FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1953 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In his new book The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover, Lerone A. Martin shows how the FBI was a major force enabling white Christian nationalism in the modern United States. As FBI director, Hoover built a religious culture at the bureau with the aim of forming agents to do battle against what he saw as the secularizing forces threatening the nation, from suspected Communists to civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. Hoover’s law enforcement crusades, despite their regular illegality, and his willingness to write and speak to Christian audiences, made him a hero to many white evangelicals who were emerging as a powerful cultural force at mid-century. Attending to the religious history of Hoover’s FBI and its influence, Martin argues, is necessary for understanding the political behavior of evangelicals today, as well as the persistent power of white Christian nationalism.

Martin is the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute and associate professor of religious studies at Stanford University. He is a former faculty member at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, where much of the research and writing for this book took place. He is also the author of Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion.

Aaron Griffith spoke with Martin about his book over Zoom. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Religion & Politics: J. Edgar Hoover served as FBI director from 1924 to 1972, an astoundingly long time in public service. How did he manage to stay in this role for so long?

Lerone Martin: Hoover was able to stay in power largely for three reasons. First, he understood how to negotiate and navigate bureaucracy. He grew up in the Capitol Hill neighborhood and came from a long line of civil servants in his family, so he was conditioned early on to know how to function in the federal bureaucracy and to stay in the good graces of those in power. That approach began with the 1920 anti-communist Palmer Raids and lasted all the way up to Nixon’s presidency.

Hoover was also a keeper of secrets, and potential critics were often afraid of his ability to expose skeletons in closets. When asked why he didn’t fire Hoover, Lyndon Johnson once said that it’s “better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.” I think that captures the way people felt about Hoover. He knew people’s secrets, so it was better just to keep him on the inside than have him on the outside.

Finally, Americans embraced Hoover. Public opinion polls showed that the overwhelming majority of Americans thought he was doing a tremendous job, that he was keeping the nation safe from crime and communism.

R&P: Your book begins by chronicling Hoover’s early life and his religious formation during this time. How would you characterize this period and how did that set the stage for his later career?

LM: Hoover’s most formative religious experience occurred in the Presbyterian church. As an adolescent he documented a great deal of his religious experiences in his personal diary, from his baptism to teaching Sunday School. He was also taken with a kind of muscular Christianity that held for one to be a Christian man, one needed to express that through one’s physical abilities and intellectual prowess, like playing baseball, running track, and being on the debate team.

Throughout his life Hoover would never give a testimony of conversion, even when evangelicals pressed him. He would always say, “I grew up with the faith.” He said he never had a blazing moment when he was converted and gave his life to Jesus. He felt like he was always a Christian, and this idea of Christian nurture was very formative for him. It was also formative for how he understood America as a Christian nation: This was a tradition one is born into, and one has to remain faithful to it and defend it at all costs.

R&P: How does knowing this about Hoover change the way we view modern American evangelicalism, especially for scholars or observers who have made much of conversion as a marker of the movement?

LM: I think it speaks to the practice of evangelical politics, in that Christian nationalism has long been the political style of modern white evangelicalism. Christian nationalism is not typically predicated upon certain theological particulars, like salvation or the atonement. [Christian nationalists] are much more committed to an ideology of America being a Christian nation, and a commitment to certain ideas of what Christianity looks like as it relates to societal structures and moral commitments. Evangelical theologians and organizations have long talked about the importance of conversion, but I’m not quite sure that it’s actually been that important in how evangelicals practice their politics.

R&P: I could imagine a response to that argument that says something like, “Well, the white Christian nationalism that Hoover and his FBI found useful was purely political; it lacked any sort of true religious fervor.” But what’s striking about your book is how much of the religious history of the FBI in the 1950s revolves around worship services, church spaces, theological instruction, and even concern about the text of Scripture itself. How did these religious spaces and concerns matter for the development of the FBI’s white Christian nationalism?

LM: What we see in the FBI here is an example of how Catholics and Protestants come together with a shared ideal, putting aside some of their theological differences. Even though evangelicals were very suspicious of the Catholic Church at the time, Hoover managed to negotiate this fact by holding up anti-communism and Americanism as the ideas that really matter. The FBI’s worship services and spiritual retreats, therefore, attract Protestants, Catholics, and a few Jewish brothers and sisters who are in the bureau. The retreat leader, Father Robert Lloyd, says, Come here with whatever deity you have, whatever god you have. We’re not trying to convert you. We’re just trying to use and maintain spirituality to get you closer to that god. This is a phenomenal moment in the development of the coalition of white evangelicals and Catholics, a partnership that happens earlier than we’d like to think.

