Reinhold Niebuhr

Spies, lies and morality: Could Christian agents use deceit or illicit sex?

Spies, lies and morality: Could Christian agents use deceit or illicit sex?

THE QUESTION: Is it moral for a Christian to work as a spy, and in the process deceive the enemy or employ illicit sex to obtain essential information?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER: Let's explore that fascinating ethical topic, raised by a recent lead article in Providence, a young “journal of Christianity & American foreign policy.” See this link. The journal’s cover illustration, from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1946 movie “Notorious,” showed a U.S. agent (Cary Grant) who seduces and recruits a woman (Ingrid Berman) to exploit her sexuality and spy on Nazis in Brazil.

Fiction aside, consider true-to-life British agent Amy Elizabeth (Betty) Thorpe, who operated during World War Two under the code name Cynthia. She seduced the press attache at the embassy of France’s pro-Nazi Vichy regime and enlisted him in traitorous deceit to feed her secret information. (They later married.) Thorpe had no apologies. She was told her efforts saved thousands of British and American lives and explained, “Wars are not won by respectable methods.”

Providence is neo-conservative in outlook and takes inspiration from liberal Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), who forsook youthful pacifism to espouse “Christian realism” and endorse a necessary “just war” as moral. The journal likewise believes Christians should support use of military force when it’s ethical in terms of the who, the why, and the how.

If we assume soldiering and killing in combat are moral to defend the innocent and one’s country, it makes sense that spying on the enemy for a good cause is an acceptable vocation for a Christian. But if so, what tactics should spies employ, or shun?

Those matters were addressed in Providence by Darrell Cole, an ethics professor at Drew University, whose pertinent  book “Just War and the Ethics of Espionage” (Routledge) has just been issued in paperback. To cut to the chase -- or the chaste -- Cole accepts lying to help a just cause but flatly rejects sexual seduction. Let’s unpack this.

First, is it always evil to bear false witness?

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Tsar Ludicrous: Daily Mail & The Australian come up short when covering Putin, religion

Tsar Ludicrous: Daily Mail & The Australian come up short when covering Putin, religion

Russia is mysterious. Russia is sententious. Russia is ludicrous.

The recent spate of articles purporting to see the fell hand of Moscow behind the recent American presidential campaign has brought this traditional construct back into the headlines.

To avoid igniting partisan passions -- and alienating half of my audience before the story gets moving -- I won’t be looking at any of the Donald Trump pieces, but a series of stories on “Tsar” Vladimir Putin.

Reports that some Russians are calling for the restoration of the monarchy and the crowning of strongman Vladimir Putin as Tsar are circulating in the press and being built upon the mysterious, sententious, ludicrous triad. This is not new.

In Woody Allen’s 1975 film "Love and Death," Diane Keaton’s Sonja character and Allen’s Boris offered several comic set pieces on the deep soul that lurks within the Russian breast.

Sonja: To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you're getting this down.

The inability to comprehend the workings of the Russian mind is not confined to middlebrow comedy. In his 1993 biography of Nicholas II entitled “The Last Tsar,” historian Edvard Radzinsky struggled to explain the power Rasputin held over the royal family and Russian political life. The outrageous behavior of the “mad monk,” he believed, was a pose. It was a:

“... wholly self conscious attempt to exploit the mystery of the Russian soul for his own ends. Tolstoy plus Dostoevsky, a kind of banal Tolstoevsky -- the symbol of the West's perception of Russia.” (p 108)

It is not merely the Romanovs who couldn't seem to get a handle on the mysterious Russian soul. Reporters, politicians and pundits -- as well as American college students for whom Tolstoevsky remains Russia’s greatest writer -- seem unable to grasp the otherness of Russia’s people, its literature, politics, history and art.

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In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

In Comey's America, a news boomlet for the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr

The Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations have scumbled long-standing visions of America's role in the world. During times past, the then-regnant “mainline” Protestantism might have addressed matters, but its intellectual impact has eroded. Are any resources from this or other segments of American religion equipped to provide moral guidance on foreign policy for such a confusing time?

 That’s a big fat story theme, which brings us to the current boomlet to reclaim the “Christian realism” of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Niebuhr was deemed the nation’s “greatest living political philosopher” by his ally Hans Morgenthau, a noted foreign policy analyst. In more recent times, Niebuhr has been lauded by former Democratic Presidents Obama and Jimmy Carter.

Yet, surprisingly for a theological liberal and longtime Socialist, Niebuhr also has moderate and conservative disciples. Jack Jenkins proposed in a May 18 ThinkProgress piece that President Trump’s “greatest ‘conservative’ opponent may turn out to be” Niebuhr. Others utter hosannas in a Niebuhr documentary premiered in January at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, where he taught for 32 years.   

Another fan, of all people, is the hyper-newsworthy James Comey, late of the FBI, who mentioned this to New York Magazine years ago. In March, Ashley Feinberg of gizmodo.com even unmasked Comey as a Twitter user under Niebuhr’s name. The Comey angle is fleshed out in “The F.B.I. and Religion,” co-edited by Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman (University of California Press) and in a May 19 Weitzman article for Christianity Today.

Comey’s 1982 senior thesis at William and Mary compared the Reverend Niebuhr’s political theology favorably over against that of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of the conservative Moral Majority. Both men cited Scripture and advocated Christian political involvement, Comey observed, but Niebuhr always recognized the ambiguities and shunned “America-first” fulminations.  

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Robert Mueller and James Comey: Straight-arrow national prophets for our time?

Robert Mueller and James Comey: Straight-arrow national prophets for our time?

I’ve been fascinated by media portrayals of James Comey and Robert Mueller, America’s newest heroes or, in the case of Comey, a hero-martyr. To the uninitiated, Comey was director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation until President Donald Trump fired him on May 9, right when the former was launching an investigation into the Trump team’s Russian connections. 

Mueller is the 72-year-old former FBI head brought in as special counsel a week later to investigate the Trump-Russia connection. Ever since then, the two men have been linked as moral standard bearers in a very partisan town. Mueller’s appointment is one of the few things on which Democrats and many mainstream Republicans agree.

Media folks have been following Mueller around, even covering his graduation address to a small Massachusetts boarding school to see if they can glean any hints of how the investigation may go. CNN talked about how Mueller spotlighted “honesty, integrity” in his speech.

Question: Are there are any religion themes in all of this virtue talk?

The New York Post cut to the chase by endowing Mueller with supernatural powers.

Holy congressional probe!
Former FBI chief Robert Mueller is the hero America needs to investigate Russia’s meddling into the 2016 presidential election, his former second-in-charge said Sunday.
 “A line in New York would be Batman’s back to save Gotham, but I think in this case, Batman is back to save America,” Timothy Murphy told John Catsimatidis during an interview on “The Cats Roundtable.”

Other coverage has done everything from link Comey to the Old Testament prophet Amos to portraying the Trump Administration as something akin to King Richard III

Let's ask where these men are getting their high principles from. I scoured Google and learned that Mueller and his wife, Ann were married in an Episcopal church outside of Pittsburgh; that he was raised Presbyterian but now attends Episcopal churches and that sometime back, he was a regular at St. John’s Episcopal in Lafayette Square. That’s across the street from the White House.

Let’s hope some reporter can figure out which church he’s now attending. Ditto from Comey, who’s a United Methodist

Why do I ask?

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