The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism

Image of The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism
Release Date: 
February 7, 2023
Princeton University Press
Reviewed by: 

solid, mostly engaging, offering an undeniable insight into the ongoing movement to return America to what the White Nationalist movement sees as its foundational principles.”

The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover is an account of religious conquest that comes as close as any other book to getting at the elusive “why” of J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover is historically a man of “whats” who wielded his power capriciously to various ends ruining uncountable lives in the process.

In this well-researched and precise take on Hoover’s central motivation, Lerone A. Martin provides more than just a new lens through which to see the rise of the religious right in America. Through interviews, newly discovered documents (as well as documents that weren’t provided but alluded to) Martin gets at the arbitrary disconnect between law enforcement’s responsibility to uphold the law and its higher accountability to conservative Christian morals.

Hoover’s conquest follows history’s timeline in a way that seems both too elaborate to have been planned, but too well executed to be accidental. A Presbyterian by birth and practice, Hoover decided to build the FBI in the image of the Jesuits, the warrior-monks of Catholicism. Jesuits are empowered to rely on their faith when the rules and the “true good” appear to be at odds.

By “allowing” all agents (that is, white male heterosexual agents who met rigorous body-type standards) to attend regular Catholic retreats, Hoover established a sub-rosa path to plumb assignments and fast promotion. He created a platonic standard for FBI agents and rewarded them in proportion to their ability to meet that standard.

By ingratiating himself (and the FBI) with the Catholic Church, Hoover set in motion a scandal that became a fawning. Mainline Protestantism first complained and then wooed him, and the other denominations followed. It’s the kind of hackneyed story that wouldn’t pass muster as fiction but reads as shocking as it plays out in private letters and public spats.

Over the course of a little more than a decade, Hoover established himself as the de facto bishop of conservative Christianity. By the mid-1960s Hoover could elevate or destroy preachers within their own denominations by the merest acknowledgement or snub. He became the hub around what has become today’s conservative Christian/White Nationalist movement.

Martin provides more than ample evidence of Hoover almost single-handedly establishing Christianity Today as the preeminent voice for conservative Christianity. Lending the FBI’s weight to the publication resulted in media coverage of what Hoover had to say about the rise of Godlessness in America and also spilled out into conservative congregations all over the country as he was cited and quoted at length by thousands of preachers every Sunday.

It is no overstatement to conclude that Hoover provided the playbook from which conservative Christianity recruited White Nationalism into its own enduring platform of conquest.

A significant part of this work’s narrative success is it is president-light. The well-known political battles are alluded to only in the context of Hoover building an independent, militarized empire with the sole goal of molding America in conservative Christianity’s image.

The campaign against Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the few well-covered aspects of Hoover’s life that is given a revisit and to powerful and purposeful end. In King, Hoover found the perfthat  of his great professional struggles.

Hoover’s anti-King alliance with Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, a Black segregationist and popular radio personality, lays bare the director’s view of threats to America: atheists, communists, and liberals. It was from those quarters that notions of civil rights and gender equality sprung.

Issues were symptoms, as Martin writes:“Hoover’s jeremiads were light on prophesy and historical accuracy, but heavy on political punditry . . . Political concerns deserving robust political debate—gender equality, voting, sexuality, segregation, racism, capital punishment, surveillance, labor—were reduced to conservative Christian morality plays with cosmic consequences.”

In light of Hoover’s monomania against atheism, communism, and liberalism, Martin illustrates with both evidence and allusion the enforcement bias that dominates the FBI to this day. Of particular interest is Hoover’s attitude against the far right, “White Trash” and nutballs who served only to undermine the credibility of traditional conservatism.

The modern example of the FBI’s approach to the Branch Davidians versus its indulgence of Cliven Bundy takes on a whole new facet by these lights. When the main arbiter is faith rather than law, both reason and the definition of hypocrisy are called into question.

The tantalizing meaning behind Hoover’s sexuality and his special relationship with Clyde Tolson remain just that. Early in the work, Martin allows the reader to do much of the heavy lifting. He describes in detail the (frankly insane) physical requirements Hoover imposed on his agents but doesn’t claim that Hoover had a “type.”

Similarly, his sacred Sundays with Tolson and their vacations together are mentioned only to highlight how little the religious leaders who fawned over the director seemed to care about them.

It can be frustrating to navigate the unresolved allusions to Hoover’s sexual hypocrisy. There’s a sense that all of his machinations can be placed at the feet of closeted-driven mania. As Martin lays out Hoover’s conquest, though, it is clear that that is specifically not the point. The “why” of J. Edgar Hoover had little to do with his sexuality and everything to do with his conservative Christian vision for the country and the world. 

The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover is meticulous and sometimes dense in its presentation of its case, but its case is solid, mostly engaging, offering an undeniable insight into the ongoing movement to return America to what the White Nationalist movement sees as its foundational principles.