Belief  /  Q&A

One Bureau Under God

On the white Christian legacy of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

 JT: You’re not the first person to take on the FBI under Hoover. How does your research help us see the FBI’s mission in a new light?

LM: All of the books about Hoover—like Richard Gid Powers’s Secrecy and Power (1987) and Beverly Gage’s recent G-Man (2022)—mention Hoover’s religious upbringing, but I try to go a little further, showing how this is not something that he forgets when he becomes an adult. I argue instead that this religious upbringing shapes his entire worldview: that if we want to take him seriously as a political subject, we need to take him seriously as a man of faith. His life proves this. He had a lifelong relationship with his pastor, appointed an honorary “Chaplain of the FBI,” rented a pew at his church, served as a trustee for that church, and produced voluminous religious writings.

And I’m not just studying his faith in isolation. I wanted to know how it shaped his FBI. Bureau men, for one, were shaped accordingly. They went to worship services that were held especially for FBI agents and their families, and attended spiritual retreats, communion breakfasts, and masses at various field offices.

Hoover also engaged in a whole host of partnerships with faith communities. Undergirded by taxpayer funds, Hoover became one of the most voluminous and productive producers of religious literature, both Protestant and Catholic. The bureau—or to be more accurate, its ghostwriters—was one of the most noteworthy religious authors of the Cold War era. One of the most significant partnerships was with Christianity Today, one of the most popular conservative periodicals of the day. With homilies and essays such as “Communist Domination or Christian Rededication” and “The Communist Menace: Red Goals and Christian Ideals,” Hoover exerted a powerful influence upon the politics of evangelical conservatism.

Hoover constantly told his agents the FBI had a “Christian purpose…to defend and perpetuate the dignity of the Nation’s Christian endowment.” Or as he told agents after one spiritual retreat, the fight for the soul and security of the nation was “a fight which we cannot lose, since God is on our side.” All of this becomes a part of what it means to fall in line in the bureau. Under Hoover, all of the bureau’s labor—from illegal surveillance and break-ins to lying under oath—was God’s labor.