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Washington State University
CAS Connect October 2015

A secret history of politics, religion, espionage

Historian Matthew Sutton digs into the details of past events and helps explain their relevance to society today. An expert in religious movements of the 1930s and 1940s, Sutton is currently examining rare archival materials that reveal the role of religious activists and clergy in covert U.S. government operations during World War II.

Matthew Sutton
Matthew Sutton

During Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, and with his full support, U.S. Strategic Services director William “Wild Bill” Donovan secretly recruited a small army of influential missionaries, priests, and Christian activists for intelligence analysis, espionage, and covert operations, Sutton said. Donovan’s tactics helped to create the modern American security state and shape the future of the nation’s intelligence and clandestine network, he said.

“Donovan and FDR, in their explicit use of religion and religious activists, laid the foundations for the rise of the CIA, the Cold War-era crusade against ‘godless communism,’ and, more recently, George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror,’” Sutton said.

The WWII recruits included a German priest who longed to be a secret agent, a future CIA director who aggressively recruited religious activists for covert operations, and a fundamentalist Christian missionary-turned-spy.

“Roosevelt drafted 10 million men to serve in World War II, and he drafted God, or at least some of God’s most valuable earthly agents,” Sutton said. “Their stories have not been told. Until now.”

Sutton, who is one of three WSU Humanities Fellows for 2015-16, will present his ongoing research in the Honors Distinguished Lecture, “FDR’s Army of Faith: Religion and American Espionage in World War II,” on Oct. 27 at 5:30 p.m. in Goertzen 21 (GCAD 21), followed by a reception.

An Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor in Liberal Arts, Sutton teaches 20th-century U.S. history, cultural history, and religious history. He is the award-winning author of several books, including Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, the basis for the Public Broadcasting Service documentary Sister Aimee, part of the American Experience series.

Applications for the 2016-17 WSU Humanities Fellows are now being accepted. Visit the Humanities Planning Group website for details.