Spies and lies: Should Christian agents use deceit or illicit sex?

Spies and lies: Should Christian agents use deceit or illicit sex? March 3, 2018

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 explores that fascinating ethical topic, raised by a recent lead article in Providence, a young “journal of Christianity & American foreign policy.” See https://providencemag.com/2017/12/sex-lies-spies. 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? A classic case from ethics classes is whether to tell the truth when Nazi troops ask whether you are hiding Jews in the attic and in fact you are. (We’re talking here about heavy decisions, not socially pleasant “white lies” like “what a beautiful solo” or “so nice to see you again.”)

The greatly influential St. Augustine considered truth-telling a moral absolute that is essential to God’s nature and thus to the image of God in human beings. Thomas Aquinas later held lying to violate the natural law, and the Protestant Reformer John Calvin taught a similar belief.

But Cole favors the permissive tradition of church fathers in the Eastern church (e.g. Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom) and in the West John Cassian and the later Protestant Martin Luther. They accepted lying in special circumstances when it would aid the common good.

As Cole summarizes this view, “some lies save the innocent and preserve justice.” Moral good means fostering love of neighbor and justice, and “sometimes lies rather than the truth fulfill this purpose.” Espionage can discern enemy plans, save the lives of soldiers and civilians, and help bring combat to a quicker conclusion. As part of a “just wr” we have “just lies.”

Then there’s the use of sex, the “honey pot” tactic. Cole says America’s CIA and FBI “do not use sexual entrapment as “morally distasteful,” plus they’re “concerned about the potential loss of their agents’ objectivity.” America’s scruples on this are unusual in the international spy game.

Though Cole finds moral wiggle room to lie in “the common good,” he turns absolutist against sexual manipulation, whether as adultery or fornication. “Unlike soldiering and lying, there are no biblical sources from which to build a case for just non-spousal or manipulative sex,” so-called “sleeping with the enemy in order to further your country’s cause. . . . No intention can justify such acts” because they are “always incompatible with God’s will.”

However, he thinks “it would appear that using one’s attractiveness to the opposite sex as a way to gain information” is virtuous. It’s not exactly the same thing, but he cites biblical Queen Esther, who was ordered to marry Persia’s king due to her beauty, then used her influence to aid fellow Jews. But Cole insists “non-spousal intercourse” must always be avoided, “even when the life of the nation is at stake.”


In addition to Cole’s book, Providence recommends these works on the two moral issues: 1) “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life” (Vintage paperback, 1999) by Harvard ethicist Sissela Bok.  2) “The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life” (Baker Academic paperback, 2009) by Dennis Hollinger, president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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