How the FBI Is Hobbled by Religious Illiteracy

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Historians have looked harshly on the FBI’s legacy in dealing with religious groups. The Bureau famously investigated and threatened Martin Luther King Jr. at the peak of the civil-rights movement. A 1993 standoff with a group called the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, ended with a massive fire, killing more than six dozen men, women, and children. And since the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Bureau has repeatedly been accused of illegally surveilling and harassing Muslim Americans.

The story of the FBI and religion is not a series of isolated mishaps, argues a new book of essays edited by Steven Weitzman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sylvester A. Johnson, a professor at Northwestern University. Over its 109 years of existence, these historians and their colleagues argue, the Bureau has shaped American religious history through targeted investigations and religiously tinged rhetoric about national security.

At times, the Bureau has operated according to an explicit vision of protecting Christianity, as it did during the tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the FBI. But in other cases, it has operated with religious ignorance. When the religion scholar Philip Arnold saw the events unfolding in Waco, he thought, “My dissertation suddenly became real.” But the FBI rebuffed his efforts, along with the New Testament scholar James Tabor, to intervene and negotiate. While they believed the violence could have been avoided by taking the Branch Davidians’ theology seriously, the FBI was eager to bring the conflict to a close—which it did, with tragic results.

As religion takes an ever-higher profile in America’s national-security concerns, the FBI will play a crucial role in determining how groups are treated. I spoke with Weitzman about the history of the FBI and religion, and why this history is relevant today. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Emma Green: How did 9/11 change the relationship between the FBI and religious groups?

Stephen Weitzman: What 9/11 changed, to some degree, was the mission of the FBI. Prior to 9/11, its role was investigative: It was trying to stop criminal behavior and arrest criminals. After 9/11, the FBI was charged with preempting crime, or detecting it before it happened, which meant that it needed to engage in new forms of intelligence gathering. That put a new pressure on the FBI and incentivized it to behave in ways that it wouldn’t have behaved in previous decades.

Green: But as the book details, the FBI actually has a long history of investigating Muslim groups, such as the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Temple. What were some of the reasons for its investigations of those groups?

Weitzman: The Moorish Science Temple of America refers to an African American Muslim community that developed in the ’30s and ’40s. One commonality between their situation and the situation of contemporary Muslims is war. Whether you’re talking about World War II, or the war against terrorism, it creates a context in which the FBI seems to get more intrusive in its relationship with religious communities.

The larger context in the ’50s and ’60s is the Cold War. During the Cold War, the federal government came to be suspicious of certain religious groups—not just the Nation of Islam, but Martin Luther King and the movement that he led. These were seen to be, in some cases, dupes of communism. Religion was seen as a pretense by which people who had criminal or traitorous intentions were trying to legitimize what they were doing.

In some corners of contemporary society, there’s a similar suspicion of Islam as some kind of religious pretext or cover for criminal behavior. There’s a continuity in attitude and rhetoric between how the government once treated people suspected of having a collusive relationship with communism and how the government interacts with people suspected of links to terrorism.

Green: The FBI had an interesting relationship with Christian groups. With some clergy and leaders, it had strong alliances, but it also investigated and opposed a number of Christian individuals and organizations. Especially in the Cold War era, how did the FBI’s relationship with Christian groups develop?

Weitzman: A major character in that story is J. Edgar Hoover himself, who was a former Sunday School teacher. He depicted the Cold War as a spiritual struggle. He allied America and democracy with a Judeo-Christian tradition—which was an artificial construction, but he saw it as the foundation of American values.

Communism, on the other hand, was an agent of secularism and atheism. The twist was that communists, who were clever and wily in his imagination, had figured out that they should use religion as a kind of cover for their behavior—it was a way to infiltrate American society. He saw religious leaders on the left as either communists in disguise, or as people who were naively coopted by the communists. On those grounds, he basically sought to discredit people on the religious left.

The way religion has been so closely identified with the right in American society in the last few decades—it didn’t have to go that way. If it hadn’t been for a deliberate effort to discredit people on the religious left by tainting them with the communist association, we might have a more politically diverse religious landscape today in American life.

