Cushwa Center hosts Stanford Professor to discuss new book on J. Edgar Hoover
Stanford Professor Lerone A. Martin presented his new book, The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism, at the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism’s fall 2023 Seminar in American Religion on October 7.
Martin serves as Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford. He was joined on the panel discussion by Darren Dochuk and Kristen Kobes Du Mez. Dochuk, a history professor at Notre Dame, is the co-director of the Cushwa Center. Du Mez is Professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University.
Martin summarized the three central themes of his book in his opening remarks. He first argued that during the nearly five-decade tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI worked to establish Christian religious identity as synonymous with being American. He then explained how the FBI connected with conservative Christian groups in the mid-twentieth century, especially white evangelicals, to “promote white Christian nationalism as the only means of keeping America safe” during the Cold War.
Finally, he claimed that the FBI policing of religious communities ultimately resulted in a “sanitized and endorsed” form of white Christian nationalism. In support of his argument, Martin pointed to the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. He said that the bureau tried to portray King’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement “not as a Christian crusade but as something that was other, or a communist subversion.”
Martin claimed that Hoover’s Christianity “was not so much about establishing a spiritual connection with the divine but more about the role of morals in the life of the nation and how the nation should conduct itself.” He said that his book demonstrates how Hoover viewed the FBI as a vehicle for his personal custodianship of America’s moral character.
After providing an overview of the intelligence agency’s past involvement with Christian nationalist movements, Martin turned to address the question of whether the FBI can adequately combat similar threats today. Mentioning that the bureau’s demographic composition is largely the same as it was during Hoover’s day, he suggested that internal transformation may be required to make the FBI more effective. He pointed to the events of January 6, 2021 to highlight how the bureau is currently ill-equipped to respond to the phenomenon of white Christian nationalism.
“On January 6, the FBI had a high number of informants within the Proud Boys, and yet January 6 still happened. So I don’t think the bureau needs more power and money; I think it needs commitment and will, shaped by our elected officials,” Martin said.
Provost John T. McGreevey, who attended the lecture, asked the panelists whether an analytical distinction could be made between white Christian nationalism and Cold War patriotism. He added a follow-up question: “If this distinction can be made, when does contemporary white Christian nationalism begin?”
Martin said in response, “Hoover was always a Christian nationalist. By the time the Cold War rolls around, what he believed was needed in the 1930s to stop the rise of gangsters like John Dillinger—a revival—is also going to help America overcome the communist threat.”
“When a liberal Supreme Court justice today says, ‘I believe this is a Christian nation,’ they mean something different than what Hoover meant,” Martin continued. He proposed that people today are often speaking past one another because they lack both a common understanding and terminology for expressing the role of faith in the public sphere.
Echoing this sentiment in the question and answer session, Du Mez expressed her belief that “white Christian nationalism is nothing new. It means different things to different people, and there is a spectrum of beliefs that account for a spectrum of commitments to democracy.”
Developing the point about the relationship between Christian nationalism and democracy, she highlighted her conviction that democratic allegiance can provide a valuable framing device for conversations on the subject.
“You can be a deeply Christian person, you can act out your faith in the public sphere. I want to know, as a fellow citizen, how you feel about democracy. How does your faith come up against democracy, and what tensions do you see? When push comes to shove, and it is coming to shove right now, what is your commitment to democracy? And how do you see yourself as a member of a pluralistic society?”
William Schultz, Assistant Professor of American Religions at the University of Chicago, expressed his gratitude for “[Professor Martin’s] great book and the rich discussion.” He remarked that he was intrigued by the notion of a “conservative ecumenism” within Hoover’s FBI and how it compares to the more liberal ecumenism from the same period exemplified by the Federal Council of Churches.
The Cushwa Center’s next event is scheduled for Friday, October 13. Professor Anthony Annett will deliver a lecture entitled “Can Catholic Tradition Create a More Just Economy?” in conjunction with the Center for Social Concerns for its MVP Fridays series.
PJ Butler is a senior majoring in political science and theology. If you are unable to reach him through his FBI informant, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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