The Wilderness of Mirrors: Nationalism, Religion, and Secret Intelligence [transcript]

The Wilderness of Mirrors: Nationalism, Religion, and Secret Intelligence

Podcast with Michael Graziano (7 March 2022).

Interviewed by Jacob Noblett

Transcribed by Jacob Noblett

Audio and transcript available at:


World Religions Paradigm, Catholicism, CIA, OSS, Nationalism, Comparative Religions, Propaganda, Orientalism

Jacob Noblett (JN) 0:00 

Hi, listeners. My name is Jacob Noblett with The Religious Studies Project. I’m here with Dr. Michael Graziano, who’s an Assistant Professor of religion at the University of Northern Iowa. His research focuses on how the United States, religion, and law interact with one another; and his book, Errand Into the Wilderness of Mirrors: Religion and the History of the CIA really brings these ideas together incredibly well. So, your book is set in both the Cold War era and World War II and extends past that. Could you explain the motivation of your book? What inspired you to really get into this topic?

Michael Graziano (MG)  0:42 

Yeah, sure. Well, first, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here. I think as far as the motivation for writing the book, part of it will be very familiar to lots of folks listening, which is, I was trying to come up with an interesting dissertation topic, something that I wouldn’t hate to work on for several years at a time. In my, I’ve always been interested in religion and law stuff, and really, the origin of this product, this project, is pretty serendipitous. I was looking at something entirely different.

MG  1:19

I sort of came across the story of Tom Dooley, who ends up being one of the figures that I look at in the book. And I kind of stumbled into this very, you know, interesting story of the relationship between the CIA and religion in the Cold War and was surprised that more folks had not done work on this. And so, what started off as kind of like a one-off thing I was going to do, or maybe an article, ended up sort of taking over my entire focus, and then became my dissertation project. And eventually, of course, this book.

JN  1:55 

So, during this time, there’s obviously a lot of conflict going on in the world. Can you talk about how the US government decided they wanted a “spiritual counterforce,” as you say? A kind of weaponizing scholarship?

MG  2:11 

So my book looks at how the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and then later the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), so two intelligence organizations, really tried to develop religious expertise, and how they try to use this information to advance US national security as they understood it. And so, this idea of a “spiritual counterforce” comes out of some of the early Cold War directives about how the US was supposed to conduct itself in the world against the threat of the Soviet Union as part of the Cold War.

MG  2:45

And one of the consequences of that is that groups like the OSS, and then the CIA in the Cold War, took seriously religion as, as a tool, if not a weapon, as something that could be used to influence populations around the world, to push them towards aims towards things that these organizations wanted to see done. And as my book shows, it wasn’t just folks around the world. But in the early Cold War, in particular, the CIA uses some of the same techniques to try to affect domestic American perceptions of religion and domestic American perceptions of other places around the world, also to support the same US national security outcomes.

JN  3:32 

And what kind of framework did they view the research from? Were they targeting any particular religion, or were they looking at more broadly?

MG  3:42 

Yeah, they’re generally, they were generally looking at it pretty broadly. They’re mostly interested in what we might think of as religion writ large, or like the category of religion, although they didn’t talk about it like that.

MG  3:55

And this gets to one of the things I talk about a lot in the book, which is for the CIA, and for other intelligence officials, other intelligence actors, one of the really curious things that I found was that there was this widespread belief that religion everywhere was essentially the same; that no matter where they were looking, or sort of when they were looking, what religion was, was at its core, the same, even as the outward sort of trappings of religion might be different. That rituals might be different, the holidays, whatever, but that all religions shared a core. And that if you could figure out what that core was, you could figure out how to manipulate religion anywhere or understand religion anywhere.

JN  4:32 

And you mentioned, like one of the ways that they do this is they’re using the World Religions Paradigm. Do you think they were more influenced by that kind of paradigm? Or were they kind of acting as agents constructing it as well?

MG  4:51 

It’s probably a little bit of both. I think the World Religions Paradigm—although, they didn’t call it that—these ideas about world religions were in the water, they were already part of the culture.

MG  5:04

When you look at how world religions were talked about in the pages of, you know, popular periodicals like Life magazine or something, it’s not like, you know, the CIA was the only group talking about this kind of stuff or talking about religion in this way in the 50s and 60s. But I do think when you consider the power that these organizations had, it makes their interest in the World Religions Paradigm really important to pay attention to, because of the assumptions they have, which are influenced by things like the World Religions Paradigm. This influences the on-the-ground reality for folks all over the world, and often not for the better.

