Correction: A previous version of this essay incorrectly identified the material Catholics apply to their foreheads on the first day of Lent. It is ash, not charcoal.
Matthew Spence served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy from 2012 to 2015 and is a senior follow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
The distance from my church to my office at the Pentagon was just over five miles. But for most of my time in government, it might as well have been 5,000.
On Sunday mornings, I prayed for peace. “Jesus was a homeless refugee from the Middle East,” my minister reminded us once before announcing our Advent offering. I contributed to the collection basket and asked God to help the Syrians fleeing from their homes in the land of the Bible.
And when services were done, I went back to planning for war. As deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, my responsibilities included evaluating troop deployments and missile strikes in the very places where biblical scripture is set.
My office, on the fifth floor of the Pentagon, was what’s known in intelligence community parlance as a SCIF — a sensitive compartmented information facility, cleared for the handling and discussion of the U.S. government’s most closely guarded secrets. Before passing through two locked doors, I had to check all electronics that could be used as recording devices, including my iPhone and BlackBerry.
I checked my religion, too.
It felt inappropriate to broadcast my Christianity when considering hard-nosed questions of national security. I’d landed my job — first on the White House’s National Security Council staff and then at the Department of Defense — because I understood the foreign-policy-making process, had a doctorate in international relations and enjoyed a fair amount of luck. There was no religious test, nor should there be. Power politics and personal faith have little in common.
But perhaps even more than that, I feared how coming out as a practicing Christian would define me. I worried that my bosses, peers and subordinates might associate me with American officials who have spoken of U.S. military engagements in the Middle East as “crusades ” or with the Islamic State’s declaration of holy war. I feared that talking about my faith would detract from the logic of my arguments. And, as a relatively young person in a senior position, I needed every scrap of credibility I could claim.
So while I might pray for guidance, or forgiveness, on a particularly challenging day, I rarely spoke of my faith in the office.
One Sunday, I ran into a colleague from the White House at church. But we acknowledged each other sheepishly, as if we were meeting at Alcoholics Anonymous, and never spoke of the encounter again.
Another time, I asked if we could start a military planning session with senior Israeli officers at 1 p.m. instead of 10 a.m. on a Sunday, casually mentioning that I hoped to go to church. “Church? You go to church?” one of my American colleagues said, surprised. “I thought you just wanted to sleep in or have some mimosas at brunch.”
It wasn’t until early 2014, after five years in the Obama administration, that I began to question the boundaries I’d drawn.
I was intrigued to read that former White House press secretary Mike McCurry recently had gone to seminary and become a theology professor. So I invited him and a half-dozen friends over to talk about what it means to be a Christian working in Washington. My guests included Obama appointees, Hill staffers and journalists. As we sat around my glass dining table, eating fajitas and drinking margaritas, we reflected on how our faith inspired and constrained us.
Usually we were too busy to wrestle with these questions. “I barely had time to have lunch, much less think about what it meant to be a Christian in the White House,” McCurry said. Only when he left government did he realize how his political beliefs — in strengthening the social safety net or securing subsidies for the poor — came from his Christian values. Faith, we all agreed, had led us to public service.
Yet all of us had been quiet about our church attendance and our religious convictions — even while Catholic White House officials wore ash on their foreheads on the first day of Lent, Jewish friends declined to work on the Sabbath, and President Obama spoke powerfully of his faith at the National Prayer Breakfast and at Passover seders. “I was taught that Jesus called us to care about human suffering, wherever it occurred,” one friend said. “But when you say you’re a Christian, people assume you’re judging them, not that you’re called to work for something larger than yourself.”
We talked about the positive role religion can play in politics. Throughout American history, great awakenings have led people of faith to organize for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the reform of labor laws and the civil rights movement. More recently, faith leaders were central in shaping and ensuring passage of the Affordable Care Act. Although some Catholic groups initially objected to its contraception-coverage mandate, many agreed that expanding access to health care was a moral imperative. They pressed the White House to allow further exemptions to the mandate, and the Catholic Health Association’s eventual endorsement was key to the act moving forward. Last year, Obama celebrated the CHA’s president, Sister Carol Keehan, saying: “We would not have gotten the Affordable Care Act done had it not been for her. . . . I just love nuns.”
After that dinner, I determined that I was needlessly living a double life. I started thinking of myself as a Christian in the Pentagon. I didn’t wear my faith on my sleeve, but I looked to my religious values to hold myself more accountable, make myself more thoughtful and help shine a light on suffering I might otherwise overlook.
I thought back to my minister’s sermon on Syrian refugees. There are national security reasons that the United States should care about them. Millions of refugees could have a destabilizing effect on Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. With few opportunities for employment, they may be vulnerable to recruitment by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. But U.S. foreign policy should also reflect broader American values. We should care about Syrian refugees because they are part of one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time.
I realized I could do far more for those refugees, and others like them, from my position at the Pentagon than I could with my modest contributions to the offering basket at church. So I convened colleagues from the State Department’s human rights bureau, the U.S. Agency for International Development and outside human rights groups, along with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to talk about how the Pentagon could better support their work. I visited refugees at a camp in Jordan and along the Syrian border and then discussed their needs — education for their children, jobs for men in the camps with little to do — with my counterparts in Israel, Jordan and Turkey. We talked about using military cargo planes to deliver food and other assistance.
My religion didn’t overwhelm other considerations, dictating which policies I should support. Nor did thinking about the obligations of my faith reveal clear answers to questions such as how to fight a two-front war against the barbarism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State.
But recognizing that there’s a role for faith in a time of war made me a better policymaker. It forced me to confront tough moral questions. It encouraged me to take action in situations where it was tempting to throw my hands up and conclude that there were no good options. It kept me going when Washington bureaucracy and political infighting otherwise would have worn me down.
Of course, finding the strength to speak up and take risks, and making time to reflect and think strategically, are universal principles. They can be practiced as much by Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and nonbelievers. But for me, my Christian faith gave me the discipline, courage and inspiration to question and do more.