R&P: A consequence of this development that I noticed throughout the book is how white Christian nationalism accelerates the FBI’s utilitarian calculus: The ends justify the means, even if those means are dishonest or illegal. How does that happen, and what are the consequences for how this impacted FBI investigations?

LM: With Hoover this really accelerates when he feels that the courts, elected officials, and clergy can no longer be trusted to secure a Christian America. I think when Hoover loses faith in those authorities, especially if he thinks they are being duped by Communists or are “bleeding hearts,” as he would often call them, he concludes that the FBI has to do whatever needs to be done because established authorities can no longer be trusted. Once the Smith Act [which had previously allowed for prosecution of Communists and other suspected subversives during the 1940s] began to lose its power through constitutional challenges, Hoover is convinced that he has to do whatever it takes to maintain his idea of how America should be.

Hoover’s concern leads to the FBI spying on certain groups, not for illegal actions, but for their political beliefs. They engage in counterintelligence efforts against women’s organizations, religious groups, and civil rights activists, like Martin Luther King, Jr. With King, they leak classified evidence about him, surveil his every move, and send him a letter in which they encourage him to commit suicide.

In the book I mention a high-level FBI executive who speaks to a law student who wants to be an agent. And he says to him, “You’re still in law school—which means you’re still an idealist … When it’s for the right reasons, the ends do justify the means.” That becomes the ethos in the bureau.

R&P: As you show in the book, Hoover’s FBI finds religious allies particularly useful for undermining the civil rights movement. Some are white evangelicals and white Catholics, but he also sees certain Black Christian ministers as allies. Who were they?

LM: Hoover seeks out Black ministers who are committed to a radical anti-communism, in particular Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux. Elder Michaux was very well-known religious broadcaster, probably the first clergyman to have his own television show. Hoover wrote him a letter in 1950, telling him he loved his preaching and television show. Later, in an attempt to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr., Hoover begins to feed Michaux classified material and counterintelligence on King. Michaux then launders that information and begins to put it in his sermons, arguing that King was a Communist and that he was not leading the nation toward Christian ends.  He even writes a public letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., saying that King needed to apologize to the FBI after the civil rights leader had criticized the bureau. In this way, the FBI found Michaux extremely useful.

R&P: You write that the FBI was “a central and unifying institution for evangelical faith.” I imagine that this is a claim that would challenge many readers, who might see churches or ministries linked to familiar evangelical leaders like Billy Graham as such institutions. How did the FBI’s centralizing, unifying work happen?

LM: One place we can see this is in the FBI’s relationship with Christianity Today, a new magazine at the time in the 1950s. Christianity Today reaches out to J. Edgar Hoover to be a contributor, and Hoover agrees to write for them. This contributes both to the magazine’s popularity and to its authority, as an authentic voice speaking for Americans’ sense of justice and national security. Hoover’s essays then are distributed not only by Christianity Today, but also by the FBI. Americans are told that Christianity Today and the Department of Justice are working together to protect American ideals, to keep America safe, and to keep America as God’s nation.

People then begin writing to the FBI because of its connection to Christianity Today. They ask questions that would normally be reserved for one’s pastor or one’s Sunday School teacher. They say things like: I don’t know who to trust. Billy Graham puts out something, Barry Goldwater puts out something. Oral Roberts says something. I don’t know who to trust, and the only ones I can trust to answer these questions for me is you, Mr. Hoover, and your FBI. Hoover and his FBI become adjudicators of what it really means to be an evangelical, on whether Christians can trust certain preachers or certain versions of the Bible.

Evangelical preachers also begin preaching Hoover’s Christianity Today essays in their pulpits. There are several examples where people write to the FBI glowingly, saying things like: Mr. Hoover, normally I preach a sermon based on a scriptural text, but today I just read your essay in the pulpit. So in this way, by drafting essays, fielding questions, and actually ghost-writing evangelical sermons, the FBI becomes a really important part in crafting evangelical identity.

R&P: Your research not only draws from a fascinating array of hard-won sources; it involved suing the FBI, an experience you talk about right at the very beginning of the book. How did this experience shape your understanding of the FBI’s operations and history?

