Evangelical aid: elaborating on Kristof’s recent column

blues brothers

We're on a mission from God.

Nicholas Kristof and I have had our differences. But his recent column comes to the defense of evangelical charity in a way that I completely support. Here’s a snippet:

Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related. More important, go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.

I’m not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way — and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties.

(Full text here.)

I couldn’t agree more. Kristof opens the column by decrying the tendency to lump all evangelical Christians together. He notes the wide gap between the views of Pat “9/11 was God’s punishment for our tolerance of the gays” Robertson on the one hand, and the progressive Christian views of the Reverends John Stott and Jim Wallis on the other.

Any large community has major differences. Painting all members of the Christian community with the same brush is a) grossly unfair, and b) sloppy thinking.

I’m also with Kristof on the “so what” question:

Why does all this matter?

Because religious people and secular people alike do fantastic work on humanitarian issues — but they often don’t work together because of mutual suspicions. If we could bridge this “God gulf,” we would make far more progress on the world’s ills.

I’ve chewed over this issue before. Professionally, all my employment has been with secular organizations. However, in many parts of the world, you will inevitably end up working with religious organizations. It’s hard to get over the fact that many big international development organizations (whether NGO or contractor) are secular and funded by governments that cherish the separation of church and state, while much of the local development work is conducted by faith-based community organizations. Even if they lack explicitly religious values, local organizations may be staffed by people of faith. In Uganda and Kenya, for example, I’ve found that meetings and trainings often begin with a prayer.

So in an attempt to bridge the “God gulf” that Kristof cites, I’m trying to come to a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the humanitarian/development operations conducted by religious NGOs, church missions, and others. If there are real differences between religious and secular organizations, then we should be honest about those differences. That will help us to think more clearly about how they can best work together.

Here’s a stab at how a religious aid and development organization differs from a secular one.

Strengths of religious organizations:

  • Networks of supporters: A priest friend of mine once pointed out what an incredible asset a built-in network of churches (or synagogues, mosques, etc.) can be. As with any network, these can be tapped for fundraising, political activism and more. Unlike a secular organization which maintains its networks primarily for fundraising or activism, a religious organization has networks which maintain themselves for other purposes, but can then be tapped as needed.
  • Individual/family donors: This follows closely on the previous point. In an era of uncertain foreign aid budgets, the networks mentioned above can serve as critical funding sources for overseas activities. This can give an organization resilience in the face of funding troubles, and can sustain programs from one grant to the next.
  • Staff commitment: There is something positive to be said for staff members who have a (metaphorical) “missionary zeal”. You work longer hours, put up with tougher conditions, and experience more personal support from your family and friends.
  • Religious connections: Religion can connect people across lines of nationality, race, and economic status. As I noted above, many community-based organizations and other local development actors are motivated by their faith. An international organization that is similarly motivated can leverage this connection to do good work. This is especially significant in less concrete fields like peacebuilding.

Weaknesses of religious organizations:

  • Contradictory missions/mission creep: Holy books require a certain amount of interpretation. People have come to all sorts of conclusions about the relative priority of helping the poor versus, say, “curing” homosexuals. When your mission comes from such a source, you risk muddying your organization’s goals. For example, maybe women’s rights and maternal health aren’t as important if they open the door to more divorce or abortion. Or maybe a new constitutional dispensation for the country isn’t worthwhile if it allows Muslim communities to follow their own rules in family matters. The possibility of multiple interpretations can make your mission less clear.
  • Reduced accountability through the halo effect: Those networks of supporters mentioned above may be a great resource, but they may be less inclined to hold an organization accountable when there’s religious incentive to give. After all, the people you’re giving to are doing God’s work. This creates almost a literal halo effect. Your donors and other supporters (not to mention your own staff) may be less likely to critically question your efforts if you are guided by God’s hand.
  • Missing good staff: Some religious organizations require a “statement of faith” or a pastoral reference from job applicants. I assume use these requirements are meant to ensure the commitment mentioned above. However, this rules out potentially great staff. You may even lose some applicants who come from the same faith community but who strongly value religious tolerance and interfaith work.

Ambiguous factors:

  • Working in communities of other faiths: There is a potential for conflict, uncertainty and misunderstanding when people who strongly hold a certain faith work in a community that holds another. An expressly secular organization might get a better reception. On the other hand, there is also the potential that people of faith would trust someone of another faith more than someone of no faith.

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Those are my initial thoughts. What did I get wrong? I would encourage anyone with more experience across the “God gulf” to chime in, or maybe even give perspective on the secular NGOs from the other side.

UPDATE: A few people on Twitter disagree with my (and Kristof’s) use of the term “evangelical”. To some people, this term indicates a focus on religious conversion. I maintain that has more meanings than that, especially for those who ascribe to it. Still, I concede that I should at least include a caveat: I mean the term to be much broader; please do not interpret as narrowly when reading the above.

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11 thoughts on “Evangelical aid: elaborating on Kristof’s recent column

  1. Dave –

    Good post – long thought that this intersection needs more thought from both sides of the “gulf”. One quick thought. One more that could be added to any of the above categories depending on your perspective and context is that religion matters a great deal in the majority of the developing world. Again, your perspective and context will determine whether that is a “good” thing or not but it’s hard to deny that it is the reality in the majority of those contexts. Regardless of whether an NGO’s particular religious bent, or lack thereof, meshes with the local variety simply acknowledging and taking into account the importance and pervasiveness of those religious systems, structures and beliefs when considering and implementing programs can be of considerable benefit. You mentioned the benefit of a “network of supporters” to the NGO and I took that to mean external networks but an equally important asset are the local religious/faith networks. I started to broach a few of these connections from the religious side of the gulf on my long neglected blog under the heading of “Religion Matters”:

    http://meaningfulnessoflittlethings.blogspot.com/search/label/Religion%20Matters

    Lastly, it’s also worth noting that the categories of “evangelical aid” and “faith based NGO’s” are no more homogeneous than their secular counterparts. Just like those counterparts there are some really good ones and some really bad ones. There is a broad spectrum of degrees to which these groups prioritize the “evangelical” and the “aid” portion of that descriptor as well as where, when and by whom they do so.