Green: The book describes a double invisibility for Jews in the struggle between America and communism. The concept of “Judeo-Christianity” is not about real, live Jewish people. It’s about a historical tradition that theoretically ended when Christianity began.

On the other hand, Jews were associated with communism, whether because of latent anti-Semitism, or high-profile figures like the Rosenbergs, or other factors.

How did this precarious position come to be?

Weitzman: The FBI’s relationship to Jews and Judaism kind of mirrored the relationship to Jews and Judaism within Christianity itself. On the one hand, Christianity traces its own origins back to Judaism and sees itself as a fulfillment of the promise of Judaism. On the other hand, it’s premised on a rejection of Judaism, and sees Judaism as something that has been superseded by Christianity.

That comes out in Hoover’s casting of the FBI as a defender of Judaism. Although he loves Judaism, actual Jews are a problem. He couldn’t really acknowledge that there might be an authentic, non-religious, secular Jewish culture—the left-leaning Jewish culture associated with Yiddish and New York. For him, those kinds of Jews weren’t really Jews. And it’s almost as if he had to defend Judaism against that kind of Jew.

Green: The book also highlights religious nationalism, which was actively supported by religious leaders—from anti-communist Catholic clergy working with Hoover to Mormons cheering on the FBI. What was their role, and the FBI’s role, in developing a sense of religiously motivated nationalism?

Weitzman: The FBI has been a major player in shaping the religious landscape of the United States. It did so by lending its support to certain religious leaders, by introducing its own religious rhetoric into the broader culture, and by harassing or delegitimizing religious actors who were deemed to be threatening or subversive in some way.

The religious ideology of a group like the Mormons, who came to embrace the United States as almost a religious virtue—that needs to be understood in the larger context of Mormon history. Mormons were subject to persecution by the federal government in the 19th century, so their attitude toward the government has to be understood as part of a larger struggle for survival.

Green: The book tracks many of the FBI’s sins, from illegal surveillance to bigoted assumptions about minority groups to unjust arrests. Yet, the FBI’s identity and mission have shifted dramatically in its century of existence. It has often been on the front lines of the scariest events in American history, including war and domestic terrorism.

Is there a sympathetic way to read the FBI’s posture toward religious groups over its history?

Weitzman: Maybe we could present more of a rounded out picture. For example: The FBI today plays a leading role in combatting hate crimes, and a lot of hate crime is targeted at religious communities. We rely on the FBI to protect religious liberty, and that absolutely has to be part of the picture.

I also think it’s fair to point out that a lot of the more unfortunate incidents documented in the book are in the context of war. The FBI is charged with defending national security, and with the war on terrorism, it faces this extra challenge of people expecting it to prevent things from happening. That’s very difficult to do. I personally have a lot of empathy for the FBI in its struggle to balance protecting people’s liberty and defending Americans’ lives.

On the other hand, it is one of the most powerful agencies of the United States. Likely no other organization of the federal government has had a more directly destructive impact on the lives of religious communities than the FBI.

Green: So what are the greatest lessons from this research about some of the things that are happening today?

Weitzman: We’re in a situation where we have anti-Islamic discourse entering the political mainstream in a way that hasn’t been the case in the past. Immigrant communities are subject to a whole new level of suspicion. And the FBI itself has been at the center of a lot of these things.

I’ve been thinking a lot about James Comey, the current director of the FBI. He was a religion-studies major as an undergraduate, and he wrote his senior thesis on the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. I don’t know this to be true, but I see some of the influence of that on what he’s doing now. A year or two ago, he instituted a new practice for FBI recruits: They have to go to the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, D.C., and have to study how the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover mistreated Martin Luther King. He has on his desk a memorandum that authorized the FBI to surveil and harass Martin Luther King. That’s there as a reminder to him of the danger of overreach of the FBI.

What I find encouraging about that is his willingness to study the history of the FBI and digest the lessons, and try to institutionalize that as part of the educational culture of the FBI. If we could just somehow learn from the mistakes we’ve made in the past, there’s a small chance we won’t make those mistakes again.

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