The Atlantic

How the FBI Is Hobbled by Religious Illiteracy

The Bureau has long defended “Judeo-Christianity.” Minority groups have not fared as well.
Source: Getty / Chip Somodevilla / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

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

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic6 min read
The Best Athlete Americans Have Never Heard Of
American pro athletes face pressure to stick to sports. Australia’s David Pocock has a different idea.
The Atlantic3 min read
Alone In The Dark In The Bay Area
Earlier this week, Pacific Gas & Electric cut power to hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents to mitigate the risk of fires. The city of Berkeley put out some vital information for those who might be affected: “If you are power-dependent for med
The Atlantic5 min readPolitics
The NBA-China Disaster Is a Stress Test for Capitalism
On August 19, the definition of a company in America changed. The Business Roundtable, a U.S. lobbying group that represents nearly 200 companies, issued a statement proclaiming that the “purpose” of a business in 2019 was no longer to look out merel