Before the government surveilled mosques, it surveilled churches

From March 4 – May 30, 2011, the National Constitution Center hosts Spies, Traitors & Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America, a traveling exhibition created by the International Spy Museum. Below is the first in a series of guest posts from Mark Stout, SPY Historian, and our friends at Spy Blog highlighting topics covered in the exhibition.

The sometimes contentious relationship between the government and the Muslim community over issues like profiling, the alleged surveillance of mosques and scrutiny of charities has long history rooted in suspicion and fear of “hyphenated Americans” during times of national crisis. The attention paid to religious groups during 1917 and 1918, the period of the American involvement in World War I, is an example.

During World War I, numerous religious groups, large and small came under scrutiny and appear in the files of military intelligence, but the Lutherans were a particular target of military intelligence because their Church had many German followers and purportedly ‘contained many elements of disloyalty and activity in behalf of the enemy.’

Ironically, widespread Lutheran pacifism stood in sharp contrast to what military intelligence referred to as the “Prussian will to power and…spirit of unscrupulous warfare.” Pacifism did not spare the Church from close scrutiny. Not surprisingly, the military’s concern was greatest with regard to pastors preaching to servicemen at military camps, but clergymen in purely civilian life also were investigated.

In one of many such cases, private citizens of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania reported their pastor, the Reverend J. C. Nicholas, to the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division (MID) on the grounds that he refused to include prayers for the success of the American Expeditionary Force in his Sunday service on the grounds that this would be dictating to God. It did not help that Nicholas had denounced Selective Service, had opposed contribution to the Belgian Relief Fund, and had only contributed one dollar to the Red Cross. The National Lutheran Commission subsequently appointed him as a camp pastor at the Newport News point of embarkation and the MID kept him under close observation, but could find no excuse to have him removed.

With regard to actual espionage, the MID was greatly concerned by the fact that the Lutheran church collected detailed information on a routine basis from its camp pastors about how many Lutheran soldiers were at their camp, how many were coming and going, and where they were going to. This information could be used to develop a detailed order of battle of the Army and to discern when units were embarking for France. The question was whether it was making its way to Germany. Ultimately, apparently after the war, the MID concluded that though the church had gathered data “that they did not need to possess” and which should have been held within the US Government, “no satisfactory evidence” existed that the church’s gathering of information was done at the behest of Germany or exploited by Germany, rather that the church had done this for its own pastoral purposes. This did not mean that no Lutheran pastors had violated the law. In fact, at least eight were interned or convicted under the draconian Espionage Act.

it’s a sad fact that there is always a perceived “other” and eventually we are likely to regret much of what was done to that “other” during wartime.

After the war, the MID admitted in its official history that the German-speaking communities were by-and-large a “happy disappointment” to the “prophets of evil who had feared wholesale insurrections or insidious intrigues.” Indeed, some of the most German areas, such as Milwaukee, “made themselves almost amusingly conspicuous by an Americanism which, whether genuine or not in spirit, was satisfactory in its outward manifestations.”

One encouraging aspect of this story is that even in the depths of the war, military intelligence was not unified in its reflexive suspicion of Lutherans and after the war the MID admitted in its official history that the German-speaking communities—where the Lutherans tended to live—were by-and-large a “happy disappointment” to the “prophets of evil who had feared wholesale insurrections or insidious intrigues.”

While continued vigilance is necessary today to keep the Government in check, I think that historical experience suggests that we shouldn’t be too quick to predict the end of the American way of life when something bad happens. America survived what it did to Lutherans (and numerous others) during World War I.  In fact, arguably, after each of these incidents the nation has grown stronger and developed to be more in consonance with its expressed values.  Nevertheless, it’s a sad fact that there is always a perceived “other” and eventually we are likely to regret much of what was done to that “other” during wartime.

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