    Again, thanks for starting the conversation.

    • Jon, thanks for chiming in. I think the role of local faith networks is hugely important. I tried to nod at that under the “religious connections” bullet. Thanks for elaborating and linking to your blog — it looks interesting and I’ll try to read through your posts soon.

  2. This is well-thought out. I think you have hit the main pros and cons.
    I have volunteered as a mormon missionary for two years and I have worked in development intermittently for the past 3. I guess I’m relatively new to both fields, but I can say I have had my foot in both camps.
    I couldn’t agree with you more on “the halo effect.” Within religious circles, there CAN be a tendency to not evaluate efforts, and to assume legitimacy. This is harmful.
    At the same time, I have found that the loyalty in religious circles, in some ways similar to the halo effect, to be very helpful. Often, projects take shape only when implementers are patient and stick to the plan and follow their leaders.

    • You know, I almost didn’t include the halo effect because it totally exists in secular organizations as well. But there’s a huge movement to combat it, driven by donors and the likes of IPA/J-PAL. I wonder if the effects of that shift toward better M&E and accountability are felt in religious organizations at all?

  3. “Evangelical” does have multiple meanings; but one of those meanings does put an emphasis on religious conversion, and it’s what many (if not most) Americans think of, rightly or wrongly, when they see/hear Evangelical with a capital E. More progressive, non-conversion-focused manifestations of E/evangelicalism are an off-shoot of the more fundamentalist originator, and a lot of hardcore Evangelicalists reject them as being truly “E/evangelical.” That doesn’t mean they’re not, but it explains why in the US the term evokes an image of the born again, must-save-souls variety.

    Because preaching and proselytizing is a characteristic primarily of Evangelical groups and not other religious groups, even if not all Evangelical groups have this characteristic, it becomes confusing when discussing Evangelical and Christian and using them interchangeably. Why not Lutheran aid? Catholic aid? Methodist aid? Using Evangelical in the title suggests that you’re talking about a specific brand of Christianity, and one of the things– if not the primary thing– that makes “Evangelical” stand out is the proselytizing. Otherwise, what is the point of using that in the title when what you’re really talking about are Christian or other faith-based organizations? Seems completely arbitrary.

    The next question is, as @idealistbiz points out, is it the case that proselytizing organizations are incapable of doing good work? (I think the answer to that is no, but this is a whole other question.)

  4. Okay, so 80% of the reason I used “evangelical” in the title is that I was responding to Kristof’s column, “Evangelicals Without Blowhards.” Another 10% is that I knew it would get the attention of some secular Americans. The final 10% is that I really do think the term is broader than you make it out to be. I think progressive Evangelicals would dispute your characterization of them as an “off-shoot”, even if the “hardcore” Evangelicals agree with that characterization. The fact that the term evokes a certain image among Americans is part of the problem.

    But if that term is throwing you off, please just ignore it and read “Christian” instead.

  5. Dave – why not “faith based”? I’m not working internationally anymore, but in my domestic hunger relief work I encounter the same characteristics when working with Muslim, Jewish, or Christian organizations. Though I suppose the international scene is more prominently dominated by specifically Christian orgs. . . .

    As for defining evangelical – ask a 100 evangelicals and you’ll get 100 different answers. For the curious here’s an evangelical org’s take: http://isae.wheaton.edu/defining-evangelicalism/defining-the-term-in-contemporary-times/ and here are some self-identification numbers (Table 3): http://b27.cc.trincoll.edu/weblogs/AmericanReligionSurvey-ARIS/reports/p1a_belong.html . All of that to say don’t waste your time!

  6. If I may offer a perspective as a former evangelical Christian (my Jesus street-cred: before turning heathen I was evangelical for 22 years, went to Harding University, and did mission work in Africa)… I agree that people disagree on what the term means. I think it is used broadly as a shorthand for those who actively proselytize, but – as Carol notes – some of the more progressive elements within evangelicalism grew out of the traditional approaches. I think some of that change (which centers on a dislike for a sole focus on evangelism) has even been driven by Christian involvement in aid/development work. As I learned first hand, it’s hard to just preach the Gospel and go home when you’re a wealthy person visiting a low-income country. The nuance is that many of the progressive churches that don’t emphasize evangelism (and even some more liberal churches that would never claim to be evangelical in the first place) still do it sometimes. And practices vary by individuals within churches too. So I think the best that can be said is that most Christians who heavily emphasize conversion are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals pursue conversion with the same priority and enthusiasm.

  7. There is significant confusion between “evangelical” and “evangelistic”, primarily because they share so much of their root word in common. “Evangelistic” seeks to proselytize. “Evangelicals” may be proselytizing people, but the term “evangelical” does not denote this. “Evangelical” means that something is according to the good news; it has been used in the last several decades to indicate that someone holds a particular view on biblical authority.

    I’m sorry that your post has been hijacked by semantics, although I understand why. Folks are uneasy partnering with evangelicals if there is a manipulative push for conversion.

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