God's Internationalists is the first comprehensive study of World Vision, the largest Christian humanitarian organization in the world. David P. King explores how the organization rearticulated its Christian identity and expanded beyond traditional evangelism to become a leader in global relief and development.
Jun 2019 | 360 pages | Cloth $39.95
American History / Religion,Political Science
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Bob Pierce Becomes Evangelicals' Global Ambassador
Chapter 2. Opening Americans' Eyes to a New World
Chapter 3. A Growing Organization and the Evolving Identity of American Evangelicalism
Chapter 4. Between Missions and Humanitarianism in a Decade of Upheaval
Chapter 5. Taking Domestic Debates of God and Country Overseas
Chapter 6. World Vision Internationalizes
Chapter 7. Evangelical Relief and Development
Chapter 8. A Changing World Vision: A Changing Evangelicalism?
Chapter 9. World Vision and the New Internationalists
After another long day of encountering poverty and death in war-torn Korea, American evangelist Bob Pierce scrawled a prayer in the flyleaf of his Bible: "Let my heart be broken . . . with the things that break the heart of God." With this simple yet expansive mission, Pierce established a small agency to raise funds for missionaries and orphans. He came to attain celebrity at home by publicizing suffering abroad—pioneering child sponsorship and producing films to bring images of the world to American Christians. Pierce founded his new fledgling agency in 1950, and World Vision struggled to keep up with his pace in raising aid for the poor and the spiritually lost around the globe.
Today World Vision still returns to Pierce's original prayer, yet it operates in remarkable contrast to its ragtag beginnings. World Vision International (WVI) is now the largest Christian humanitarian organization in the world. It maintains offices in nearly one hundred countries with 42,000 employees and an annual budget over two billion dollars. It stands three times larger than its nearest evangelical competitor and ranks among the ten largest international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of any kind worldwide. Gone are the days of evangelistic crusades and orphanages. Today World Vision is an efficient international nongovernmental organization (INGO) undertaking emergency relief, large-scale community development, and advocacy work. Its leaders are no longer pastors and evangelists. It now recruits professionally trained development specialists and Ivy League-educated marketing directors. While founder Bob Pierce was an evangelist with street smarts, Rich Stearns, the organization's recently retired and longest-serving president, came to World Vision U.S. (WVUS) with an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and previous experience as CEO of several Fortune 500 companies. The new WVUS president, Edgar Sandoval Sr., moved up from his role as WVUS chief operating officer to follow in Stearns's footsteps with decades of for-profit and nonprofit experience. If Pierce functioned largely within an evangelical subculture, now World Vision's leaders are widely respected NGO insiders who share the organization's mission not only in megachurches but also in the boardrooms of corporate donors, in front of the United Nations, and on Capitol Hill.
World Vision moved from Christian missions to corporate culture; from donations collected in local churches to multimillion-dollar grants from the federal government. How can we account for that change? As it grew, World Vision began to work with new partners, appeal to broader audiences, and transform its operations. On-the-ground experience in humanitarian hotspots around the world led World Vision to see beyond traditional Western political or theological dichotomies (right or left; conservative or liberal). Interactions with a growing global Christianity and partnerships across religious traditions allowed it to rearticulate its religious identity outside the strictly American evangelical subculture in which it had first taken root. Expanding beyond the traditional mission offerings of local churches to interact with ecumenical and secular development NGOs, it pursued government grants and adopted professional fund-raising techniques through direct mail, television, and the internet.
These transitions led World Vision to reinterpret its identity as more an agency of Christian humanitarianism than missionary evangelization, more mainstream than religiously sectarian, and at times more professional than pious in the sense that American evangelicalism has often understood the term. World Vision remained decidedly Christian, but among its peers, it often earned the reputation as an elite INGO managed efficiently by professional experts fluent in the language of both marketing and international development.
