Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
In 1962, a woman living in Georgia wrote a letter.
Dr. Lerone A. Martin: Joyce Carter writes a letter, she says that she is spiritually lost in the 1960s. She says I don't know who to listen to. My name is Dr. Lerone A. Martin. I am the Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute at Stanford University.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Martin discovered Joyce Carter's letter while conducting research for his new book. It's a book about J. Edgar Hoover, the very first and longest-serving director of the FBI. Yes, it was to FBI director Hoover that Mrs. Joyce Carter was writing her letter.
Dr. Lerone A. Martin: Billy Graham is saying one thing. Barry Goldwater, who ran for president in 1964, is saying one thing. I'm trying to be a good Christian. I don't know who to listen to. I think, Mr. Hoover, you're the only person in this country who can set me straight.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, if you are astonished to discover that an ordinary American citizen would seek spiritual guidance from a law enforcement administrator, who was neither a pastor nor a theologian, well, you are not alone.
Dr. Lerone A. Martin: Joyce Carter becomes one of thousands of letters that I found in the FBI files, of people writing to the FBI director for spiritual advice. I think this is fascinating because we can't imagine-- Christopher Ray, for example, is the head of the FBI right now. We can't imagine anyone writing him and saying, "Help me decide which Bible I should read, help me to decide which evangelist on TV is the right evangelist." That is the power that J. Edgar Hoover had in this country, at one point.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Indeed, in Hoover's nearly 50 years as FBI director, he transformed it from a small enterprise, mainly investigating interstate crimes, to one of the nation's most formidable intelligence and bureaucratic institutions. These letters from Americans, seeking Hoover's spiritual guidance, they weren't the only documents. Professor Martin discovered. He requested thousands of internal documents and memos from the FBI, using the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
It took him a few years, and a lawsuit, to get them. These documents paint a picture of Hoover's FBI as more than just a force of the law. It was a force of white Christian nationalism, and it's all laid out in Professor Martin's new book.
Dr. Lerone A. Martin: I am the author of The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism. Hoover's John 3:16, if you will, in the Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover, would be-- America is a Christian nation, and will only be blessed if America continues to be a Christian nation. We have to go back to the days of the founding fathers. If we stray from that, then America will go into ruin. For Hoover, American democracy is predicated upon a conservative conception of Christianity.
If you are not following his understanding of Christianity, then you are not a citizen, and you are subversive. For Hoover, this Christianity comes with it, social implications. It's not just theological, in terms of thinking about redemption and salvation, but for Hoover, it also comes with it, ideas about how American society should be. Its racial structure, its gender structure, and even in sexuality. For Hoover, Christianity meant an American society where white supremacy was the norm, male supremacy was the norm.
Hoover policed heterosexuality, that he thought was normal. Those who disagreed with him were evil and sinful, and they were empowered by another force that was not God. It was not Holy, was not Christian. He would summarize this by simply saying, and this is a quote from Hoover, "The criminal is the product of spiritual starvation."
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: How did Hoover, within the context of the FBI itself, develop a religious white nationalist culture?
Dr. Lerone A. Martin: Yes. In order to preserve this society, Hoover baptized the FBI in his own image. He did that by launching spiritual retreats and spiritual exercises within the FBI. FBI agents were expected to attend a Jesuit spiritual retreat, where they would walk through the Jesuit spiritual exercises, which were modeled after the idea of male Christians being soldiers. This idea was being cultivated in the FBI, that FBI agents were soldiers for the American nation, to protect America from outside forces that were not aligned with white conservative Christianity.
He also made his agents sign the law enforcement pledge, which said, in part, that FBI agents would be soldiers and wage warfare against anybody and any principle that stood against their understanding of America. Also, the pledge said that they would be ministers and they would provide aid to those who needed comfort. In order to do that, Hoover had FBI agents attend FBI worship services, where the FBI would hear Hoover offer up a sermonette.
Then they would handpick certain clergy to come and preach to the FBI, about how the FBI was the front guard protecting America's Christian soul. These sermonettes would be placed inside the worship bulletin, almost replacing the words of Jesus in several of these worship bulletins. Instead of having a cross on the worship bulletin, there would be the emblem, or the stamp of the FBI. Hoover set himself up, really, as the spiritual general of the FBI.
What's important about those worship services is not just that it cultivated within the FBI religious culture of white Christian nationalism, but also, they were racially segregated. When the FBI was finally forced, by the Kennedy administration, to hire trained Black special agents, even though special agents were not invited to these worship services, these special agents were discriminated and excluded from these worship services. I interviewed several of the pioneers who joined the FBI in the 60s
They all shared with me they were not invited, and they were excluded from this religious culture, which not only shows the racial discrimination within the FBI, but also shows-- Being excluded from this central part of the FBI also marginalized Black agents from access to promotions, access to cash bonuses, and to really be included within the power structure of the FBI. The religious worship services really helped to shape Hoover's FBI, how agents understood themselves, how they understood their job, and how they understood the FBI.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, what does all of this mean for the FBI today? Keep listening, because the FBI is. That's next, on The Takeaway.
Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and I've been talking with Professor Larone Martin about his new book, The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism. Professor Martin built this book on thousands of newly declassified FBI documents, but initially, it wasn't documents on J. Edgar Hoover that he was even looking for.
