The separation of church and non-state

Faith-based groups like World Vision are the Bush administration's favorite kind of nongovernmental organization. Should NGOs be held to a higher standard?

Published July 25, 2007 6:02PM (EDT)

World Vision, writes Risto Karajkov in "The Power of N.G.O.'s: They're Big, but How Big?" is the largest nongovernmental organization in the world, with a $2.1 billion annual budget in 2006. (Thanks to iPienso for the tip.)

What is World Vision? By its own description, it is "a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice."

In other words, it is a "faith-based organization." Which raises the question: Are faith-based organizations the same as nongovernmental organizations, or should they comprise a separate category?

Perhaps this is a semantically meaningless question. It's hard enough keeping church and state separate. Do we need to keep church and non-state apart too?

Technically, if one follows the definition of NGO provided by Peter Willetts, a professor of global politics at City University, London and the author of two books on NGOs, who classifies any organization that is independent of government, not constituted as a political party, nonviolent, nonprofit and noncriminal as an NGO, then World Vision certainly qualifies. But the term NGO has existed for only a little over 50 years, dating back to the founding of the United Nations. Faith-based organizations have obviously been around a good bit longer.

Why should it matter? Well, one reason is that World Vision focuses a significant portion of its efforts on fighting AIDS. In such capacity, it receives a fair amount of U.S. government money. Critics charge that it gets this money because it spends it according to religiously influenced Bush administration priorities, which is to say, on promoting abstinence and marital fidelity in preference to condom use.

World Vision does not fall into the conservative evangelical camp for which condom use is a mark of Satan. An investigation of the issue by the Center for Public Integrity quotes World Vision as saying, via e-mail, "While World Vision emphasizes abstinence and fidelity within marriage, World Vision recognizes that not all people can or will choose to be abstinent, and that even within marriages one or both spouses may be HIV-positive ... and therefore recommends the consistent and correct use of condoms for harm reduction."

This policy, writes the center's Devin Varsalona, has disappointed conservative Christians such as Focus on the Family's James Dobson. But while anything that disappoints Dobson brings a smile to the face of How the World Works, it's still worth pointing out that under the Bush administration, faith-based organizations such as World Vision are seeing their AIDS-fighting funding boosted, while the tap runs dry for nonreligious -- and explicitly pro-birth control -- organizations such as Family Health International.

Perhaps it is that mixture of religious motivation with government funding that makes designating World Vision as a "nongovernmental organization" rather than a "faith-based organization" a bit suspect.

And yet, on the other hand, I find it impossible to argue with the selection of biblical scripture that World Vision also includes in its AIDS-fighting "toolkit for pastors."

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and the malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. Isaiah 58:9b-10

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Aids Globalization How The World Works