Should missionaries, clergy, and church associations participate—directly or indirectly, openly or covertly—in government operations overseas? Is it morally legitimate for them to provide intelligence and support national security policy? What role, if any, should Christians play in the conduct of US foreign relations?
Ever since Jesus admonished his followers to give to God the things that belong to God and to caesar the things that belong to caesar, Christians have had to confront the challenging task of reconciling the demands to the Kingdom of God with the responsibilities to temporal political authorities. In peaceful, prosperous eras the task of discerning divine and temporal obligations may seems relatively straightforward. But in extraordinary times—when facing threats to national security and especially in wartime—the task of fulfilling commitments to God and country, church and state, present a daunting challenge. For some, the Christian faith demands complete separation from the coercion and violence associated with government. For others, however, the Christian faith enjoins believers to use the instruments of state power to advance domestic and international justice. This latter perspective was best epitomized during the l940s and l950s by ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, who believed that Christians had an obligation to pursue proximate justice using the coercive power of the state.
Since governmental policies are rooted in part on moral values, it is impossible to separate religious obligations from the affairs of state. The realist notion that foreign policy involves solely the pursuit of a nonmoral national interest is unpersuasive. George Kennan, one of the architects of the US containment doctrine, argued that foreign policy should be guided solely by the quest for a country’s vital interests, defined as national security, the integrity of political life, and the well-being of citizens. For him, moral values had no role in the conduct of America’s foreign relations. Scholarship over the past several decades, however, has demonstrated that moral values have played, and continue to play, a critical role in defining the goals and means of American foreign policy. Because morality matters, religious actors inevitably play an important role in America’s international relations.
One of the most interesting and provocative books on religion and foreign policy published in recent years is Matthew A. Sutton’s Double Crossed, a study of the secret role of American missionary spies during the Second World War. Using recently declassified documents, Sutton examines the role of “holy spies” by focusing on the wartime contributions of four missionaries: Presbyterian William Eddy, Congregationalist Stephen Penrose, Lutheran Stewart Herman, and Baptist John Birch. The first three were mainline Protestants, while Birch was a fundamentalist. Each of these religious leaders were first and foremost churchmen, committed to spreading the Gospel. But they were also committed US citizens who were prepared to use their knowledge of foreign languages and cultures to assist their government in defeating an enemy regime. In Sutton’s words, their service to the state and to the church provided a “double opportunity to serve God and country” (134).
Because of their prior experience and deep knowledge of foreign societies, the principal contribution missionaries provided to the war effort was strategic intelligence. For Eddy and Penrose, for example, their knowledge of Middle Eastern cultures, languages, and peoples provided perspectives that were invaluable to some of the operations of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, replaced after the war by the Central Intelligence Agency). Similarly, Herman’s knowledge of the German language and the country’s social, political, and religious conditions provided the OSS with a nuanced assessment about the Nazi regime and especially the challenges facing the Lutheran Church. John Birch, the Baptist missionary in China, was most directly involved in military operations, providing tactical information to help rescue foreigners and downed pilots from Japanese forces in central China. Birch lived like the locals and was able to pursue his covert work for the US government while also carrying out his evangelistic ministry.
The role of American missionaries and religious institutions during the Second World War and in the early Cold War years remained a secret until 1966. In the mid-1970s, the CIA’s use of clergy and missionaries was pushed to the forefront by the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (known as the Church Committee, for its chairman, Frank Church). Although only a small portion of the report dealt with missionaries and clergy, the disclosure that the CIA had involved a small number of missionaries in some of its activities provoked a bitter debate between religious activists and government officials. As a result, Sen. Mark Hatfield, an evangelical from Oregon, introduced a bill to prohibit the CIA from using clergy and missionaries. The senator withdrew the bill only after CIA Director George H.W. Bush promised in 1976 that the agency would not maintain any contractual relationships with American clergy or missionaries. In his declaration, however, Bush stated that the CIA would welcome information that was voluntarily supplied by church officials.
Since intelligence operations sometimes involve deceit and lying, the role of religious actors in spying presents difficult moral challenges. But the challenges to intelligence operatives are not unique. Soldiers after all are trained to kill and destroy. What is important to recognize is that the resort to violence and deceit must always exhaust alternatives and be ultimately justified by a rigorous application of moral reasoning, informed by the just war tradition. While wartime operations involve extreme measures, Christians involved in such activities must nevertheless seek to ensure that their behavior is consistent with the demands of faith and citizenship.
Double Crossed is an important book. It offers a case study of how religious leaders contributed to national security in a challenging wartime environment. Fulfilling responsibilities to the Kingdom of God and the state is never easy but especially so in times of extreme national emergencies. As Sutton’s fine study shows, during the Second World War some missionaries confronted radical political evil by faithfully serving cross and flag. Given today’s well-developed intelligence organizations, there is little need for covert services by clergy or missionaries. As result, Sutton concludes his book as follows: “We can be grateful that during World War II, American missionaries carried out dung bombs and poison pills with their Bibles, and some even hatched assassination plots. We can also be grateful that today they shouldn’t have to.”