Errand into the Wilderness of Mirrors
Religion and the History of the CIA
- ISBN: 9780226767406
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: June 2021
Michael Graziano’s Errand into the Wilderness of Mirrors: Religion and the History of the CIA provides a compelling and important glimpse into the intelligence community and its use of religion during war-time eras. Specifically, it explores how the US’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) utilized what can be called a religious approach that was rooted in both American Exceptionalism and Protestant understandings of how religion operated. This religious approach was also operating under the assumption that religion not only existed everywhere, but also that understanding one religion would result in the ability to understand all religions everywhere. In Graziano’s own words, the book “is a study of how and why religion came to be a subject of interest for American intelligence professionals, and how they developed and deployed ‘religion’ as a necessary component of national security” (8). By exploring this religious approach with the OSS and CIA in chronological order, Graziano guides the reader through a brief history of the interactions that the intelligence community had with various religions, notably those that they perceived to be either threatening or useful to their specific war-time agendas.
Graziano’s text is primarily concerned with the ways in which the intelligence community comprehended and subsequently instrumentalized religion to their benefit during multiple wartime eras. This book, however, is not just about the CIA or the OSS, but rather those two organizations are used as examples to talk about this thing we call religion, and the ways in which it is used as a tool. It is also about how the intelligence community’s understanding of religion influenced larger societal understandings of religion, as well as the academies’ approach to the study of religion. In his introduction, Graziano writes,: “Echoing the inchoate academic study of religion, intelligence officers saw religion as something that everyone everywhere possessed all the time” and reflects this in his final chapter when he asserts, “studies of the intelligence community mirror studies of religious communities” (4; 182). Therefore, one could use this book, dedicated as it is to a historically and nationally discrete example, to critically analyze the ways in which the academy and the intelligence community approach religion are intermingled. Investigating this one example, among US intelligence services, opens the door for such a wider conversation.
A common thread is woven throughout Graziano’s text, which is that Catholicism was the blueprint that the OSS and CIA used to study and understand religion. Graziano begins the book by walking the reader through the OSS’s involvement with the Vatican during World War II, a time during which anti-Catholicism rhetoric was still prevalent. This “strategic toleration” of Catholicism resulted in a model that the OSS and CIA used to study other religions (16). This is subsequently seen in the final chapter on Iran when Graziano writes that, “Intelligence officers assumed that Islam . . . functioned like Christianity, since both were monotheistic, Abrahamic traditions” (155). Errand covers over three decades of US intelligence history but does not forget to remind the reader throughout the text that the lens through which the intelligence community collected and comprehended information about religion was Westernized and Protestant. Although Catholicism was the blueprint through which other religions were approached, the intelligence communities’ general understanding of religion was ultimately still that it was the same for everyone, everywhere, all the time
Graziano’s choice to write this book in chronological order, and his clear writing style, make this book not only an excellent addition to the shelves of scholars of religion, but also a text that is intelligible to non-scholars of religion as well, especially those who are interested in either the topic of the intelligence community or the history of the study of religion. It is largely void of academic jargon and succinctly explains who historical people are and what their importance was, rather than assuming that the reader has an extensive knowledge on the topic at hand. Therefore, this volume is straightforward, captivating, and insightful. It is also, however, somewhat repetitive. While this certainly results in the reader never wondering what the objective of the text is, there are various avenues that Graziano could have explored further but does not. For example, the religious approach that was utilized by the OSS and CIA is compared to the World Religions Paradigm (WRP), a popular approach to the study of religion at the time. However, the connections between the academy’s use of the WRP and the intelligence community’s use of the WRP are covered in only a few short sentences. If they are different, then how so? But if they are not so different, then what can we take away from acknowledging that the intelligence community and the academy understood religion in such a similar way?
Although Tomoko Masuzawa’s revolutionary text The Invention of World Religions was published in 2005 (University of Chicago Press), it seems as though the academic sphere of religious studies has not wholly accepted or necessarily embraced the idea that those who study and teach religion are reinforcing the WRP. Graziano’s text shows the astute reader how the acceptance and reinforcement of such a paradigm resulted in sometimes deadly consequences, using the example of the OSS and CIA during war-time eras. And although this is not the first text to explore the significance of the WRP, it is nonetheless a conversation that is still necessary to have in the academic study of religion—a conversation pushed forward just a little more by Graziano.
Overall, Graziano’s Errand into the Wilderness of Mirrors is a compelling text on the strategies that the OSS and CIA used when studying religion, operating under the assumption that if they understood one religion, they could understand them all, and that this would lead them to an understanding of all humans everywhere. It is also a text on the functions, reinforcement, and consequences of the still prominent World Religions Paradigm. The religious approach, which was rooted in American Exceptionalism was intermingled with the ways in which the academic study of religion approached religion. Yes, Graziano’s book is about the OSS and the CIA, but it is also a book about how this thing we call religion is approached, comprehended, and utilized in different ways at different times for different goals by different people and different organizations.
Ciara Eichhorst is a graduate student in the MA Religion in Culture program at the University of Alabama.Ciara EichhorstDate Of Review:August 24, 2022