Even as the United States was becoming a global superpower, so was American evangelicalism. The story of World Vision is the story of that transformation, and it offers a lens through which to explore the global outlook of American evangelicals. Cold War politics fanned the initial flames of the burgeoning international engagement of post-World War II evangelicals. As they sought to reclaim their role in society, they also sought to win the world for Christ and America, spreading the gospel alongside democracy and capitalism. At the same time, their reengagement both at home and abroad gave many the opportunity to see the world and their role in it differently as they redefined their approaches to missions and faith-based humanitarianism by establishing new nongovernmental organizations, receiving federal funding, and adopting professional relief and development principles. This same global engagement that forced evangelicals to reframe their work abroad also forced them to reframe their own identities at home as they reflected upon what it meant to be American and evangelical in an increasingly global world.
This is a story historians have largely overlooked. We have seen evangelicals through evangelists like Billy Graham, businesses like Chick-fil-A, or political coalitions such as those born out of the Religious Right. Yet following World War II, it was often the evangelical mission agencies that mushroomed in size and market share. The faithful invested twelve dollars toward foreign missions and international aid for every one dollar they spent on political organizations. Alongside this renewed global expansion came a gradual shift in emphases away from evangelism and church planting toward relief and development.
Calling evangelicals the "new internationalists," New York Times editorialist Nicholas Kristof has popularized the deepening of an evangelical social conscience. While potentially news to readers of the New York Times, this commitment to global social engagement was not lost on many American evangelicals. Harking back to William Wilberforce's efforts to end the British slave trade, American temperance crusaders, and YMCA field-workers, or more recent foreign missionaries building schools, orphanages, and hospitals, evangelicals argued they had served at the forefront of international engagement for generations.
Yet the nature of evangelical engagement began to take new forms. In the first half of the twentieth century, an optimistic Protestant consensus and shared global outlook shattered into multiple constituencies. Protestant mainline denominations developed new global humanitarian institutions while also wielding the soft power that came from rubbing shoulders with political and economic elites. Fundamentalists began to separate themselves from the engine of institutions driving the Protestant mainline, but they did not bury their heads in the sand. Instead they built new global networks—popular and effective with their own audiences but often outside the halls of power in which mainline Protestants had operated. Conservative Protestants continued to debate humanitarianism, foreign policy, and global engagement, but these debates were often ignored or unappreciated among foreign policy makers, the aid industry, politicians, and mainstream media.
In the wake of World War II, America's leading evangelist, Billy Graham, served as adviser to U.S. presidents, and many new evangelicals followed in his footsteps, reemerging from a self-imposed separatism with a renewed interest in influencing popular culture and the political mainstream. But even as evangelicals began to seek out such influence, they were routinely discouraged. Few wielded equal political influence behind closed doors at policy gatherings in places such as Washington, D.C, Geneva, or Davos, Switzerland. American evangelicals themselves did not always agree on the proper role of humanitarianism or political action. Nor did they all agree how best to engage the government in shaping policy, receiving federal funding, and working across faith lines. Many of the established aid agencies (religious and secular) denied evangelicals a seat at the table, questioning their methods, motives, and expertise as naive and underdeveloped.
Times changed. Evangelical agencies grew in influence as the broader field of global development came to appreciate their size, experience, and expertise. (In addition to World Vision, evangelical agencies make up four of the top ten largest INGOs. Forty-five percent of all religious NGOs are evangelical, by far the largest percentage of any religious tradition.) Having once been forced to argue for social ministry as appropriate activity among fellow evangelicals, agencies like World Vision now carried the torch for others eager to join with the likes of U2 front man Bono, Microsoft founder and humanitarian Bill Gates, and the United Nations in pursuit of a more just and humane civil society. Together this complex set of allies combats AIDS, sex trafficking, and global poverty.
To understand the dramatic growth in evangelical global social engagement, this book chronicles how evangelicals changed in the ways they saw themselves and their world in the period following World War II. By focusing on the particular prominence of World Vision and its global encounters, this book places the recent history of American evangelicalism in transnational perspective and offers a new lens through which to explore the role that a particular kind of American faith played in politics, popular culture, and especially the field of international relief and development. Attending to the complex interactions of a global evangelicalism stands to reframe many scholars' traditional interpretations of American evangelicalism, while narrating evangelicals' own broadening view of themselves.