LM: I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Billy Graham’s involvement with the FBI. The statute maintains that the agency has to respond and make a determination within 20 business days. I filed it the day Graham passed away in February of 2018, and I did not hear back from the FBI until April. The letter they sent basically said, We don’t know if we have anything. We’ll let you know when we decide. I was in conversation several months later with an attorney. I told him the story, and he said to me, “That’s against the law. You should sue.”

So we filed a lawsuit. The federal court supervised the FBI as they gave me a rolling release of material on Billy Graham, most of which was a collection of how the FBI handled death threats against him, as well as newspaper clippings about Billy Graham’s whereabouts and the denial of his entry into Poland. But the FBI said that other documents had been either lost or destroyed. Then I decided to make Freedom of Information Act requests on other topics that made up the world around Billy Graham, like Christianity Today, Youth for Christ, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the National Religious Broadcasters. And those really opened up the world that I was able to write about in this book.

My experience was tough because you have to trust the FBI to be archivists. And it’s not like a normal archive where there’s a finding aide. You have to write the FBI to figure out if they have anything; trust them to be honest about what they have; and then trust them to actually give you what they say they have. And that has been an exercise in patience. And I’ve been disappointed at times with what the Freedom of Information Act actually offers, and I have often wondered if it really is indeed as empowering as the law says it should be to ordinary citizens.

R&P: You write that Hoover exerted profound influence within white evangelical circles, and yet he had no real theological semblance of being an evangelical himself. It was impossible for me to read this and not think of Donald Trump’s similar profile and influence among evangelicals. But Trump has often been at odds with the FBI during and after his time in office. Do you think that conflict signals a new era for the FBI?

LM: That’s a great question. In some ways I can see why Trump feels this way. The FBI in the past, at least under Hoover, has done the bidding of American presidents. So if Trump came in with that expectation, with history as his guide, I could see why someone like FBI director James Comey was a disappointment to him.

I do think that in some ways the FBI went from being the darling of the American right to being its enemy. But that has more to do with the shifts in the American right than with the FBI. We should be very cautious about the notion that the FBI is now this woke, liberal army. For a long time in this country the FBI was a tailwind for the American right, through its policing and surveilling of its opposition. That tailwind has lessened, and for the American right, it now feels like a headwind. But that is just simply not the case.

A great example here is the recent white terrorism that has happened across the country, most notably on January 6, 2021. Though the January 6 report wants to blame Trump, I think that’s the wrong way to go. The report says in its appendix that there were multiple streams of intelligence that federal law enforcement had access to that should have given them all the reason in the world to expect violence on January 6, but somehow it still was not stopped. I think that tells us that there’s still a ways to go within the bureau as it relates to stopping white domestic terrorism. After 9/11, there was no problem with talking about radical Islamic terrorism, and there was no problem with utilizing resources to stop terrorism in this country that was inspired by fringe violent expressions of Islam. But we don’t see that same directness when dealing with the scourge of white Christian nationalism. The FBI has now come up with a new term called “racially motivated domestic extremism,” but that still is not as deliberate and direct for chronicling what we’re dealing with.

Another example I’ll offer is the bureau’s hiring. In the 1980s, about 12 percent of the FBI’s special agents were African American. Now, despite several legal judgments against the FBI for racial discrimination against Black (and Latino employees), Black agents comprise only about 5 percent of the FBI. We have a bureau that is increasingly homogeneous, policing a society that is increasingly heterogeneous. I do think the FBI’s changed. And as a result, I think many on the right are upset about that. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this change has made the FBI into an outright anti-racist organization.

R&P: It’s become a common refrain among some scholars and observers of American evangelicalism that there’s a need for evangelicals to reckon with their history. What would it mean for the FBI to reckon with its history?  

LM: First, I think it would entail recognition that its engagement with Martin Luther King, Jr., was not an anomaly. That kind of treatment and attitude toward the African American freedom struggle was a feature of the bureau. Second, it would mean examining its practices of discrimination in employment, training, and investigative priorities. It would mean asking: How have we policed certain communities and not others? And what has shaped that concern? How has race been a part of that concern? How has faith been a part of that concern?

Finally, I think it would mean that the bureau examines its own religious culture, how that shapes who is attracted to the bureau, and how it shapes agents once they’re in it, and ultimately shapes the bureau’s labor.

The FBI building headquarters is still named after J. Edgar Hoover, who did a great deal to modernize policing in this country. But what does it mean to work in a building that’s still named after him? To reckon with the FBI’s history would mean remembering not only the things that he did to modernize crime-fighting, but also what he did to put us in the position where we are today in this country as relates to religion, race, and politics.