The FBI and Religion

Steven Weitzman, Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literature, discusses faith and national security.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

By Blake Cole

Steven Weitzman, a scholar of religion and the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literature

Steven Weitzman says the FBI’s relationship with religion is a doubled-edged sword, especially when viewed through a historical lens. The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11, a new volume of essays co-edited by Weitzman, a scholar of religion and the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literature, and Sylvester A. Johnson, an associate professor of African American studies and religious studies in the Department of African American studies at Northwestern University, examines the history of the FBI’s interaction with different religious communities, including Christians, Jews and Muslims.

“On the one hand, the FBI investigates hate crimes and helps out communities that have been attacked,” says Weitzman, who is also the Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center of Advanced Judaic Studies. “That side of its mission absolutely has to be recognized and respected.” Historically, though, the FBIlike the public in generalis sometimes vulnerable to religious bias and misunderstanding, which at times has had destructive consequences for religious leaders and communities.

Weitzman noticed that after the attacks on 9/11, a lot of his fellow scholars in religious studies wanted to make a difference but really didn't know how. He wrote an article based on his initial examination of these efforts, a study of a group of scholars who reached out to the FBI and sought to influence the way it managed crisis situations that involved religious communities. “Once I published the article, I started to hear from other scholars who were interested in the FBI and religion, and the book began to take shape.”

The volume’s examination begins with World War I, when the government became very concerned with draft dodging and thus suspicious of religious communities that were conscientious objectors. These suspicions continued through World War II into the Cold War period, when J. Edgard Hoover's FBI became very powerful.

“Hoover had a major impact on how Americans thought about the Cold War, and he brought to that a kind of religious understanding of what was happening,” Weitzman says. “He really saw the Cold War as a battle between the forces of good and evil, that America was rooted in Judeo-Christian values, and that communism was grounded in atheism.” Hoover published books and articles in the public sphere reinforcing this theme and tried to get Hollywood to depict the FBI in certain ways. Thousands of Americans would write him letters, including Americans suspicious of their religious leaders as potential communist agents, and he would respond.

These themes also played into the age of McCarthyism and the witch hunt against people suspected of being communist. “We have a chapter in the book about Jews, because Jews were disproportionately represented amongst those suspected of being communist,” says Weitzman. “Hoover was very pro-Judaism, because he saw Judaism as the source of Christianity, yet was very suspicious of secular, non-religious Jews. It's almost like he was trying to defend Judaism against Jews. In Hoover's eyes, the former was a source of the Judeo-Christian tradition that had led to democracy, but he was distrustful of left-leaning Jews in particular, and it is not a coincidence that many of those in Hollywood accused of collusion with the Communists were Jews."

These biases led to surveillance—considered one of the most problematic areas of the FBI’s relationship with the public to this day. Hoover was particularly suspicious of religious leaders on the left, like Martin Luther King, Jr., as puppets of the communists.  Part of the issue was race, but religion was also a factor in Hoover’s animus against King. “Hoover thought of King as a religious hypocrite, because King was having affairs, which Hoover knew about because of the surveillance,” says Weitzman. “He thought of him as the most dangerous black leader in America. It was a mixture of racism and religious bias, and his own anti-communist zeal.”

In addition, the FBI sent an anonymous letter to King, essentially threatening to expose him and urging him to commit suicide, Weitzman says. “It's such a disturbing episode that the current FBI director James Comey, who was himself a religious studies major in college, has a copy of the official memo that initiated the surveillance on his desk as a reminder of how the FBI could go too far in its effort to pursue its mission,” Weitzman continues. “He requires agents to go to the MLK memorial and try to learn the lessons of that era in an effort to not repeat that mistake. He also has agents go to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. to learn about how law enforcement in Germany cooperated with this terrible evil that happened during the Holocaust.”

Another period of contention followed the infamous 51-day stand-off with the Branch Davidians’ headquarters in Waco, Texas, that left 76 dead. “There was a lot of miscommunication that happened between the negotiators and David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians,” says Weitzman. Part of this miscommunication had to do with the FBI’s inability to make anything of what it regarded as Koresh’s “Bible babble.” Some scholars blame the tragic outcome of the stand-off on the FBI’s ignorance about how to interact with an unconventional religious community whose beliefs were different from that of the negotiators interacting with it.

Some of these issues, Weitzman says, carried over to Muslim communities after 9/11, which saw the rise of what the professor calls the “counter-terrorism expert.” “Sometimes they're ex-FBI people or ex-military people, and some of them depict Islam as some kind of inherently evil religion and treat it as if it's a cover for criminal or terrorist activity,” he says. “There's a need to introduce a more nuanced understanding of Islam and recognize that this is a religion with 1.2 billion people. The FBI was still running into issues of misunderstanding and bias a decade after 9/11."

Some of this has been the fault of bad educational practices, Weitzman says. In 2011, for instance, it came to light that the FBI had been using some training materials that had encoded in them anti-Islamic stereotypes. The FBI immediately distanced itself from them, but was forced to institute of a purge of the offensive educational materials.

“There's been a struggle for a long time about how to train the FBI agents who may not know that much about other religious communities or may have their own religious beliefs that shape how they see members of other religious communities,” says Weitzman. “The FBI has made progress since the '90s. By sending agents to conferences with these religious scholars they are saying, we want to learn more. One can see that in the last 20 years. I feel there has been progress. I think the current director is willing to acknowledge mistakes that the FBI has made in the past, and trying to learn the lessons of history.”