The Atlantic

How the FBI Is Hobbled by Religious Illiteracy

The Bureau has long defended “Judeo-Christianity.” Minority groups have not fared as well.
Source: Getty / Chip Somodevilla / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Historians have looked harshly on the FBI’s legacy in dealing with religious groups. The Bureau famously investigated and threatened Martin Luther King Jr. at the peak of the civil-rights movement. A 1993 standoff with a group called the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, ended with a massive fire, killing more than six dozen men, women, and children. And since the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Bureau has repeatedly been accused of illegally surveilling and harassing Muslim Americans.

The story of the FBI and religion is not a series of isolated mishaps, argues a new book of essays edited by Steven Weitzman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sylvester A. Johnson, a professor at Northwestern University. Over its 109 years of existence, these historians and their colleagues argue, the Bureau has shaped American religious history through targeted investigations and religiously tinged rhetoric about national security.

At times, the Bureau has operated according to an explicit vision of protecting Christianity, as it did during the tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the FBI. But in other cases, it has operated with religious ignorance. When the religion scholar Philip Arnold saw the

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