(RNS) — Lerone Martin’s new book began with a cup of coffee that led him to sue the FBI.
While working on a book about religious broadcasters, a colleague suggested over coffee that Martin, a religion scholar, research the FBI to see if they had any related files. At the time, the colleague, scholar William J. Maxwell, author of “F.B. EYES,” had been studying the FBI’s surveillance of Black writers. Perhaps the FBI had been keeping an eye on religious broadcasters as well.
Martin, then living in St. Louis, began filing Freedom of Information requests. Around the same time, he was also hearing from local pastors in St Louis who had been contacted by the FBI in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The FBI, they told Martin, wanted to know what the pastors were going to do to calm protests in that city.
“That got me thinking,” said Martin. “This is not a surveillance story. This is a story of partnership.”
Martin began thinking about the kinds of pastors the FBI might want to partner with. Chief among them was the late evangelist Billy Graham, known for his crusades for Jesus and against communism and liberals.
When Graham died in 2018, Martin asked for his FBI file. The Department of Justice said no. So, Martin sued in federal court and three years later settled with the FBI and got the files. He also obtained files on other Christian leaders and organizations, most notably more than a thousand pages of documents outlining the relationship between longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and the editors of Christianity Today, the flagship publication of Graham’s evangelical movement.
What Martin, now an associate professor of religion at Stanford, found in those files was this: Hoover was perhaps the most influential Christian leader in America during his tenure in office, promoting a gospel of America as a Christian nation and labeling anyone who threatened the power of white Christian men as communists and a threat to God’s will.
“Hoover saw his politics as nothing more than an extension of his faith,” said Martin, author of “The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism.“ “And because America is a Christian nation, the FBI is charged with defending and perpetuating that ideal.”
Unlike early Christian nationalists, like Father Charles Coughlin — a star of early broadcast radio — or Gerald L.K. Smith, longtime editor of “The Cross and the Flag,” Hoover had the institutional power and discipline to make his beliefs stick. And he had a gift for convincing conservative Christian leaders to join his crusade.
When the Nation magazine ran a series of articles critical of the FBI and Hoover, legendary Christianity Today editor Carl Henry rode to his aid, offering to run one of Hoover’s essays in the magazine. When the essay arrived, Henry was effusive in his praise.