On Saturday, pastor Andrew Brunson returned to the United States after two years in a Turkish prison. In an Oval Office reception, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) joined the president in welcoming Brunson home and remarked that the pastor’s work in Turkey “to spread the word of Jesus Christ is absolutely critical and it’s a foundational thing about this country, the United States.”

These words set social media aflame. Not only did Burr boldly claim that the United States was a Christian nation, but one that, through its missionaries, evangelizes to the world. Despite the confidence of his declaration, Burr is only partly right. Missionaries have been an important part of America’s outward reach from its earliest days. But their evangelistic work was not done on behalf of the country, and their claims to represent the interests of the United States were never uncontested.

In the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, the United States acknowledged that it was not “in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

Sixteen years later, however, the first American missionaries left for India to take part in the project of “converting the world.” Within decades, American Protestant missionaries could be found across the globe — in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and the Americas. Though there were important differences across denominational lines, most of these 19th-century missionaries understood themselves to be representing not only their faith, but also their country. They were Americans abroad, and so by necessity depended upon the political and commercial networks that the United States sustained around the world. They well understood that while they emphasized their Christian identity, the people whom they met would see them as both Christians and Americans.

The way in which Americans abroad represented the United States in this era is most visible in the complaints of missionaries about other Americans abroad. They insisted that rowdy sailors and profit-driven merchants sent the wrong message about what it meant to be “civilized” to those whom they sought to convert. The history of foreign missions is full of conflict between missionaries and other Americans about who was doing a better job of representing American interests — and values — overseas. But neither group could escape the fact that foreigners judged all their behavior to be a reflection of America itself.

Many observers even suspected that missionaries were working on behalf of the American government. And in fact, from the beginning, missionaries undertook political work for parts of American diplomatic and intelligence networks. In the 19th century, this could mean that missionaries or members of their families served as consuls or translators for the American government. Their long-term residence in the places they sought to convert meant that their language skills were often superior to those of U.S. diplomats, and missionary translation work could thus be incredibly important diplomatically.

As they established schools and hospitals around the world, missionaries often saw working with the United States as part of their broader work of spreading “civilization.” In their eyes, burgeoning American power could allow for greater ease of evangelism or for the kinds of cultural shifts that many of them believed were essential for conversion. From the perspective of the government, missionaries provided a group of people on the ground who had deep knowledge of their foreign communities.

Peter Parker was one of the best-known of these 19th-century missionary diplomats. In China, he alternated between missionary and government work, and even addressed the Senate on the merits of the proposed Treaty of Wangxia between the United States and China in 1844. That treaty would, among other things, set the stage for the entry of even more missionaries into China who would evangelize, establish schools and hospitals and assist their government in its dealings with the Chinese.

Later in the century, the perceived connections between missionaries and Western imperial power would contribute to the violence of the Boxer Uprising. In its aftermath many in the United States questioned whether missionaries were dragging the country into unnecessarily dangerous situations. Yet the continued ability of some missionaries to provide intelligence that the government could not acquire elsewhere meant that partnerships between missionaries and the government continued through the World War II and Cold War eras. Some mission boards and missionaries maintained contacts with government officials, even directly reporting to the State Department and other government bodies.

But missionaries were not only important for American foreign relations in these direct ways. They also had important indirect effects, thanks to their ability to shape the ways that Americans at home understood the world around them.

Missionaries became, and for some audiences, continue to be, trusted authorities who helped Americans imagine connections with people across the globe. Their writings could inspire humanitarian interest, and they could also feed into and justify existing prejudices. They sent specimen home — ranging from insects to clothing — to help Americans learn about the world around them. Evangelical missionary writing on places as wide-ranging as 19th-century Philippines and China, or 20th-century Sudan and Israel have directly shaped U.S. policy in those places.

Crucially, however, none of these roles meant that the evangelistic work of these missionaries was, in fact, the project of the American state. In fact, quite the contrary. Missionaries went abroad as private citizens working for religious organizations. Any side work for the government was distinct from their explicitly missionary tasks. Nineteenth-century China missionary Divie Bethune McCartee was proud to be known among U.S. diplomats in China as “a Christian, patriot, and scholar,” but he also recognized the need for occasional leaves of absence from his mission board in order to perform his political work. Other missionaries, reporting covertly to the U.S. government in times of war and strife, could find it far more difficult to reconcile these two roles.

The combination of evangelical and political roles could also be controversial, both for religious and secular observers. After all, the idea that explicit evangelism is critical to the United States’ world mission is, of course, an obvious violation of the principle of the separation of church and state.

Critiques of missionary political influences have abounded from the 19th century to today. For those Americans who do not agree with the goals of the mission movement, it can be shocking to consider the possibility of direct and indirect missionary influence on American diplomacy. These objections emerge in part from a fear that religious goals could be driving government priorities. In practice, missionaries were more likely to serve government interests than the reverse. Yet the perceived entanglement of government with religion is troubling.

This confusion helps explain both Burr’s remarks and the reactions of those who bristle at them. The proper role of missionaries in representing America abroad has never been separate from broader political debates about the appropriate relationship between religion and politics in America.

The United States was not founded as a Christian nation; the separation of church and state is one of its most central frameworks, and its foreign policy goals have always been driven by a variety of factors. Yet ignoring the religious dimensions of American encounters with the world distorts much of our story. Missionaries were among the first Americans to go out into the world, representing both their faith and their country abroad even as they represented the world back to Americans at home. We can see the fruits of this tangled history in the story of Andrew Brunson and the question of how to understand the meaning of his imprisonment and release.