Religious Humanitarianism and the Rise of International Relief and Development
While evangelicalism may serve as the central lens, World Vision's story cannot be told apart from the rapid rise of Western humanitarianism in the twentieth century. American investment in the humanitarian industry helped to shape U.S. foreign policy. In the wake of two world wars, humanitarian agencies helped influence American responses to the demise of colonialism in Africa and Asia as well as the practice of statecraft throughout the Cold War. At the same time, these agencies shaped the global imaginations of Americans themselves. Newspapers, radio, and television brought information into Americans' living rooms, but humanitarian fund-raising appeals confronted countless Americans with images and personal stories from the front lines of war, refugee camps, and famine—giving them a picture of an often unfamiliar world as well as a way to respond personally.
Much of the popular growth and institutionalization of American humanitarianism was due to the rapid expansion of religious humanitarian agencies. With a sense of American exceptionalism and global optimism, a "three-faiths consortium" of mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish philanthropies dominated federal aid funding after World War II, with agencies like Catholic Relief Services (1943), Church World Service (1946), Lutheran World Relief (1945), and the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (1914) leading the way. Despite the fact that a list of the largest agencies and recipients of federal aid rarely changed before the Vietnam War, a plethora of new religious agencies continued to emerge. These new agencies would lead to increased diversity, a variety of approaches, and competition for resources.
The prominence of religious agencies within humanitarianism has not yet generated much scholarly exploration. In the past, most research into religious humanitarianism has been relegated to a history of missions. There is an extensive literature on missionaries, and it has continued to mature in recent years as scholars have broadened their approaches to consider how overseas actors have not only shaped but are also shaped by the new cultures they encounter. This book is not missionary history, yet it traces how traditional missions made a substantial transition to religious humanitarianism through shifts in practice, methodology, and theology. On balance, the size and influence of these humanitarian NGOs in shaping foreign policy, public opinion, and popular culture now far exceeds that of missionaries.
If overlooked among the recent scholarship of humanitarianism, the influence of religion on American political and social history has more recently attracted a great deal of attention. Heeding the call of historians such as Andrew Preston to bridge "the gap between the sacred and secular in the history of foreign relations," historians have responded by exploring the significant religious rhetoric of subjects such as President Woodrow Wilson's early internationalism or the complexity underneath the "Christian America versus atheistic communism" language of the early Cold War. This is a welcome turn, but the majority of work still focuses on leading politicians or corporate titans. Such work misses the significant role of a third sector that exists alongside government and business.
This book examines the rise of religious humanitarianism to demonstrate that the third sector did not operate out of the way and on its own, but rather most often served as the context in an increasingly global civil society where governments, international bodies, corporations, nonprofits, and religious communities intersected to make sense of their engagement with global issues. Underneath the formal speeches and government bureaucracies are networks of agencies shaping institutional practices, public rhetoric, and on-the-ground activities as well as the global imaginaries of American citizens.
In the studies of humanitarianism that do exist, scholars have often painted particular organizations' religious identities with broad brushstrokes, ignoring the diversity of religious experience and discounting the role religion often played. In taking the religious identity of religious humanitarianism seriously, this 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?
For most Americans, discussions of religious NGOs have been dominated by coverage of the federal funding for domestic faith-based initiatives initiated under President Bill Clinton, expanded under President George W. Bush, and continued under Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Yet the debates over faith-based initiatives have rarely applied to the funding for large-scale international development. Indeed, most religious aid agencies that operate overseas have benefited from government funding for decades and are accountable to multiple professional and humanitarian standards as a part of a shared field of relief and development. This book introduces new actors and new questions in the study of America's global humanitarian engagement by attending to the different debates within international religious agencies.
