New Works in the Field

Religion’s Role in International Relief and Development: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism

Editors’ Note: David P. King discusses the history of World Vision, the subject of his new book, God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism. Heather Curtis will offer a review of the book on HistPhil later this week.

In twentieth-century histories of philanthropy, religion rarely makes a major appearance. Of course, almost all histories of early American philanthropy since the days of Alexis de Tocqueville point to the rise of voluntary associations. Through the nineteenth century, many of the most prominent were Christian agencies seeking to bring about a benevolent empire through campaigns of temperance, abolition, suffrage, Sunday schools, or social services.

By the early twentieth century, most histories of philanthropy turn to focus on the Robber Barons, like Carnegie and Rockefeller. We know that John D. Rockefeller, Sr., a staunch Baptist, funded denominations, missions, and higher education. Rockefeller, Jr. joined popular preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick to build Riverside Church. Yet, moving into the twentieth century the arc of the story seems a shift away from faith-filled individuals and religious communities to secularized, scientific philanthropy.

The tendency to overlook religion is also notable in histories of humanitarianism. In many ways emerging out of the same rise in scientific philanthropy and the development of professional fields such as social work, the narrative arc of international humanitarianism most often appears as an evolution from foreign missions to relief and development. The nineteenth century Anglo-American vision might best be defined by popular British missionary, David Livingstone, and his 3 C’s: Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization. In many histories of humanitarianism, by the mid-twentieth century, only two of the C’s endured. Livingstone’s focus on civilization and commerce was now manifested in an emphasis on education, health, and infrastructure in the midst of rapid decolonization. Christianity, and religion more broadly, seemed to have lost its place of prominence in that trinity.

While the arc of such stories carries truth, it encourages an overgeneralization which can obscure a fuller and more complex accounting of humanitarianism’s development. The absence of religion from many of our histories of philanthropy and humanitarianism leads us to overlook an important factor motivating the giving and service of many donors, humanitarians, and activists. For as long as scholars have tracked giving trends, giving to religion (even when defined narrowly as giving almost exclusively to congregations) has been the largest philanthropic sub-sector (29 percent of all giving in 2018). When asked to categorize their own giving, U.S. donors report 73% of overall giving goes to a congregation or a religiously-identified organization (including many schools, social service agencies, and international NGOs).

Despite declines in individual Americans’ religious affiliation and engagement, religion continues to shape both the giving and receiving of charity and philanthropy. It also continues to shape the identity of many of the leading organizations that provide humanitarian aid as well as countless grassroot upstarts. At the same time, religion animates the worldviews of many of the individuals and communities where philanthropy and humanitarian aid are directed around the world.

I would argue that religion never disappeared in philanthropy and humanitarianism; rather religious engagement and identity have evolved in ways that have led them to be underappreciated in the scholarship.

In my recent book, God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism, I seek to take the religious identity of religious humanitarianism and philanthropy seriously. In outlining the seventy year history of World Vision, I have chronicled the organization’s transformation from a small missionary agency founded by a single evangelist, Bob Pierce, to what is now the largest Christian humanitarian organization in the world, with over 40,000 employees and a multi-billion dollar budget. Though the organization has remained decidedly Christian, it has earned the reputation as an elite international NGO managed efficiently by professional experts fluent in the language of both marketing and development working alongside secular and interreligious coalitions. I argue that World Vision’s transformation from 1950 to the present serves as a lens through which to explore both shifts within post-World War II American evangelicalism as well as the complexities of faith-based humanitarianism.

In taking the religious identity within humanitarianism seriously, the book seeks to keep several questions in mind for readers: How has an organization’s religious identity affected its practice of humanitarianism? How has that religious identity evolved over time? How has the diversity of religious identities created divisions, alliances, and compromises between organizations, governments, and funders? How do particular religious identities provide various lenses through which many Americans see and interact with the world?