JN  5:43

Since the OSS, and the CIA are looking at these kinds of religions comparatively, did you come across… I certainly did. But I want to hear your perspective on inside and outside groups in the book. Or how are they interacting? Because there seems to be in every situation, you gave at least one or two inside groups, one or two outside groups.

MG  6:08 

Are you thinking of inside groups in terms of groups that the CIA was favoring? Or?

JN  6:13

Well, let’s give an example. So, there were individual, but I would say mutually beneficial efforts by both the US government and the Vatican, to gain intelligence as the Soviet Union was rising. So how about that, the inside group and outside group playing there?

MG  6:34 

Yeah. The OSS, which is the CIA’s predecessor in World War II, was particularly interested in the Vatican and Roman Catholicism. There were a couple reasons for this, but the big one was a pretty practical one, which is that Roman Catholicism was understood to be something that could give you a pretty good return on your investment, if you could understand it and access it right. But it had outposts all over the planet, right? It has a centralized authority system, and the idea was, that if you could tap into one part of this authority structure, particularly high up in the Vatican; the thinking was, right, that you would then have access to information from all over the world.

MG  7:16

One of the other reasons that this was seen as a good idea or a useful idea within the OSS, was that the OSS was run by a Catholic, William Donovan. He’s a prominent American Catholic politician in the early 20th century. And he lives at a time of really significant anti-Catholicism in the United States. And one of the, what I think one of the interesting things that I explore with him in the book is that just as or even though he was a Catholic, he’s one of the leading proponents in the OSS of seeing the Vatican as this kind of like storehouse of incredible information, if only the US could access it.

MG  7:53

When in reality, the Vatican was nothing, but the Vatican, it turns out was kind of an information vacuum during the war. They had very little good information, but even as an American Catholic growing up in the United States, he [Donovan] had imbibed these popular ideas about Catholicism as secretive and all of this other stuff, which you know, fit into these anti-Catholic tropes. But nonetheless, it encouraged him to take or to make these policy recommendations when he was leading OSS. And so, you have OSS, pursuing Roman Catholicism and the OSS pursuing the Vatican, in part because of, you know, these big ideas about religion, but also because of the on the ground realities of religious life in the early 20th century United States.

JN  8:37

Do you think that OSS was more influenced by Donovan’s own Catholic faith in pursuing the Vatican? Or do you think they saw the Vatican more as another sort of, like that outside group? That maybe they could gain some kind of esoteric knowledge and knowledge about other people?

MG  8:58 

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the answer is yes. I think Donovan’s Catholicism certainly matters. It’s, it’s certainly relevant. It’s relevant to how he understood the world and how he conducted his life. But one of the points I try to make in the book is that it’s also, you know, religion is relevant to people for any number of different reasons. And it’s not necessarily about deeply, sincerely held religious beliefs or something, or that he woke up every day, guided by, I don’t know, really profound insights about transubstantiation or something.

MG  9:32

I think Donovan’s case, it was really that Catholicism acted as an obstacle to his political aspirations, thanks to American anti-Catholicism, right? And so he saw Catholicism as something that he had to overcome or work through, which is a different way of thinking about religion, perhaps in terms of the larger organization though, right? Because the OSS was, of course, just more than its director, in terms of the larger organization. The Vatican occupied a really interesting middle ground where it was different enough from many of the Protestant religious traditions that populated the upper echelons of the US government. It was different enough to be worthy of study, but it wasn’t too exotic that you couldn’t understand it. And that exoticization threshold, I suppose, is something the OSS really runs into when they try to move beyond studying Catholicism to looking at things like Islam and Shinto, for example.

JN  10:29 

Okay, so, obviously, there’s a lot of contention and transformation in mid-20th century America regarding the opinions about Catholics. You mentioned that William Donovan felt pressure because of his own Catholicism. Do you think that bleeds into, there’s a, obviously one of my favorite stories about politics and religion is President Kennedy and whether or not he’d kiss the papal ring? Is that kind of on this same cultural perspective?

MG  11:00 

I mean, in terms of thinking about anti-Catholicism? Sure. I mean, JFK, first Catholic president, obviously had to navigate into Catholicism to make it to the highest office in the land. The sort of conspiracy theories about him during his life and after it often turned on his identity as a Catholic, which I think, I mean, I’m not a JFK scholar, but I think is a different thing than considering how important was Catholicism to him actually, right? What, what influence did it have on his life?

MG  11:37

But in terms of people like Donovan, I think to be an American Catholic in the first half of the 20th century, particularly a person with aspirations towards public office. I mean, he runs and loses the election to be governor of New York, for example. If you’re a Catholic, you’re going to meet anti-Catholicism. This is a period of time in US history, where the New York Times quotes folks like the Ku Klux Klan as authoritative sources on what it is to be a Catholic. So he certainly would have been familiar with many of the things that JFK later experienced.

