Editors’ Note: Heather D. Curtis reviews David P. King‘s God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism. King introduced his work to HistPhil readers earlier this week.
Recently, I attended a Protestant church service on “Hope Sunday.” After watching a professional video that documented the Evangelical Covenant Church’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo through a partnership with the humanitarian organization World Vision, congregants were invited to visit a booth set up in the fellowship hall to view the profiles of children in need of “sponsors.” For forty dollars a month, Christians in the United States could “support long-term development through clean water, healthcare, education, agriculture and nutrition, economic development, and child protection,” so that their sponsored child would “grow up with a brighter future.” The possibility of contributing to this initiative clearly interested many worshippers: the child sponsorship table was crowded after the service. But not everyone found the invitation to donate to Covenant Kids Congo completely compelling. One of the pastoral staff, who knew of my interest in the history of philanthropy, turned to me sheepishly and admitted: “I know, this is not ‘social justice,’ but at least the program gets people interested in the problem of global poverty. Maybe eventually they might become interested in working to change the root causes of inequality.”
What was I to make of “Hope Sunday” and my conversation with this Evangelical Covenant Church pastor? Why was there such a disconnect between the church’s leadership and its parishioners – mostly white suburbanites living in a wealthy town west of Boston – about the meaning and practice of Christian compassion? David King’s God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism has helped me answer these and other questions.
King’s study is the first book-length analysis of the largest Christian humanitarian agency in the world. World Vision, King notes, is three times larger than its nearest evangelical competitor and ranks among the top ten largest international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) of any kind worldwide. Despite its size and influence within the aid industry, scholars of philanthropy have mostly overlooked World Vision. Historians of religion have also paid little attention to how “third sector” organizations like World Vision have shaped the theological, social, and political commitments of American evangelicals. By examining the founding, growth, transformation, and impacts of this understudied yet extremely influential missions turned humanitarian aid agency, God’s Internationalists fills these gaps in the scholarly literature across multiple fields.
King’s book does more than tell an unknown story. God’s Internationalists argues that analyzing World Vision’s history sheds light on the increasingly important role religion has played in the relief and development sector. Understanding how religious agencies have influenced the aid industry is crucial, King explains, because more than a third of all INGOs are faith-based, “making up almost half of all NGOs annual revenue.” Furthermore, “most religious aid agencies have benefited from government funding for decades,” with a significant increase in federal money flowing to these groups since the passage in 2011 of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Act. Despite the fact that religious relief and development organizations have partnered with the United States government to shape foreign policy since at least the mid-twentieth century, King contends, most scholars of humanitarianism have ignored the prominence of faith-based agencies in the international arena. Even those who have paid some attention to religious INGOs have tended to discount the diversity among these organizations, resulting in simplistic conclusions that fail to attend to the ways that particular faith commitments, practices, and experiences create distinctive approaches to relief and development. Through his careful study of how World Vision’s theology, rhetoric, and organizational structure has changed over time, King demonstrates “how religious identity matters” in the delivery of aid, providing a model for other scholars to carry forward in future research on faith-based humanitarianism.
God’s Internationalists also challenges scholars to reassess dominant narratives about the influence of religion on the United States’ domestic politics during the late twentieth century. For several decades, prominent historians and sociologists have argued that American Protestants became increasingly divided into two parties as the Cold War gave rise to the culture wars between liberals dedicated to social reform and conservatives committed to individual conversion. In recent years, many scholars have posited a similar “dichotomy between evangelical left and right” that grew wider as the “Religious Right” gained power through alliances with the Republican party and “corporate titans,” while “evangelical progressives” protested American imperialism in Vietnam, repented of racism, challenged sexism, and questioned unbridled capitalism. Shifting the focus from domestic debates to international concerns, King argues, shows that dualistic frameworks are insufficient for capturing the complexity of American Protestantism as it has been lived out “on the ground.” Over the course of its history, World Vision’s global aid work, exposure to diverse Christian communities around the world, and cooperation across religious and social boundaries pushed leaders to move “beyond traditional Western political or theological dichotomies (right or left; conservative or liberal).” As it transitioned from a more traditional missions agency supported by local churches to an international relief and development organization sponsored by a range of donors (including the federal government), King asserts, World Vision “redefined its identity outside the narrow American evangelical subculture in which it had first taken ground” and “produced a new stream of evangelical humanitarianism that appealed to a broad theological and political spectrum . . . As Western Christians debated the priority of saving souls or saving bodies, World Vision championed both: speaking out for justice and social reform without dismissing the need for individual conversion.” This commitment to straddling – or transcending – a widening chasm between two parties in American Protestantism (or two camps in evangelicalism), King suggests, contributed to World Vision’s dramatic growth since it’s founding in 1950.
