Summary: J. Edgar Hoover’s understanding of Christianity significantly influenced his management of the FBI, and in turn, the FBI impacted the broader development of what has become the Christian Nationalist movement in a modern sense.
If Kristen Kobez DuMez had not (multiple times) recommended the Gospel of J Edgar Hoover and had not been briefly on sale as a Kindle book, I would not have picked it up. I have a limited interest in the FBI or Hoover. But her strong recommendation of the book’s writing made me pick it up. In the opening pages, two stories frame the book nicely. First, the introduction talks about the legal maneuvers required to get the FBI to honor their FIOA requirements and how they initially did not honor their legal requirements and suffered no real consequences for violating FIOA requirements. The second early story in the book that I think matters is how a church stained glass window was dedicated to Hoover. I read that description as meaning that it was a stained glass window of Hoover, but instead, it was a window dedicated to Hoover. I did not realize my mistake until I read a review of this book on Goodreads. That review linked to an image of the windows, which is helpful for context. (J Edgar Hoover window) I think I was primed to understand the window as images of Hoover because of Southwestern Baptist Seminary’s stained glass windows (artist site), which were of many of SBC figures, including the seminary president who originally commissioned the windows and who was forced to resign several years ago.
Lenore Martin’s perspective is evident throughout the book. The following is as good of a thesis statement as any:
“As FBI director from 1924 until his death in 1972, Hoover was a political constant, paying lip service to the Constitution, but establishing white Christian nationalism as the actual foundation of his FBI. It mattered little who was in office or which party was in control of Congress. Faith helped him determine the nation’s enemies and how they should be attacked and defeated. He saw national security in cosmic terms. Nothing was more existential than national security, the very salvation of the nation’s soul.” (p7)
“The FBI made it very clear: a secure and safe America was a Christian America, one in which white evangelicals and conservative white Catholics worked together to maintain the levers of cultural and political power.”
My knowledge of the FBI in the early years is primarily about their roles (sometimes positive, but often negative) regarding the Civil Rights Era. (I was interested to learn that the FBI opened 11,328 civil rights investigations but only had 14 convictions.) And the early FBI’s role in investigating sex trafficking concerning the Mann Act. The Mann Act was officially titled The White Slave Traffic Act, but neither that full title nor the colloquial term was mentioned in The Gospel of J Edgar Hoover.
Hoover was a very determined young man, and his strict Christian upbringing and military high school training were relevant to his later work. Hoover started working with Justice Department records while attending night school, where he obtained a Masters Degree in Law. From those lowly beginnings, he rose quickly and was only 29 when he was given leadership over the department that eventually became the FBI as we know it today.
The book gives an overview of his early life and preparation to become the FBI director. But it very quickly moves to its central point. The Gospel of J Edgar Hoover is about how the FBI was rooted in an explicitly religious foundation that supported what Hoover called “Americanism” and then how Hoover worked with White Evangelicals to get out his message of Americanism; then, in part three, how Hoover used the FBI to police Americanism.
That first section details how Hoover understood the FBI to be both soldiers and ministers of the gospel. This was highly explicit. Part of the oath that the FBI agents included this line: “I shall, as a minister, seek to supply comfort, advice, and aid to those who may be in need of such benefits; as a soldier, I shall wage vigorous warfare against the enemies of my country, of its laws, and of its principles.” (p31)
To be a soldier and minister was equally crucial to Hoover. The special agents were required to participate in annual Ignatian retreats and worship services to prepare them spiritually for their jobs. The clergy supporting those retreats and services were always well vetted and usually had clear fidelity to both the US and Hoover as an individual. Hoover wanted a particular look for the agents that designated them as soldiers. Until the late 1960s, when infiltrating civil rights groups required adding Black agents, the agents were always white, with a weight and look that Hoover associated with health and what it meant to be an American. For a while, there was an explicit partnership with the National Association of Evangelicals to recruit evangelicals into the FBI workforce. That included an ideological requirement. There are frequent jokes in pop culture and movies about “looking like a federal agent,” but there is a reality to this because of Hoover’s leadership.
Part of what this book and some other reading I have done is to raise the question about when someone will write a book about the shift from the mainline protestant view of the positives of civil religion in the late 19th and early 20th century and the skepticism of civil religion and nationalism among fundamentalists to the “party realignment” where the mainline protests were more skeptical of civil religion or Christian Nationalism, while evangelicals became more accepting of it. This parallels the political party realignment, which is why I use that framing. But as far as I know, that history has yet to be written. George Marsden’s Twilight of American Enlightenment is part of that story, but it does not connect to the rise of evangelical-oriented Christian Nationalism, only the breaking apart of the consensus on civil religion among mainline protestants.
