One of the best things about reading through my growing collection of vintage SF magazines is uncovering forgotten gems like Thomas Wilson's "The Face of the Enemy" (Astounding, August 1952). Wilson's entire career in SF spanned about 6 months in the early '50s, in which time he published three stories in Astounding that were never reprinted or anthologized. "The Face of the Enemy" was the first of these three, and it's surprisingly confident for a first story—one is tempted to suspect that Wilson is a pseudonym for someone better known, though the ISFDB isn't aware of it if he is.
The story opens on a shocking scene—the apparent suicide by ray-gun of the chaplain of an interstellar ship. Chaplain Alciabiades Smith of the Interstellar Patrol is discovered shortly after a night of uncharacteristic debauchery in an alien city. But something about the minister's death doesn't sit right with Lt. Ferd Brazil, who launches an investigation into Smith's last hours. His investigation leads him to ask some tough questions about the idyllic society of the alien Kelani, which is one of those SF utopias beneath which something unpleasant must always lurk. Several members of Brazil's crew don't trust the Kelani, and are particularly wary of Kel, the science-cum-religion that governs their planet:
"[The Kelani] civilization was ready to reach for the stars when we on Terra had barely discovered atomics. Then came Kel, a blight on a field of rich wheat. Overnight technology stagnated, population has declined to the present billion plus, science has decayed. Their ancient cities hang abandoned like rotten fruit. The planets are pleasure resorts, their glory forgotten. All of their energy and drive are channeled into fields which yield the sterile harvest of sensuality and pleasure. Art, yes; music, yes. They have become a great artistic race, if you can call art without soul great."The socialism of Kel is hedonistic and egalitarian, but also disturbingly conformist, and Wilson sets it up in opposition to Smith's improbably named faith in "Believism." This is an individualistic, even capitalistic heir of Christianity, embodying both the brimstone and the work ethic of Puritanism. The story's cold war dichotomy is fairly plain—American ideals distilled into Believism; Communism represented by Kel—but the story's depiction of the conflict as a clash of religious systems is somewhat surprising. The story's conclusion, which reveals the full extent of the Kelani plot, serves to underscore the story's paranoia. Wilson likens Kel to an interstellar virus, and the closing paragraphs of his story make a religious argument for the will to explore. Though the story is very much a product of its era, it's also aged remarkably well, and its warning against complacency is timely in any decade.