JN  12:12

So, well, the population of America is kind of coming to terms with Catholicism being a legitimate and not necessarily suspicious religion. That’s about the time that the CIA decided to produce religious propaganda over in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, right?

MG  12:34 

Yeah, this is all a part of that story. So after World War II, as you know, many different historians and scholars have shown there’s a closing of the ranks, what’s sometimes called Tri-Faith America; that Protestants, Catholics and Jews may have their differences, but what they share is this kind of, you know, core religiosity that’s opposed to the sensible atheism of the Soviet Union. And so, they have more to gain by banding together than fighting amongst each other. And that, those ideas, those themes are certainly played upon by the CIA, when they’re trying to build American support for intervention in French Indochina, what we would know today as Vietnam.

JN  13:19 

Why? Why did they focus so much on the religion of some of the people in Southeast Asia as a means of propaganda, and not just basic McCarthyism, anti-communism?

MG  13:34

I’m not sure they would have seen a difference between the two, I suppose, or at least some folks wouldn’t have. To understand the religion of folks in Southeast Asia, and how their religion might have influenced their feelings towards communism was, I think, part of a broader push against communism. And so, by way of example, the situation in Vietnam at the time, for those not familiar with it, briefly, is that it was a French colony. The French unsuccessfully tried to put down an independence movement, they lose. And basically, there’s this question about what’s, there’s an American question about what’s going to happen in this corner of Southeast Asia. And to make a long story short, the US basically inherits French security obligations in Vietnam in the south. The Soviet Union essentially comes into its own sphere of influence in the north.

MG  14:24

And while this will eventually sort of set the stage for what Americans know was the Vietnam War later, there’s a period of time in the mid-50s, through the early 60s, where before there’s sort of large combat forces, there’s a big struggle that the United States undertakes to establish a sort of solid, independent government in South Vietnam with reliable anti-communist credentials. And there’s a number of challenges with that. I mean, everything from like logistics, to infrastructure, to politics, education. I mean, there’s all sorts of challenges the US runs into with this, but one of the things I look at in my book is that, as President Eisenhower and his national security team are figuring out what to do, Eisenhower is convinced that the most effective way to do this, you know, the best bang for your buck is to appeal to religion.

MG  15:13

And so, he wonders if there’s some, you know, religious types they could work with. And there’s actually a really remarkable meeting recorded by the State Department, which you can access online, and we could put in the show notes or something, perhaps if folks are interested, but he asked are there religious people in South Vietnam we could work with, and someone in the room in this recording says, “Well, there are but they’re Buddhists,” right? And unfortunately, the Buddha was a lover, not a fighter or something like that, right? I’m paraphrasing here. And so, they’re just like, dang, right? Like, that’s not gonna work. And then they find that there’s a Catholic minority, and they’re kind of relieved, because like, okay, well, the Catholics will fight.

MG  15:48

We can count on the Catholics to fight; the Catholics can be reliably anti-communist. And so, there’s this large effort undertaken to build a Catholic minority government in South Vietnam, because it’s, suppose that that’ll be the government that resists communism the best. And in order to sell that to the American people, one of the things that happens is that the CIA undertakes a really successful domestic disinformation and propaganda campaign directed at the American people to sort of sell them on the vision of South Vietnam as a country of God-fearing Christians, that is threatened by godless Soviet atheism. And so Americans should stand ready to defend religious freedom of these Christians in South Vietnam. Yeah, which is one of the stories in my book that I think is just remarkable, but, you know, strange but true.

JN  16:39 

And then focusing on the religious minority, in this case, Catholicism, to keep up this vision of a Tri-Faith America. That’s not dissimilar to what they did in Imperial Japan, right? During World War II, they, instead of focusing on the mainstream religions of Buddhism and in Imperial Japan, you had State Shinto. That’s not a dissimilar form of propaganda that they put focus on, right?

MG  17:07 

No, I mean, it’s similar in the sense that, you know, in both cases, they’re looking at minority religious movements. In the case of Vietnam, it’s a minority Catholic population that had links to the friendship course, that made them seem more trustworthy. They also were supposed by the Americans to be a bit more understandable than the Buddhists, right? Buddhism was still seen as this kind of strange, exotic thing. In the case of Japan and World War II, as you mentioned, one of the things that the American intelligence officers do is they really focus on Muslim populations that were under the control of Imperial Japan, with the hope that you could speak to these Muslim populations and sort of splinter them away from Japan or get them to rise up against the, you know, Japanese rulers who ruled over them. And the reasoning there was somewhat similar, is that even though Islam was seen as more strange than Christian to these American Christians, it was significantly more understandable than something like Shinto.

