One of George Washington’s favorite Biblical quotations was from the prophet Micah:
Washington envisioned a country where people – at least, people like him – felt safe from the oppression of their government. The country he helped to found, incorporated into its First Amendment exceptionally strong protections for the exercise of religion, and forbade government favoring or disfavoring of particular religions.
Despite this tradition, the FBI has since its founding targeted, harassed and surveilled people of faith, and is still doing so now in both a major and a minor key.
In the major key, the FBI has deployed enormous resources to target the Muslim community. It may no longer be rounding up hundreds of innocent Muslims as “material witnesses”, like it did after 9/11, but that targeting continues today. Whistleblower evidence attests to the Muslims of Minneapolis (for example) being caught in an endless net of suspicionless surveillance. Even now, the due-process-free No Fly List reads like the Riyadh phone book, and there are reports of the FBI targeting Gaza protesters. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi is calling on the FBI to do more such targeting, on the unlikely ground that the protesters might be funded by Russia.
In the minor key, as a counterpoint to its Muslim surveillance efforts, the FBI has also kept an unblinking eye on what it considers to be “extremist” Christians. Under Hoover, the FBI monitored and disrupted the efforts of Black pastors involved in the civil rights movement, including but not limited to King. Hoover justified this surveillance with speculations that the civil rights movement was influenced by the Soviet Union. But today’s FBI, under Director Wray, is still making similar mistakes. It deployed dubious geofence warrants against the Calvary Chapel of San Jose, which was continuing to meet and worship during the pandemic. It is writing bulletins warning about “traditionalist Catholics“‘ propensity for violence. The FBI is not quite yet the Saudi government’s “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice“, but it is still clearly policing the edges of acceptable religious practice, in a way that should give pause to Christians, Muslims, Jews and all people of faith.
In his 2014 article in Studies in Christian Ethics entitled “Surveillance and the Eye of God“, noted surveillance scholar David Lyon compared our modern “panopticon” unfavorably to the caring “eye of God” in Genesis 16 and elsewhere in the Bible. God’s eye sees all, but also shows deep and loving concern for its creation. What we have created here instead in the US replaces God with the Algorithm; instead of offering eternal joy, this system pins us in place in a perpetual living death. Seen from below, what our government has set up doesn’t look like a system that cares, or helps, or loves. It looks instead like a system that purposely preys on the poor, the mentally disturbed and the vulnerable, in order to score notches in the War on Terror. It looks very like a system concerned only with preserving the dominance of the intelligence agencies themselves, without regard for the privacy or religious freedom of people trying to live their lives and worship God in the way they see fit.
Next week, the House of Representatives will likely be holding the first floor vote on surveillance in several years. Right now, the FBI is free to dip into the NSA’s “702” surveillance database more or less at will, to find out information on Americans. They’ve done this over five million times in the last three years. Without a warrant, they have queried, among others, participants in Black Lives Matter protests and January 6th protests, speculating baselessly that they were influenced by Russia. They have used it to surveil mosques, and then lie that those mosque queries were not related to Americans. In short, the FBI has not changed.
We deserve a country where we may “live under our own vine and fig tree, and none shall make us afraid.” We will not have such a country, as long as we have an FBI that targets and harasses people of faith. Congress must pass a good surveillance reform, like the “Protect Liberty Act“, and rein these abuses in.