The FBI and Religion

Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11

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Sylvester A. Johnson, Steven Weitzman
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , February
     376 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The FBI and Religion comprises fifteen essays, which taken together, tell a provocative history of the mutual interaction and co-mingling of the government agency and religious movements/trends in the United States. The editors, Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman, identify one of the primary goals of the volume as an understanding of “the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] as part of the history of religion [in the US]” (7). This book is intended for a broad audience, “for general readers as well as for fellow scholars—and one of the audiences we hope to reach is the FBI itself” (14). In my view, the essays both meet their goal and reach their intended audience. The volume is a tour de force. It reads from the perspective of a diversity of academic disciplines, and it provides insight into a variety of topics including—but not limited to—the history of religion in the United States, the history of the FBI, the relationship between church and state in the US, and the lives of figures such as J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King Jr., and David Koresh.

Many of the essays prominently feature the personality, leadership style, political machinations, and moral philosophy of J. Edgar Hoover, which is appropriate given his decades long directorship of the FBI (1935-1972). This is not to say that the essays are in any way redundant. Moving from each chapter to the next reveals layer-upon-layer of meaning, another wrinkle of nuance, and includes Hoover’s influence over religion, morality, and race relations in the United States in the twentieth century. Moreover, while Hoover does feature prominently, no essay in the book conflates the FBI’s engagement with religion with Hoover’s personal vision. This point is made especially clear in one of Johnson’s own contributions: “Dreams and Shadows: Martin Luther King Jr., the FBI, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” While many readers may be familiar with the long tension between King and Hoover, Johnson raises the more novel question: “If one attributes the FBI repression of King principally to Hoover’s personality, how does one account for the repressive regimes of other law enforcement agencies throughout the nation?” (189). Johnson goes on to say that “the FBI’s repression of King must be recognized for what it was—one element within a larger superstructure of state-sponsored racism” (190). Johnson’s essay on King is but one example of the nuance evident in each author’s contribution to this volume. There are no reductionist arguments to be found here.

To be sure, not all of the essays focus on Hoover. The first three provide historical context regarding religion, race, and national security in the US towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Department of Justice was founded in 1870, followed by the founding of the Bureau of Investigation in 1908, which finally became the FBI in 1935 (17-66). Theodore Kornweibel Jr. and Johnson’s essays on the Church of God in Christ and the Moorish Science Temple of America, respectively, deal largely with the time before Hoover’s directorship. Taken with the prologue by Kathryn Gin Lum and Lerone A. Martin, “American Religion and the Rise of Internal Security,” the opening chapters set a theme that continues throughout the volume but which is not evident in its title. While the book certainly addresses the relationship between the FBI and religion, the third factor throughout the volume that is equally important is race. A primary strength of this book is its ability to illuminate the intersection of the FBI, religion, and race in the United States—always with carefully constructed arguments and close attention to detail and data.

One aspect of the book that is slightly misleading for the reader is that only approximately forty-five of the book’s two hundred and ninety pages deal directly with the years “after 9/11.” Michael Barkun’s “The FBI and American Muslims after September 11,” and Junaid Rana’s “Policing Kashmiri Brooklyn” are as equally compelling as the rest. However, the real turning point in the overarching chronology presented in this book is the standoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas in 1993, masterfully told by Catherine Wessinger in her contribution, “The FBI’s ‘Cult War’ Against the Branch Davidians.” Indeed, it is the Waco event to which editor Weitzman returns in his concluding essay, “The FBI and the Academic Study of Religion.” In Weitzman’s essay, 9/11 can be read primarily as a disruption/cessation of progress and communication that had been developing between scholars of religion and the FBI since the Waco disaster of 1993 (276). This is not to say that the impact of 9/11 is not visible in the book—however, “Faith and National Security Before and After Waco” would perhaps be a more accurate subtitle.

The editors close the book by “calling on our fellow scholars of religion and the FBI to continue to engage each other, albeit with a greater awareness of all the problems and pitfalls posed by such an endeavor” (290). The essays in The FBI and Religion expose several problems and pitfalls—tragic missteps (and intended harms) made by field agents, directors, and religious leaders. For the reader and the scholar of religion, the editors’s call echoes loudly, and is difficult to ignore. I highly recommend this volume for any scholar, government employee, religious practitioner, and anyone residing in the US.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Yandell is a doctoral student in theological studies at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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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