The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The FBI’s culture and recruiting have long favored conservative Christianity

The right’s claims about weaponization of the FBI don’t stand up to the historical test

The exterior of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, the headquarters of the FBI, in August 2015, in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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House Republicans have empaneled a Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government to investigate the widespread belief on the right that the FBI and other agencies are attempting to “purge conservative views.” A recently leaked memo even fueled concern that this campaign includes investigating Catholic conservatives for their beliefs. More than 20 state attorneys general and a host of Republican officials have called for an investigation of the Bureau’s bias, “woke” culture and “religious persecution,” and even to defund the FBI.

There is just one problem with the fury and demands for action: If the FBI suffers from bias against a political side, it’s the left. In fact, the Bureau’s history reveals that it has long had a conservative Christian preference in its hiring practices, culture and investigative priorities. While there have been some steps taken to address the Bureau’s bias, its fundamental culture remains in place — underscoring that the right’s claims are simply divorced from the reality of the Bureau.

Dating back to the 1920s, the FBI has had a culture saturated by Christian conservatism. Beginning in the 1930s, longtime FBI Director and Presbyterian Elder J. Edgar Hoover made special agents sign a mandatory “Law Enforcement Pledge” in which they vowed, in part, to be “ministers” to the nation’s Christian soul. They also committed to being “soldiers … wag[ing] vigorous warfare against the enemies” of the country, its Christian principles and laws. To ensure that his agents had the right grounding, Hoover named Jesuit priest Father Robert Lloyd as the chaplain of the FBI and even instituted a suite of conservative Christian worship services. All special agents faced enormous cultural pressure to attend the FBI’s Jesuit retreats, Catholic Communion mass and breakfasts and Protestant Vesper Services — especially if they were seeking a promotion. Agents were exposed to a slew of sermons by conservative clergy including McCarthyite Monsignor John Keating Cartwright and Father Fulton Sheen.

This suite of religious practices led one retired FBI agent-turned-pastor to proclaim in 1971, “The Bureau was my seminary.”

Hoover labored to ensure that the Bureau would be staffed by agents receptive to such a culture. For more than three decades under his leadership, the FBI exclusively hired White male Protestant and Catholic special agents. Hoover’s college fraternity, Kappa Alpha, which counted Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as its spiritual founder, was a fountainhead of FBI Protestant recruitment, while special recruiting overtures to Catholic schools centered on Georgetown, Fordham and St. Louis University. Hoover even promised graduates from Jesuit schools that the “sound, time honored and proven principles” of Jesuit spirituality were “analogous to the FBI’s approach to training and everyday relations between Special Agents.”

Racism was a part of Hoover’s vision for inculcating a conservative religious culture in the FBI. Only in 1962, after Attorney General Robert Kennedy forced Hoover’s hand, did the Bureau begin hiring trained Black special agents. (Women were not hired as Special Agents until 1971.) Even then, the director marked their files with” special” employee ID numbers, allowing for superiors to exclude them from promotions. Hoover also excluded Black agents from the FBI’s worship services, denying them the opportunity to show their belonging and commitment to the Bureau. This tactic removed any chance for promotion and exposed how central these worship services were to the Bureau’s culture.

Hoover’s worldview also shaped the FBI’s investigative efforts. The Bureau targeted left-leaning groups and figures for investigation and harassment, while often downplaying the threats from right-leaning groups. While in 1965 Hoover labeled the Ku Klux Klan “a group of sadistic, vicious white trash” that he could “almost smell … in the areas where they live,” he still affirmed their white supremacist ideas and grievances. As African Americans suffered bombings, sexual assaults, beatings and even death for pressing for the right to vote in Alabama, Hoover told the press on April 15, 1965, that “White citizens are primarily decent, but frightened for their lives,” while nonviolent African American civil rights crusaders were “quite ignorant,” “uneducated” and unworthy of the vote. If and when African Americans proved themselves worthy, he reasoned, they would “in due time” garner the “acceptance” of broader White society and eventually gain “rights equal to those of the White citizens in their community.”

The FBI director considered Martin Luther King Jr. the worst of all. He even referred to the preacher as a “disservice to his own race and our country.” The Bureau launched an unprecedented harassment campaign against King. This included conservative Christian preachers laundering the Bureau’s counterintelligence against King by inserting it into their religious broadcasts and publications.

Hoover’s death in 1972 did not change the fundamental culture or direction of the FBI. Regular spiritual retreats ensured that the Bureau would remain a bastion of White Christian conservatism. Shortly after assuming charge of the FBI in 1973, Director Clarence Kelley, a Life Elder of his church, The Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City, proudly announced, “The effects of these spiritual exercises … not only enrich the lives of the men who attend the Retreat but also permeate … the very fabric of the FBI itself.” In the late 1970s and 1980s, conservative televangelist Pat Robertson of “The 700 Club” — a future Republican presidential candidate — even preached at the FBI special worship services.

The FBI also remained predominantly White, with Black agents still only comprising 12 percent of the Bureau’s special agents in 1991. That year, Black agents sued over systemic discrimination. Despite winning the case, little changed.

Black agents returned to court in 1998, with their attorney noting the historical roots of the issue, “This goes all the way back to J. Edgar Hoover.” A 2001 settlement required the FBI to pay the Black agents’ legal fees, damages and lost wages. The court also ordered the FBI to bring in an outside mediator to assess discrimination complaints. But it let the FBI director override the mediator’s decisions, and the Bureau has only gotten Whiter in the decades since. The percentage of Black special agents has declined from 12 percent to just 5 percent in 2022, suggesting that FBI hiring and institutional culture remain beholden to Hoover’s gospel of White Christian conservatism.

Some White special agents have fought against challenges to this culture. Accustomed to privilege within the Bureau, many have perceived efforts toward equality as oppression. White special agents attempted to file suit after the Obama administration began FBI recruitment efforts at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and they also reportedly threatened to initiate a White history month.

Christian conservatism has also remained embedded in the FBI’s culture. Between 2008 and 2011, for example, the Bureau invited leaders of the far right Westboro Baptist Church — most famous for their campaigns against the LGBTQ community — to address the FBI’s law enforcement training classes and to help train newly hired special agents. The Bureau’s recruiting efforts also continued to focus on bringing in agents who would embrace a conservative Christian culture. According to Frank Burton, who became a pastor after retiring as a special agent, throughout the 2010s, the FBI held recruiting events at large evangelical conferences and even recruited from the pulpit. The head of the FBI’s National Recruitment Team (NRT) noted that she had “a mandate … from God … to hire God-fearing people into the FBI.” The “demonic forces of evil could not be overcome with merely a badge and a gun.” Instead, the FBI needed “God-fearing people.” One evangelist promised the NRT that God was going to “open many doors” for them because their recruitment efforts were not just about the FBI, “but had everything to do with the building up of God’s Kingdom.”

Even the Republican investigative efforts into the FBI’s purported anti-conservative bias subtly and ironically expose the Bureau’s longtime Christian conservative bent. The weaponization subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), has claimed that the Bureau is armed with a “woke, leftist agenda,” targeting conservatives across the country. Jordan has grounded this claim in part in a distorted version of the Bureau’s past, particularly its “intense” campaign against King in the 1960s. But far from an example of bias against all religious figures, the King campaign actually reflected the Bureau’s longtime bias against religious liberals at a moment when it was making agents sign religious pledges and hosting conservative worship services.

Overall, the FBI’s history and present makes clear that claims of bigotry against conservatives, religious or political, ring false. Instead, its culture has long been saturated with Christian conservatism and its biases have largely been against those on the religious and political left, not on the right.