The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security before and after 9/11

The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security before and after 9/11

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation has had a long and tortuous relationship with religion over almost the entirety of its existence. As early as 1917, the Bureau began to target religious communities and groups it believed were hotbeds of anti-American politics. Whether these religious communities were pacifist groups that opposed American wars, or religious groups that advocated for white supremacy or direct conflict with the FBI, the Bureau has infiltrated and surveilled religious communities that run the gamut of American religious life.
The FBI and Religion recounts this fraught and fascinating history, focusing on key moments in the Bureau’s history. Starting from the beginnings of the FBI before World War I, moving through the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, up to 9/11 and today, this book tackles questions essential to understanding not only the history of law enforcement and religion, but also the future of religious liberty in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520287280
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/07/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sylvester A. Johnson is Associate Professor of African American Studies and Religious Studies at Northwestern University.

Steven P. Weitzman is the Abraham Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.

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The FBI and Religion

Faith and National Security before and after 9/11

By Sylvester A. Johnson, Steven Weitzman


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96242-2


American Religion and the Rise of Internal Security

A Prologue



The sanctioned history of the birth of the Bureau of Investigation (renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935) is tightly tied to the Progressive Era. The bureau was officially created in 1908 as the brainchild of Attorney General (AG) Charles Bonaparte and President Theodore Roosevelt. The president and his AG appointee, the bureau's official history notes, "were 'Progressives.' They shared the conviction that efficiency and expertise, not political connections, should determine who could best serve in government." Their "progressive" notions posited that "government intervention was necessary to produce justice in an industrial society," and thus they "looked to 'experts' in all phases of industry and government to produce that just society."

When Roosevelt and Bonaparte took their respective offices, the investigation of federal crimes did not reflect a wholesale and permanent commitment to proficiency and professionalism. From its creation on July 1, 1870, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) did not have its own detectives or investigative force. Rather, U.S. attorneys — when not laden with court proceedings — investigated crimes, interviewed witnesses, and collected evidence themselves. When the work of an "expert" investigator seemed warranted, the DOJ utilized two strategies. First, the AG had a small team of special-assignment agents as well as accountants. Second, the DOJ possessed a small discretionary fund for hiring detectives from private agencies (usually the Pinkerton Detective Agency) and skilled operatives from other agencies, namely the Treasury Department's Secret Service.

Congress put a stop to both policies. In 1892, in response to the use of Pinkerton agents as strikebreakers, the legislature outlawed the DOJ and other federal agencies from hiring persons employed in the private sector. Contracting with the Secret Service came to an end on May 27, 1908, when it was discovered that the DOJ hired Secret Service agents to investigate and later convict two U.S. congressmen. Congress believed that such activities not only posed a threat to American democracy but also reeked of totalitarianism. An alarmed legislative branch warned that the executive branch must be stopped from "employing secret service men to dig up the private scandals of men."

A seemingly powerless and exasperated Bonaparte petitioned Congress twice for funding to employ his own investigative force. True to his Progressivism, he argued that it was "absolutely necessary" for the DOJ to have a "continuous" team of professional detectives hired by and dedicated to the DOJ. Hiring investigators on short-term contracts was inefficient at best, haphazard at worst. He testified before Congress, "You must remember that the class of men who do not work as a profession is one you have to employ with a good deal of caution." Nevertheless, Congress denied his request both times.

A savvy Bonaparte, however, went beyond Congress. On June 29, 1908, during the summer congressional recess, the AG used the DOJ's "miscellaneous expense fund" to hire ten former Secret Service agents as DOJ employees. The following month, on July 26, 1908, Bonaparte increased the number of agents to thirty-four and appointed Stanley Finch the chief examiner of the squadron. Finch was charged with leading the modern investigative force. "This action," the bureau's official history marks, "is celebrated as the beginning of the FBI."

In January 1909, the president and AG convinced Congress that the AG's actions during the recess had been justified. As both elected officials prepared to leave office in March of that year, they pleaded that a fixed detective force at the DOJ was an absolute necessity for the efficient and professional enforcement of federal laws. Congress accepted the recommendation and adopted the caveat that the DOJ's skilled agents would not carry guns or be empowered to make arrests. Rather, they would be limited to the mission of the DOJ: "the detection and prosecution of crimes against the United States." On March 16, 1909, AG George Wickersham, Bonaparte's successor, dubbed the DOJ's detective squad the Bureau of Investigation, and changed the title of chief examiner to chief of the Bureau of Investigation. The bureau was officially born.

This origin story suggests that the Federal Bureau of Investigation's roots extend back only as far as the Progressive Era. The story of the FBI typically continues with the influence of J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau's longest-serving director, whose fingerprints on the bureau remain to this day. Under Hoover's twentieth-century leadership, which began in 1924 during the "return to normalcy era," the bureau engaged in its most notorious activities. Hoover's leadership yielded the voracious pursuit of alleged subversives during the Cold War — surveillance and counterintelligence aimed at socialist and communist political organizations, civil rights reformers, student activists, and Vietnam War protesters, among many others. Such activities have forever shaded the history of the FBI. Indeed, the name of the FBI headquarters is the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building. The shadow of the twentieth century thus looms large over the FBI.