JN  18:11 

Obviously, they think they’re having some kind of success on these, these fronts of exploring these different religious traditions. Why wasn’t it until Iran that that eroded?

MG  18:26 

Yeah, that’s a good question. So, in my book, I chart the development of what I call “the religious approach to intelligence,” which is a term the OSS comes up with him World War II. And it was the idea, right, that you could sort of access religion anywhere on the planet and get good information, right? Good, actionable intelligence, because religion is the same everywhere. It was the idea that religion was the same everywhere. And religion was also a natural ally of the United States. Because to be religious, absolutely meant you were sort of pro-freedom, pro-free market, anti-communism, etc, etc. And that idea was really influential, of course, not just for the CIA, but you know, we could have a conversation about larger American popular understandings of religion in the Cold War as well. But that idea was really influential for the CIA.

MG  19:18

And one of the things that happens is that even, even in situations where that model does not really pan out, say, in places like Vietnam, it’s either interpreted as failing for reasons apart from the model, that it wasn’t the models fault that that particular operation or whatever it informed did work, or it succeeds and gets attributed to the model when maybe that’s not the case. World War II was not won solely because of the OSS’s religious approach to intelligence. But to read some of the memoirs of people in the OSS, they chalked it up to this, that like they sort of cracked the code. And of course, right, the outcome of World War II is obviously far more complex than that.

MG  20:02

But I think when it comes to Iran, and this is the final chapter of my book, this is sort of where it became really difficult to ignore the failings of the World Religions Paradigm as a way to understand the world around us. And so one of the things that happens in Iran is that the CIA is convinced that there will not be a revolution. The CIA is convinced that the Shah, the leader of Iran, before the revolution, is solid as a rock, that nothing’s going to happen. And then it obviously goes a different way.

MG  20:41

The revolution happens, the CIA is left in this interpretive vacuum; it’s unable to explain why this happened because all of the intelligence, all of the analysis before the revolution, was that Muslim actors won’t pose a serious challenge to the government of Iran, because they’re Muslim, they’re religious. And if they challenge an American backed leader who opposes communism, they would thereby be strengthening communism, which would mean working against their own interests as religious people, ergo, it’s not going to happen.

MG  21:12

And of course, it couldn’t have been more wrong. Part of what’s happening here, or part of what was happening there was that the CIA found it really difficult to think beyond this binary sort of religion versus communism, or religion versus your religion, I suppose. In, in the aftermath of the revolution, in the installation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the CIA, you know, has a real black eye here, and the US government, just with how much they got wrong. And what we might think of as the religious approach to intelligence is one casualty of that.

JN  21:44 

And so, obviously, Iran is very different than its neighbours in terms of its, its unique culture and history. Are you suggesting that the US government kind of blinded itself by focusing on Muslim majority countries as just that, Muslim majority? As not having their own unique cultures? Nationalism?

MG  22:08 

Yeah, I mean, that’s certainly, that’s certainly a part of it. Yeah. You can’t understand the World Religions Paradigm in the way it gets implemented or understood. Without understanding these really totalizing narratives, which are often racist and Orientalist, in this case, really insulting and anti-Muslim. There was this idea that Muslim cultures were backwards, right? They’re stuck in time. Khomeini is consistently described as like a blast from the past, like someone out of the Stone Age who just doesn’t make sense in the modern world. And this is one of the reasons that CIA analysts thought that he didn’t stand a chance to challenge the Shah, right? Because he’s, he’s not fit for the modern world.

MG  22:51

And this fits into a larger interest the CIA had, and many in the United States have that, you know, in the late 70s, there’s a very persuasive understanding of the secularization thesis that religion is on its way out. The future is not religious, or it’s a kind of religion that’s like private and peaceful and whatever. And that’s just simply not what happened in Iran. And I think, you know, to your point, one of the weaknesses of the World Religions Paradigm is that if you’re going to a centralize religion around the world across time and space, I don’t think there’s a way to do that without flattening local cultures, differences among people and groups across time and space, which is certainly what happens here.

JN  23:32

And that’s because they’re chasing this idealism of the United States as a place where religion is free, free to practice. Whereas you’re not going to get that in Soviet Russia.

MG  23:50

Yes, right. Which is a kind of flattening all on its own. And there’s tons we could talk about, of course, about how, you know, religious freedom in the United States, in the 50s, 60s, 70s, when my book is taking place, or today, is, of course, limited and constrained in all sorts of ways for all sorts of groups in ways that is left out of that narrative of sort of, like religious freedom for all.

