As religion takes an ever-higher profile in America’s national-security concerns, a new book says that the FBI needs to improve the religious literacy of their agents and staff.
Emma Green interviewed Steven Weitzman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who, along with Sylvester A. Johnson, a professor at Northwestern University, edited a book of essays that argues how the Bureau has shaped American religious history through targeted investigations and religiously tinged rhetoric about national security.
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.