WSU research to reveal religious spies of WWII

By Adriana Aumen, College of Arts & Sciences

Matthew-Sutton-webPULLMAN, Wash. – A secret history of politics, religion and espionage in World War II is the topic of a Washington State University professor’s research receiving new grant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

NEH announced last week $79 million in grants for 290 humanities projects and programs nationwide, including a $50,000 Public Scholar Program grant for a book by Matthew A. Sutton, a distinguished professor of history at WSU (

Tentatively titled “(Un)Holy Spies: Religion and Espionage in World War II,” the book examines the role of religious activists and clergy in covert U.S. government operations during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. It is to be published by Basic Books in 2019.

The book is one of three projects in Washington to be funded in this NEH cycle. In line with WSU’s land-grant mission of public outreach, the Public Scholar Program award will allow Sutton to continue “doing cutting-edge research and making it accessible to the broader public,” he said.

He has uncovered never-before-seen archival materials that provide details about a “secret army” whose clandestine activities “laid the foundation for the development of the CIA and continue to influence U.S. policy today,” he said.

During Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, and with his full support, a small group of influential missionaries, priests and Christian activists were secretly recruited for intelligence analysis, espionage and covert operations, Sutton said. They 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.

The analysis of religion and espionage in Sutton’s book “highlights the substantial but little-known role that religion played in World War II as President Roosevelt pushed Americans to see global religious freedom as fundamental to American security for the first time,” he said.

“It also illustrates how religious activists’ entwining of faith and patriotic duty made them some of the nation’s best spies, willing to sacrifice everything to execute their missions,” he said. “And it reveals how the U.S. government and the actions of religious activists facilitated the rise of a new religious nationalism ostensibly grounded in the championing of global freedom of religion, which continues to shape American policy to this day.”

Learn more about Sutton and his work at and


Matthew Avery Sutton, WSU professor of history, 509-335-8374,
Adriana Aumen, WSU College of Arts and Sciences communications, 509-335-5671,



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