JN  24:16 

There was a, I can’t remember the name of the case, because I believe it ultimately was two cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, who did not want to pledge allegiance to the flag after it was mandated. And mid-20th century America, do you think if the OSS or the CIA had paid attention to that, that they would have acted differently in terms of viewing religion, or were they just considered that minority? Or maybe even use that as championing, “hey, we are free to express religion here?”

MG  24:53 

Yeah, it’s a, it’s an interesting question. I counter, counterfactuals are always tricky, right? It’s difficult to know what historical actors would have done differently with any certainty? But I think what your question gets at is that, for people who were persuaded by what we might call the World Religions Paradigm, there’s plenty of evidence in the United States at the time, like on its own, that religion was more complicated. In that, you didn’t have to look, you know, around the world at so-called “exotic” traditions to sort of find things that didn’t fit this model.

MG  25:29

You could look at, to the, you know, Jehovah’s Witness case, you’re talking about to a schoolroom in West Virginia. Or you could look at, you know, religious movements among black Americans as part of The Great Migration in northern cities, right? There’s all sorts of evidence within the United States on its own that things are more complicated than that. But for all sorts of reasons, I would imagine relating to things like race and class, those were not considered.

JN  25:56

And, to your knowledge, does the CIA utilize methods like this anymore? Or was Iran kind of the nail in the coffin for the religious approach?

MG  26:08 

I don’t know. They don’t, they don’t talk to me. But I mean, I suspect that religion is certainly an element of, you know, the CIA’s work today. It’s much easier to get older documents, older archival finds than it is to get current stuff, of course, that remains classified or secretive. There are, you know, there are the kind of things that eventually make their way into the public domain. So if any of your listeners are curious, and you want to sort of spice up your Google search history, you can punch in “Osama bin Laden doll, CIA.” And this is one of the sort of more recent instances of this, where in the early stages of the so called “War on Terror,” the CIA develops a doll of Osama bin Laden, that would be distributed to children in various places.

MG  27:02

And what started off is like going to Osama bin Laden action figure as he sort of touched it with your hands, and the heat of your hands like melted his face, and it like would change to reveal that he’s actually a demon, which like, step two, there were sort of question mark, question mark, question mark. But step three was like rejecting, you know, terrorism or something like this. Because bin Laden was a demon, it leaks into the public domain, in part because it’s just kind of wacky. But it’s also a really good example of a kind of throwback to this earlier religious approach to intelligence, which understands religion in a really mechanical way, that if you could understand how, or if you could understand what people believed, and you could understand, like how to influence that belief, you could get them to change their actions. Because in this understanding, belief controls action, which makes manipulating those beliefs or influencing them in some way, potentially really valuable.

MG  27:56

The other thing I would say is that, you know, one of the things that people often forget about the CIA is that, while it does certainly have an operational side, it’s also a huge, just producer of research. It has tons of analysts. And so if you Google “CIA World Factbook,” there’s this sort of remarkable online resource, trying to kind of map out everything about everywhere on the planet, like geographically, environmentally, socially, demographically, religiously. And you can sort of look up stats on, you know, any country in the world, which, I remember, even when I was growing up was told to me in elementary school, to like use in a report or something. But like, the further I get away from that is really interesting, because it’s, again, this idea that the United States sort of have this part of its government, that’s job is to know everything about everywhere. And if that’s the mission, of course, part of that work is going to include religion.

JN  28:50

Awesome. We’re running a little short on time, but we always like to close with figuring out what you’re going to do next. So, would you mind giving us any hints as to some research you’re currently doing?

MG  29:03 

I would love to know what I’m going to do next. I would love to give you a hint. I have a couple different ideas that I’m juggling. And I guess one thing I would say is that I’m increasingly interested in the relationship between religion, national security and education. I touched on this a little bit in later chapters of the book, I sort of talk about the development of Religious Studies in the American University System alongside some of the CIA’s concerns, but I’m increasingly really interested in K-12 stuff as well. And thinking about the way in which American education is structured to reflect certain, you know, national security goals of the United States and what that might have to do with American religion. So, I think that’s the direction I’m moving now.

JN  29:54 

Well, since we’re both in the fields of education, that would be, you know, quite exciting to see what becomes of that! Hopefully we will be having a future episode on whatever you uncover. Fingers crossed. Yeah. Well thank you for your time, Dr. Graziano, and hopefully we will see you again shortly. Thanks!

Citation Info:

Graziano, Michael and Jacob Noblett. 2022. “The Wilderness of Mirrors: Nationalism, Religion, and Secret Intelligence”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 7 March 2022. Transcribed by Jacob Noblett. Version 1.0, 7 March 2022. Available at: