Historians have only just come to terms with the importance of religion to US strategy and foreign policy. How can religion have an influence on American statesmen at all? The conventional answer is threefold, but Sutton adds his own twist.
First is the centrality of faith to many key figures in diplomatic and military history. From the four freedoms to an unofficial alliance with the Vatican, for example, FDR framed World War II as a religious struggle—a war between liberal democracy founded on religious faith and fascist tyranny rooted in godlessness. Indeed, for FDR and many other policymakers, the war was fought for the survival of religion itself. People think of George W. Bush as the most spiritual president in American history, and there are good reasons for doing so. But FDR would rank up there with him, and his faith was often reflected in wartime strategy.
Second, the United States was a highly religious country then, just as it is today, and a variety of religions found adherents in every stratum of society. Religious pluralism, safeguarded by the First Amendment’s separation of church and state (which insulated the church from state interference and not just the other way around, as is commonly assumed today), did much to shape American politics and culture. Religious people were more likely to participate in civil society, and they were highly motivated by their ideals. Churches and synagogues provided existing networks of highly idealistic and motivated people, many of whom—either individually or as a group—had ties to the White House, Congress, and universities from which foreign policy experts often came. If they felt the government could be doing something better in terms of foreign policy, they made sure their views were known. And they could not be ignored.
Third, this political activism mattered because religious Americans were driven by moral concerns that transcended national borders—they saw themselves as members of transnational faith communities, not just as citizens of the United States. Moreover, their worldview was not transactional; this was a crucial difference from how other, non-religious Americans, such as businessmen, engaged the wider world. In other words, religious Americans wanted to change social relations along moral lines around the world, not simply participate in the commercial exchange of material goods. They wanted to make the world a better place, and their religious values shaped those efforts.
But there’s actually a fourth reason, not really appreciated until now, provided by Sutton and explored in Double Crossed. Those of us who have researched the religious influence on American war, foreign policy, and politics have often felt compelled to read between the lines. After all, politicians and national security officials—even those who are personally devout—don’t usually couch their statecraft in religious terms or use religious language in official documents. But Sutton shows that we don’t always have to make educated guesses:
Often the evidence is hiding in plain sight. His exhaustive digging in the archives reveals a deep and irrefutable connection between religion and statecraft. His central characters drew on their experience as missionaries to act as highly effective intelligence operatives, and they often framed their intelligence operations in terms of religious faith. Sutton is able to demonstrate this not by inference but by direct reference to a huge amount of evidence from records he found in government agencies as well as churches. His work is truly pathbreaking.
Eddy is a good example: He was a liberal mainline Protestant, but by today’s standards he would come close to being defined as a centrist evangelical. He was no biblical literalist, but he believed, writes Sutton, “that the United States was becoming too secular and that students were losing their understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith.” This could be catastrophic, for knowing the Bible was “essential” to understanding the past and present. To ensure the continuation of a balanced education—of the sacred as well as the secular—he initiated a four-year course in “responsible citizenship” at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York. “In Eddy’s mind,” observes Sutton, “all Christians were missionaries regardless of their jobs.”
In Eddy’s day, Christianity provided the nation’s common ground. Now it comes from other sources too. Christianity remains a dominant force in American life, but it has to share space with other forces, from greater religious pluralism to secularization.
This means religion has the power to divide society as well as unite it. The Judeo-Christian tradition was first identified in the World War II era as a way to distinguish American freedom from Nazi tyranny. But since the 1960s, the Judeo-Christian tradition has given way to rising conflict between religion and secularism.
Evangelicals might lament this polarization of the public square, but they cannot easily reverse it. Eddy, particularly in his drive to see all faiths as partners in the same mission to protect liberal democracy, is instructive here too. Like his fellow missionary spies, he believed in the importance of religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation. To prepare for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, he drafted a pamphlet to be dropped from US planes: “Behold! We the American Holy Warriors have arrived! We have come here to fight the great Jihad of freedom! We have come to set you free!” Not from Islam, but from fascism and Nazism.
Religion has often provided the moral core for US foreign policy, and there is no reason to think this should change. At its best—for example, advocating for the rights of all religious minorities in Vietnam—the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act performs this function today.
But in an age when parts of the United States are becoming more secular (while many of the key national security challenges involve the role of Islam), exercising this role has become a more complicated matter. US foreign policy will be less successful if people believe it to be simply conflated with Christian mission. Yet difficult doesn’t mean impossible, and it certainly shouldn’t mean that religious Americans cease trying to align American foreign policy commitments with their moral convictions.
One gets the sense that Sutton’s missionary spies would come to grips with this changing landscape—and respond accordingly. Double Crossed, then, is history at its best: enlightening our present condition by recovering a vital but forgotten chapter of the past.