accounts, this “discovery center,” with its explicitly and exclusively biblical evangelist bent, is unlike other Philly museums.
In a video on the center’s website, Nicholas Miller (director of the International Religious Liberty Institute) insists, “Even if you disbelieve the Bible, you have to deal with the fact that back in the 17th and 18th centuries, nearly everyone did believe in the Bible … If you want to understand the ideas that developed the society you live in, you have to learn about the Bible, and if you do that, you may discover it has some influence and power in your life.”
Cuorato’s enthusiasm for the message was clear as he spoke to assembled leaders on November 1. “We intend to send a lot of people to the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.”