In particular, in setting World Vision in the context of its evangelical roots in post-World War II America with U.S. power at an all-time high and the rise of the Cold War turning many Americans’ popular interest abroad, I explore World Vision’s form of evangelical humanitarianism. While many today use a term like “evangelical” as a convenient label to describe a particular set of political or cultural beliefs, through tracing the history of a large organization continually exposed to broadening audiences at home and abroad, I found it more interesting to chart how historical actors understood themselves through defining, maintaining, and transgressing a number of definitional boundaries. These boundaries centered on questions such as: Who counted as an evangelical and who had the institutional or popular power to enforce who was in an out of the community? Where would World Vision work? How would the organization’s leaders combine their desire to provide both spiritual and physical aid?

In the 1940s, World Vision founder Bob Pierce emerged in a conservative Christian context that wedded the virtues of Christian America with a desire to evangelize the world. Evangelists like Pierce quickly developed a global vision, and his travels most often followed the Cold War hotspots that pitted the ideals of a Christian America against atheistic communism. Pierce first experienced China in the late 1940s. After 1949, Pierce followed both missionaries and U.S. troops to Korea. Pierce preached open-air revivals and built orphanages, funded leper colonies, and supported missionaries. Pierce would help World Vision create a child sponsorship program that quickly grew the organization’s budget while gaining popular support among evangelicals at home. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Pierce grew adept at using mass philanthropy and popular media. His firsthand film footage spliced into documentary movies were shown in churches, camps, and schools around the country. His weekly radio show exposed Americans to global issues and gave them another lens through which to view the world.

By the late 1960s, World Vision had outgrown Pierce’s charismatic one-man model, and he left to mentor another eager young evangelical, Franklin Graham, and to launch another small agency now known as Samaritan’s Purse. Meanwhile World Vision followed the Cold War to Vietnam and Southeast Asia. There it first worked alongside the U.S. aid industry as many larger mainstream humanitarian agencies abandoned their federal grants to protest U.S. foreign policy in North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. World Vision was accused of naivete by established humanitarians for its willingness to work with the U.S. military even while more conservative Christians back home worried World Vision was on a slippery slope focusing more on humanitarian need and less on spiritual concerns. Vietnam marked World Vision’s recognition of the difficulty of the tightrope it sought to walk between critics on the left and right both politically and theologically. That would remain an ongoing challenge.

By the 1980s, a malnourished African child became the face of World Vision as the 1983 Ethiopian famine captured the world’s attention, and World Vision took its mass philanthropy approach into telethons and infomercials. At the same time, the organization internationalized and shared leadership among its multiple country offices in a way that no longer simply privileged an American approach and continued to expand its religious identity beyond a narrow American evangelical subculture. In some Latin American countries or the Philippines, that might mean a predominantly Catholic staff. In Eastern Europe, a majority may be Orthodox. In some African country offices, the staff is overwhelmingly Pentecostal. In some more secularized western countries such as Australia or the U.K., the faith component may be less explicit.

Today, World Vision’s U.S. donor constituency still largely identifies as evangelical, but World Vision itself uses broader categories (such as Christian) in its marketing to avoid limiting its potential reach. Of course, as a Christian humanitarian organization, World Vision is not alone. Similar agencies such as Compassion International, Samaritan’s Purse, MAP International, and Food for the Poor are among the top 25 largest U.S. charities each with annual budgets averaging over three-quarters of a billion dollars. And all demonstrate how their religious identities lead to distinct humanitarian practices and various approaches for communicating their mission to their constituents. While much of our present focus on religion broadly and evangelicals in particular may center on the domestic political realm (as in their overwhelming support for President Trump), we need to remember those issues remain only one dimension of the story. Although one cannot deny the rise in nationalism, religiously inspired hatred, and humanitarian crises that we have inspired on our own borders, that should not be the only intersection of religion and social engagement that calls for our attention.

By offering a case study of one organization in the larger context of evolving humanitarian and philanthropic sectors, Gods Internationalists seeks to offer a distinctive perspective on the history of religious humanitarianism that makes sense of the dramatic growth in evangelical global social engagement over the past few decades and helps to restore religious belief and practice, in all its multifaceted complexity, to the center of scholarship on humanitarianism and philanthropy.

-David P. King

David P. King is the Karen Lake Buttrey Director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving as well as Assistant Professor of Philanthropic Studies within the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. He is the author of God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism (UPenn Press 2019) and with Philip Goff, he is editing the volume Religion and Philanthropy in the United States, forthcoming from Indiana University Press in 2020.

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