However, the FBI was also shaped by and took deeper root in the religious landscape of the nineteenth-century United States. To be sure, twentieth-century developments gave way to the "official" birth and expansion of the FBI. Nevertheless, detailing how the DOJ hired Secret Service agents to investigate the competing civil religions of the postbellum era offers much-needed perspective on the bureau's origins. Moreover, examining the cultural milieu of the broader nineteenth century — particularly the themes of the aftermath of emancipation, industrialization, and immigration, in addition to Progressive reform — gives further context for the storied and enduring relationship between religion in America and the FBI.


The competing civil religions that emerged following the Civil War threatened the internal security of the nation and spurred the initial steps that would ultimately lead to the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The massive bloodshed of the Civil War, in the words of historian Harry Stout, "taught Americans that they really were a Union." He continues: "Something mystical and religious was taking place through the sheer blood sacrifice generated by the battles." Stout and others have pointed to the Civil War as a watershed moment in the creation of an American civil religion, when the state became a unifying object of worship for a bitterly divided citizenry. A nation arose from the "altar of sacrifice," and Americans ceased to refer to the nation as these United States — a loosely bound federation of largely independent regions — and began referring to the country as the United States — a singular, unitary entity. In the years after the Civil War, this sacralized nation-state greatly expanded its borders, bureaucratized its government, consolidated its security measures, and broadened its ambitions overseas.

But alongside all these developments came another, an alternative civic religion that competed with the federal government for the allegiance of Americans: the religion of the Lost Cause. The religion of the Lost Cause grew from the antebellum South's sense of itself as distinct from the North — as a chivalric society based on the assumption that hierarchy was the natural order of things and that Southerners were the true keepers of Puritan piety. It flourished after the war, as Southerners, including ministers, lionized Confederate soldiers as crusading Christians fighting against infidel Yankees. Just as Christian tradition posits God's eventual triumph after an initial age of trials and tribulations, so the religion of the Lost Cause held that Southern victory would eventually come to pass despite the defeat and humiliation imposed by the Civil War. The Confederates might have lost the battle, but by staying faithful through the trials of the subsequent age, they would ultimately prevail and reassert themselves. As Charles Reagan Wilson puts it, "The idea that Confederate defeat was a form of discipline from God, preparing Southerners for the future, was fundamental to the belief in ultimate vindication."

But Lost Cause devotees were not content simply to sit back and wait for "ultimate vindication": they also threw themselves into the defense of White supremacy after the war's end. Another component of the Lost Cause was the juxtaposition of supposedly familial and gracious Southern planter paternalism against grasping, unscrupulous northern Yankees, who after the Civil War were not content to leave the defeated South alone. Of course that was a fiction — the South was every bit as capitalistic as the North, if not more so — but the Lost Cause religion spun an image of the Yankee as an alien of questionable White identity or foreign origin because of the North's association with immigration, and maliciously motivated. Both sides had of course demonized each other during the war, and their mutual vilification laid the groundwork for the competing civil religions that emerged in its aftermath. Defenders of the Lost Cause fought tooth and nail against Radical Reconstructionists, who would allow them back into the fold only when satisfied that they were submitting to the Republicans' demand for racial justice.

The Ku Klux Klan emerged as one of the most visible signs of the religion of the Lost Cause. In 1866, in Pulaski, Tennessee, six Confederate-veteran college students organized in order to "play 'pranks' on the residents of Pulaski and uplift the spirits of the war-torn region." Their "pranks" understandably intimidated the region's newly freed slaves and Northern "carpetbaggers." Emboldened, the group soon organized more "clubs" to spread this climate of terror, adopting a costume meant to invoke "the ghosts of the Confederate dead" — "tall conical witches' hats of white cloth over cardboard" that "exaggerated the height of the wearer, adding anywhere from eighteen inches to two feet to his stature." By the spring of 1867, this group of Ku Klux Klansmen, as they became known, had morphed from a prankster club to a "paramilitary movement" bent on defending White supremacy by any means. By 1868, the same year as the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Klan had spread to nine Southern states. The religion of the Lost Cause had its Knights Templar in the crusade against Reconstruction.

The federal government responded to this internal security crisis by creating agencies to secure and defend the newly reconstituted nation. In 1870, the Department of Justice (DOJ) was established to assist the attorney general in "the detection and prosecution of crimes against the United States." Among its most important duties was to ensure compliance with the three Enforcement Acts passed by Congress in 1870 and 1871. These laws were aimed at stopping the Klan's racial and sexual violence against African Americans and their White allies by ensuring the safety and the vote of the largely Republican freedmen. The laws made it a federal crime to interfere with or infringe on the right to vote, established a procedure for federal supervision of registration and voting, and authorized the military to enforce such laws. Under the Enforcement Acts, White terrorism was deemed an insurrectionary act, and the DOJ designated the leader of the KKK as the greatest internal security threat to the nation.

The newly established Justice Department, lacking its own bureaucracy, relied on U.S. Marshals and borrowed Secret Service agents from the Treasury Department — both versed in undercover work — to investigate and provide intelligence. The crew of federal investigators focused on uncovering plans and actions that violated the Enforcement Acts, but in a broader sense their role was to enforce fidelity to the civil religion of the union. To this end, the assembled team constituted the nation's first federal antiterrorist intelligence program. Its directives against the Klan and White terror yielded one of the largest investigations in American history, leading to hearings that lasted for several months and produced thirteen volumes of firsthand testimony from both White and Black citizens. Federal grand juries, in turn, issued more than three thousand indictments. The results of its efforts were mixed, however. An underfunded DOJ, a ballooning case volume, and a wavering commitment to racial equality led the Grant administration to implement a policy of leniency against racial terrorists. Nearly two thousand cases were dropped, and in the summer of 1873 a newly reelected President Grant released from jail all those who had been convicted of White terrorism. In all, the large-scale investigation netted about six hundred convictions, with only sixty-five receiving federal prison sentences of up to five years.

Despite the outcome of their extensive investigation of the KKK, the DOJ and its host of "borrowed" investigators learned a lesson that would also be taken to heart by the Federal Bureau of Investigation many decades later — that religion, in this case the religion of the Lost Cause, could be dangerously subversive, a motive for the commission of "crimes against the United States."


The bureau's approach to religion was influenced not only by the religion of the Lost Cause but also by another trend that took shape in the final decades of the nineteenth century — an ethos of self-determinism and institution building among African Americans.

In the midst of the reign of White terrorism, the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 made "separate but equal" the law of the land. Clergy, race leaders, teachers, business owners, and Black citizens alike debated what the future of their race would and should be in a legally segregated America, and how Blacks should relate to a White American culture. One position in this debate called for greater Black autonomy. Two years after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, W.E.B. Du Bois advocated that, to achieve their "destiny," Blacks should not aspire to "absorption" by White America or to the "servile imitation of Anglo-Saxon culture." Rather, Du Bois maintained, the future of African Americans rested on a "stalwart" commitment to "Negro ideals." African Americans, he argued, had a "duty" to conserve their gifts and "spiritual ideals" and to dedicate them to the establishment of race unity and race organizations inspired by "the Divine faith of our black mothers." The creation of a Black parallel society, Du Bois proffered, was not a capitulation to race prejudice and segregation. Rather, Black organizations would provide African Americans the opportunity and means for racial progress, even as they provided shelter from and criticism of White supremacist thinking. Du Bois, it turns out, was articulating a religiously inflected aspiration to achieve self-determination embraced by many other African Americans.

To be sure, Whites who felt threatened by emerging Black autonomy were forceful in defending themselves. Almost 2,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1899, with 104 meeting this fate in 1898 alone. But African Americans made great strides in creating independent organizations for themselves, and religion played a seminal role in this process. Dating back to colonial America, independent African American churches were among the earliest Black organizations to be established, and this form of self-organization exploded following the Civil War, giving birth to the two kinds of Black institutions that would go on to transform Black life and the relationship of African Americans to the nation-state: independent religious denominations and schools, the latter often initiated by churches. These institutions not only offered Black citizens a measure of autonomy but also constituted the foundation of Black civic life.


Excerpted from The FBI and Religion by Sylvester A. Johnson, Steven Weitzman. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. "True Faith and Allegiance"-Religion and the FBI Sylvester A. Johnson Steven Weitzman 1

1 American Religion and the Rise of Internal Security: A Prologue Kathryn Gin Lum Lerone A. Martin 17

2 "If God be for you, who can be against you?" Persecution and Vindication of the Church of God in Christ during World War I Theodore Kornweibel, Jr. 32

3 The FBI and the Moorish Science Temple of America, 1926-1960 Sylvester A. Johnson 55

4 J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and the Religious Cold War Dianne Kirby 67

5 Apostles of Deceit: Ecumenism, Fundamentalism, Surveillance, and the Contested Loyalties of Protestant Clergy during the Cold War Michael J. McVicar 85

6 The FBI and the Catholic Church Regin Schmidt 108

7 Hoover's Judeo-Christians: Jews, Religion, and Communism in the Cold War Sarah Imhoff 121

8 Policing Public Morality: Hoover's FBI, Obscenity, and Homosexuality Douglas M. Charles 134

9 The FBI and the Nation of Islam Karl Evanzz 148

10 Dreams and Shadows: Martin Luther King Jr., the FBI, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Sylvester A. Johnson 168

11 A Vast Infiltration: Mormonism and the FBI Matthew Bowman 191

12 The FBI's "Cult War" against the Branch Davidians Catherine Wessinger 203

13 The FBI and American Muslims after September 11 Michael Barkun 244

14 Policing Kashmiri Brooklyn Junaid Rana 256

15 Allies against Armageddon? The FBI and the Academic Study of Religion Steven Weitzman 269

Notes 291

Index 341

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