Told  /  Book Review

The Cult of J. Edgar Hoover

A zealot through and through, he ran the FBI like a religious sect.

After reading these books, it is hard not to picture Hoover’s FBI as a cult. Much like the followers of a highly demanding guru, FBI men—and for half a century, the agents were all men—understood their work as something more than just a job. It was a way of life, and the fewer connections you had outside that life, the better. Afraid that local ties might bias or distract them, Hoover did not post new agents to their hometowns or even their home states. Not surprisingly, bureau men largely ended up socializing with one another. Hoover created an FBI athletic league and also headed a Masonic lodge for Justice Department employees. Unlike priests, FBI agents could marry, but Hoover once fired an unmarried clerk when he learned that a woman had slept in the young man’s apartment for two nights.

As in most cults, the leader looked for certain kinds of people as his followers, and so some things gave you an inside track at the FBI, such as being a Mason, or an alumnus of Hoover’s alma mater, George Washington University, or a fraternity man there—especially a member of Kappa Alpha, whose chapter Hoover had headed. This fraternity was tight-knit, heavily Southern, and glorified the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy; the Kappa Alpha motto was even etched into the ceiling of the Mississippi statehouse.

Something else that helped your FBI career was being ardently Christian. There were special vesper services for Protestant agents and their families, a regular FBI mass and communion breakfast for Catholics, and retreats (no families allowed) open to agents of any faith. The Presbyterian Hoover was widely but incorrectly believed to be Catholic because of his fondness for Jesuits, the order cofounded by the “soldier-saint” Ignatius of Loyola. Hoover told one group of Jesuit students that their spiritual practices were “analogous to the FBI’s approach to training.” The bureau’s twice-yearly weekend retreats—to which no Black agents were invited—were even held at a Jesuit center in Maryland with a high-ranking agent serving as “retreat captain.” Hoover’s books, autographed by the director, were in the center’s library; awards given by him were on the wall; and an engraved silver communion chalice, purchased with donations from FBI agents, was presented by him as well. Back in Washington, Catholic agents knew it was politic to worship at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, which several senior FBI officials (including one who was Episcopalian) attended faithfully. According to Martin, one of them also reported on attendance to Hoover.