Dr. Lerone A. Martin: When Michael Brown was murdered in St. Louis, where I was living at the time, I talked to some ministers in the St. Louis area, who had told me, prior to the announcement, that there would be no charges brought forward in Michael Brown's death, that the FBI had reached out to several ministers in St. Louis and said, "What are you going to do to help us to make sure that St. Louis doesn't explode?" It got me thinking, how long has the FBI been reaching out to clergy for partnership?
That's what got me started. When Billy Graham passed away in 2018, I knew that his file would possibly be available if he had one. I had seen pictures of Billy Graham with J. Edgar Hoover, Billy Graham had quoted Hoover in some of his more famous sermons, and I knew that J. Edgar Hoover was writing for Christianity Today. I assume that, given all those connections, he probably would have an FBI file, which would chronicle his correspondence and partnership with the FBI.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: You had to sue the FBI to write this book, right?
Dr. Lerone A. Martin: Yes.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell me about why.
Dr. Lerone A. Martin: The FBI, when I made my Freedom of Information Act request-- I had made several prior to that, and there were no problems. When I got to Billy Graham, the FBI did not respond to me within the statutory limit of 20 business days. When I finally heard back from them, almost two months later, there was no determination. We filed suit in the federal court there, in DC, with the FBI playing really loose and fast as it relates to the statutory limit on turning over information, according to the Freedom of Information Act.
We went back and forth for some time, more than two years. Finally, the court supervised the FBI's rolling release of information that they had on Billy Graham, but all the information I was told had been lost or destroyed. I did not get a great deal of information, but it did lead me to start making requests about the world, around Billy Graham. Christianity Today, national religious broadcasters, and these other foundational institutions in evangelicalism in America. That led me to write this book.
What I tried to do in this book was to show that the type of power and access that Billy Graham had was not just with presidents, but it was also with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which enabled the FBI to surveil and label certain religious communities as dangerous, unpatriotic, as subversive, and being a threat to the nation.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: How does the FBI and Hoover's FBI impact the trajectory of evangelical Christianity within the US?
Dr. Lerone A. Martin: It gives the idea that it's evangelical Christianity that is the norm, that evangelical Christianity is not something that developed in a particular time and place, in post-war America, when America is concerned about nuclear destruction. Hoover did that in a couple of ways. When he would write these essays for Christianity Today, he would get permission from Christianity Today to reprint them, but it would have the stamp and emblem of the Department of Justice and the FBI.
Giving America the idea that this was not just one man's opinion, but this was actually official US policy. With that, it gave white evangelicalism access to the halls of power. The idea within the American mind, the American psyche, and American culture, was that they were the moral custodian of American life, and that anything that strayed from there put America in danger of losing its soul, and perhaps, even falling into destruction.
Hoover's steadfastness, and the fact that he was in power for 48 years as FBI director, really surpassed what any president did. According to public opinion polls we have, during the time, most Americans believed him.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: It's very hard for us to imagine anyone now, writing to the FBI director to ask for spiritual advice. Are you saying it's resolved, all better, no longer really part of a feature of the FBI?
Dr. Lerone A. Martin: I don't think it's all resolved. I think J. Edgar Hoover is the first of many political figures who white evangelicals have turned to for guidance, even though Hoover was not a white evangelical by theological definition. I think the most recent has been Donald Trump. Again, someone who is not an evangelical theologically, falls short of theological stated moral imperatives, but yet, still somehow manages to be the leader of a movement.
The second thing I would say about the FBI today is that there is still a great deal of a religious culture within the FBI. Even though we see that conservatives have recently complained. A congressman, Jim Jordan, is seeking to investigate the FBI for bias against conservatives. In actuality, we see there's still a rigorous religious culture within the FBI, that still continues, long after J. Edgar Hoover.
In fact, just recently, the Chicago FBI field office requested that they would no longer have Ash Wednesday service at the FBI field office. I think what that shows us is that there's still very much so a religious culture within the FBI, that is alive and well today.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Help me to understand then, how this history might influence the FBI's current approach to terrorism that emerges from white Christian nationalist spaces.
Dr. Lerone A. Martin: I think it makes it difficult for the FBI to recognize white Christian nationalism as a network, and as a force. I think, unfortunately, even in James Comey's leadership, who was the director of the FBI, before he was fired by President Trump, oftentimes, when these events would happen, they would dismiss individuals, such as the shooter at Emmanuel AME Church. They would dismiss them as lone wolfs, or as someone who was mentally ill, as opposed to the way that they would often frame those who are engaged in acts of terrorism.
If they had any affiliation with Islam, or any affiliation with other Black faith communities, they would often see it as a network. Unfortunately, they were slow to see white Christian nationalism as a network that has been engaged in a number of domestic terrorism attacks and domestic violence, within the country. I think this history has made it challenging for the FBI and its investigative priorities to really see and recognize the scourge of white Christian nationalism as being a network that is plaguing our democracy.
I think the FBI is now, especially after January 6th, attempting to correct that. I think the problem has come in, that increasingly, those that have been deemed as the extreme right, those who were on the right side of politics, on the far right, who believe that violence is an option on the table, to achieve political ends and goals, I think we're seeing, unfortunately, that is increasingly merging with the establishment right.
As the FBI is attempting to adjust and engage in white Christian nationalism as a danger to our society, they're finding themselves intersecting with "establishment right." I think that the future has yet to tell us what that will look like, as the FBI tries to prioritize investigating white Christian nationalism and the dangers of it in our country.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Lerone Martin's new book, The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism, is available now. Lerone, thanks so much.
Dr. Lerone A. Martin: Thank you for having me. It was such a gift. Thank you.
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