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.

_____________________

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.

_____________________

Related posts: