We are in a period of American history in which religious minority groups, especially (but not only) Muslims, are feeling targeted by hate groups and sometimes even by elements of the government.
Hate crimes (or what at least appear to be hate crimes) have been happening in many places, including here in the Midwest, with the recent shootings in Olathe, Kan., and the vandalizing of a Jewish cemetery in the St. Louis area.
In this atmosphere, it's reasonable to ask about whether public authorities charged with keeping the peace are religiously literate enough to do so.
A new book of essays, which I haven't yet read, takes a look at the historically distressing answer to that question when it is asked of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This Atlantic piece describes the book, The FBI and Religion, and does an enlightening interview with one of the book's two editors, Steven Weitzman.
Here is Weitzman's conclusion after having studied how, since the FBI's inception, it has dealt with religion: "Likely no other organization of the federal government has had a more directly destructive impact on the lives of religious communities than the FBI."
I documented part of that sad FBI history in a series of articles I wrote for The Kansas City Star in 1994, a year after the Branch Davidian catastrophe in which dozens of people died outside Waco. You can find that series republished in my 2001 book, A Gift of Meaning. I make the argument there that the FBI could have prevented this disaster by spending as little as half an hour talking to members of the nearby Baylor University religious studies department in Waco. Those scholars had studied the Branch Davidians for decades and knew how not to approach them. But the religiously illiterate FBI didn't do that and blundered into horror.
There are many other examples of how religious illiteracy or prejudice caused problems for the FBI over the years, and the Atlantic piece talks about some of them. But the question today is whether the current FBI is better prepared to be a force for calm and reason when religious minorities feel targeted.
Weitzman's answer is at least somewhat reassuring:
"We’re in a situation where we have anti-Islamic discourse entering the political mainstream in a way that hasn’t been the case in the past. Immigrant communities are subject to a whole new level of suspicion. And the FBI itself has been at the center of a lot of these things.
"I’ve been thinking a lot about James Comey, the current director of the FBI. He was a religion-studies major as an undergraduate, and he wrote his senior thesis on the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. I don’t know this to be true, but I see some of the influence of that on what he’s doing now. A year or two ago, he instituted a new practice for FBI recruits: They have to go to the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, D.C., and have to study how the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover mistreated Martin Luther King. He has on his desk a memorandum that authorized the FBI to surveil and harass Martin Luther King. That’s there as a reminder to him of the danger of overreach of the FBI.
"What I find encouraging about that is his willingness to study the history of the FBI and digest the lessons, and try to institutionalize that as part of the educational culture of the FBI. If we could just somehow learn from the mistakes we’ve made in the past, there’s a small chance we won’t make those mistakes again."
Religious literacy is necessary for all Americans. It's one reason I've been working with a group to try to create a religious literacy initiative and house it at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. We're making progress, though it's a long-term project. (I've written about this effort here.) But religious ignorance leads to fear and even violence. And we can't afford that.
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A BOOK ABOUT GOD FOR KIDS
I frequently review or at least give notice of new faith-based books here on the blog. Today I'll let someone else do that in a category of books I rarely consider -- children's stories. This review of When God Made You makes me want to get a copy and share it with our grandkids.