Part two of the book is about how Hoover partnered with the brand-new Christianity Today to convey his message of Americanism to the masses. Hoover approved these articles, but they were ghost-written by agents. Hoover did not accept payment from Christianity Today for the article but was given the rights to reprint the articles, and the FBI packaged the articles into widely distributed pamphlets, far surpassing the distribution within the original magazine. Martin frames Hoover using Christianity Today, but Christianity Today also consciously supports Hoover’s mission and tactics, especially its anti-communism. Hoover also published (again ghostwritten by the same team of agents) a best-selling book about fighting communism through his mix of militarism and spiritual methods similar to his Christianity Today articles.
The book’s third section was about how Hoover viewed his role as “Bishop, Champion and Crusader” (these are chapter titles) and policed those he viewed as enemies, especially the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr in particular.
Earlier in the book, there is a discussion about Hoover and the FBI leadership’s understanding of following the law while policing.
“SA [Special Agent] John P. Mohr, the Assistant Director in Charge of the Administrative Division, laughed when a young law school student inquired about the legality of the Bureau’s labor. “You’re still in law school—which means you’re still an idealist,” he told the neophyte. The Bureau’s number four man was in charge of the budget and all personnel matters. The man with the power to hire and fire fully expected and instructed special agents to break the law. He told the future special agent to always remember: extralegal and illegal methods were completely appropriate, because “When it’s for the right reasons, the end does justify the means.” There was no ambiguity in Hoover’s FBI, the message coming from the top was clear: faithful special agents knew the Bureau’s righteous ends justified any and all means. These moral ends were determined by the Bureau’s Christian nationalism, not the US Constitution. “And if the moral values ran into conflict with the legal principles,” one special agent noted, “the legal principles had to give way.” (p57)
This principle of the ends justifying the means partly because it was a spiritual calling that was ironed out in the FBI’s fight against communism, which made the later violations against civil rights organizations and individuals easy to justify. The Bureau concluded that the National Council of Churches was a communist trojan horse. Other religious groups that advocated justice were also viewed as overtly communist or had allowed communist propaganda to influence them. “Any person who was a communist or shared the slightest affinity for so-called communist ideals could not possibly be a Christian.” (p143)
“The FBI’s religious commitments influenced the decision to begin a direct investigation of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. For years, J. Edgar Hoover was convinced that atheistic communism, not religious fervor, was fueling the fight for Black equality. “The Negro situation,” he testified before Congress in 1958, is “being exploited fully and continuously by Communists on a national scale.” Hoover viewed this purported communist infiltration not simply as a political debate, but as an attack on America’s Christian heritage. It was the duty of the FBI, he told his employees in 1961, to “reaffirm” the Bureau’s “Christian purpose … to defend and perpetuate the dignity of the Nation’s Christian endowment.” Christianity was the bedrock of the nation’s heritage and the FBI was “the main line of resistance against all enemies of our heritage.” (p229)
The initial investigation into King showed that he believed in his work as a Christian religious commitment, not an atheist communist front. But Hoover refused to accept that result, and his agents eventually followed his lead. Because they viewed King as the most important civil rights leader and the civil rights movement as a threat to national security, there was no need to use only legal means of surveillance or influence to oppose the civil rights movement. Hoover also opposed the Klan and infiltrated Klan organizations, but the opposition to the Klan was not their advocacy of segregation (which Hoover supported) but their use of violence.
Martin made his main point that Hoover and the FBI were religiously influenced, and that did work to support the movement that we today call Christian Nationalism. I also thought the history of the FBI’s willingness to use illegal means for what they perceived as good ends (often influenced by their understanding of “Americanism”) was made. I did want more of a connection to the white catholic leadership beyond the Jesuit connections. I also think Martin has connected the FBI to the support of early Neo-evangelicalism that grew out of Billy Graham’s influence but not to the narrower understanding of Christian Nationalism, which is not all evangelicalism. Similar to how I wanted more about the FBI’s relationship to Catholicism, not all white Catholics are supporters of Christian Nationalism, although some are. This continues to be a problem for writing around Christian Nationalism. Some white Christians also are Christian nationalists, but many are not. And too often the writing about Christian Nationalism seems to implicate all white Christians without distinction. And the nuance matters. I also wanted more biography of Hoover. I know that more biography would have required a much longer book, but the biographical content was pretty light.