King’s portrayal of World Vision’s embrace of a “holistic” gospel that attended to both spiritual and physical concerns is persuasive. Throughout the book, he provides evidence showing how the organization’s leaders developed greater awareness of global injustices and committed themselves to addressing the root causes of poverty, hunger, and inequality even as they insisted that sharing the faith through evangelism remained an institutional priority. Interactions with local Christians around the world prompted American staffers to revise their assumptions about the superiority of Western theological frameworks, devotional expressions, social systems, political projects, and development models. By hiring more indigenous aid workers and transferring authority to local contexts, World Vision became more diverse and less paternalistic. This internationalization challenged U.S. leaders to move beyond American exceptionalism and to grapple with the consequences of Western military, economic, and cultural imperialism. As their perspective on these issues shifted, World Vision’s administrators began to raise questions about the “American way of life,” publicly oppose some of the nation’s foreign policies, and encourage donors to “move beyond Christian charity to advocacy” on behalf of the marginalized. The organization developed mission statements that strongly affirmed the integration of evangelical witness with relief, development, and work “to change unjust structures affecting the poor.” At times, World Vision’s leaders took stances that conflicted with the views of the organization’s “core evangelical constituency” in the United States, such as when President Graeme Irvine “spoke out against Israel’s ‘oppression’ of the occupied territories” and advocated for Palestinians’ human and civil rights.
Did World Vision’s evangelical sponsors protest the agency’s criticism of Israel? King does not reveal whether Irvine’s remarks provoked controversy, but he does admit that the organization’s 2014 decision to employ Christians in same-sex marriages caused a firestorm that forced President Rich Stearns to reverse the policy within just two days. This incident exposes the distance between World Vision’s progressive leaders and its grassroots supporters. Indeed, King acknowledges throughout his study that the agency’s embrace of policies that challenged the sources of political, economic, and social inequality rarely resonated with the rank and file. “Most evangelicals ignored critiques of American imperialism, demands for structural change, and appeals for simplicity of life,” King observes, “but pleas to feed starving children touched their hearts.” Here, King implies that World Vision’s remarkable success has had more to do with the popularity of fund-raising techniques that enable evangelical donors to feel good about helping the poor without working to alter the conditions that create and sustain poverty in the first place. Certainly World Vision’s marketing campaigns have alerted American Christians – like the parishioners I met on “Hope Sunday” – to the plight of suffering people around the globe and resulted in an outpouring of contributions to provide relief through monetary donations, short-term missions, and (especially) child sponsorship. But, as the Evangelical Covenant Church pastor pointed out, none of these ways of responding actually promote social justice – in fact, they reinforce the disparities between the rich and poor that World Vision’s leaders claim they want to dismantle.
King alludes to the disconnect between the visionary program for transformation that World Vision’s global leaders promoted and the circumscribed forms of “social concern” that most of the organization’s American evangelical supporters found compelling, but I wonder why he refrains from discussing the divergence in more explicit terms. It’s possible that King experienced pressure from his interlocutors at World Vision to avoid controversial subjects and to present the agency and its donors in the best possible light. Perhaps World Vision insiders also urged King to abstain from analyzing more fully the ways the organization grappled with calls for racial justice, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights over the course of its history. Some of these topics receive cursory treatment, but all could be explored in much greater detail, especially given the salience of these issues in evangelical debates about religious identity from the mid-twentieth century to the present.
Although including more critical analysis of World Vision’s positions on contentious questions would have enabled King to advance scholarly conversations about evangelicals’ fraught attitudes toward race, gender, and sexuality, God’s Internationalists stands as a deeply-researched and cogently-argued contribution to the literature on religious humanitarianism. The book is beautifully-written in a clear and engaging style that is sophisticated yet free of jargon. Crafting a study that will interest historians, philanthropy professionals, and general readers is a major accomplishment. I hope God’s Internationalists will find a wide audience among American evangelical donors to World Vision, and perhaps prompt some to consider moving beyond child sponsorship to social justice.
-Heather D. Curtis
Heather D. Curtis is Chair and Associate Professor of Religion at Tufts University. In addition to Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid, she is also the author of Faith in the Great Physician: Suffering and Divine Healing in American Culture, 1860-1900 (Johns Hopkins, 2007).