Defining Evangelicalism Through International Humanitarianism
Outside the "three faiths consortium" of mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews whose humanitarian agencies initially dominated foreign aid funding, evangelical agencies such as World Vision initially toiled on the edges. Evangelicals started small, both out of necessity (they lacked access to federal funding) and out of principle (in order to maintain their mission and evangelical identity). World Vision founder Bob Pierce prided himself on relying strictly on small gifts from individuals who heard about his work at revival meetings, through direct mail, over the radio, or by watching his films in church basements. Like other evangelical mission agencies, World Vision had to make sense of its religious identity as it grew, shifted operations, and adopted new funding streams. Over time, six of the seven largest evangelical mission agencies developed primarily into relief and development organizations. And while such history has been, in general, understudied, the story of World Vision does not simply detail the rise of evangelical international aid agencies; it also explores how an increasingly global outlook helped to shape American evangelicals' own identity.
World Vision's use of the label "evangelical" is a complicated story. The organization is deeply rooted in the culture of American evangelicals and clearly saw as part of its mission shaping the global outlook of this influential strand of American Christianity. But that international mission was often wrapped up in the struggle over evangelical identity in America.
Pollsters have often defined individuals as "evangelical" if those persons identify themselves with the term, claim a "born-again" experience, hold to a certain set of beliefs, or belong to a specific denomination. Journalists use "evangelical" as shorthand for theological and cultural conservatives or a political voting bloc. Historians have also struggled with defining evangelicals. Some refer to distinctive theological beliefs, such as historian David Bebbington's well known quadrilateral: commitment to the authority of the Bible, the necessity of conversion, the atoning work of Christ, and the active application of the gospel through evangelism and service. Such broad theological commonalities demonstrate the potential diversity among evangelicals, from black Baptists to Missouri Synod Lutherans, Mennonites to faith-healing Pentecostals, conservative Presbyterians to charismatic televangelists. Yet theological unity—to the extent that it marks the movement—often masks real sociological and cultural differences. Many of the members of these groups may not even identify themselves or one another as evangelicals even if characteristic traits, temperament, or common vernaculars bind them together in myriad ways.
Because of the difficulty of definition, I often use the term "evangelical" as it has been employed by historical actors to describe themselves. (Of course, these actors have used the term to describe themselves and others in multiple ways throughout history.) In focusing particularly on the evolution of American evangelicalism after 1945, this book turns to the particular self-designated evangelical movement that emerged from the separatist fundamentalist subculture in the 1940s. As the historian George Marsden has explained, this transdenominational network of leaders, institutions, and publications emerged through shared norms of behavior, history, and culture that enabled them to function as an informal denomination. If that transdenominational network serves as the starting point, the book then explores how such an evangelical movement grew to spill well beyond those initial boundary lines. Over the past fifty-plus years, World Vision has remained a central character in what historian Steven P. Miller has called "the age of evangelicalism" that has come to operate outside any particular subculture to shape American culture broadly, both high and low.
Yet, exploring American evangelicals' global engagement in the second half of the twentieth century again requires the acknowledgment that this is not a new phenomenon. Historian Mark Noll has claimed, "At its core, [evangelicalism] is a faith with a global vision." That global vision has almost always served as a leading factor defining evangelicalism at home and abroad. The mutual alliances and multiple contestations of American evangelicals, their nation, and their world demonstrate that the movement has always thought of itself as a global one that must be understood transnationally, for that is how the evangelical movement saw itself.
In the English-speaking world, the earliest evangelicals emerged from an early eighteenth-century transatlantic revivalism. Figures such as American theologian Jonathan Edwards, British revivalist George Whitefield, and the itinerant founder of Methodism John Wesley were well known throughout England and America as their ideas spread through their writings and travel. As evangelicalism in the Anglo-American world took off, foreign missions would soon follow. British Baptist William Carey left his trade as a cobbler to set sail for India in 1792. Before he left he articulated a mandate for missions that came to serve as an essential hallmark of evangelical identity. That spark may have been the Great Commission, but missions always meant more than proclamation. The Great Commandment also followed. Western missionaries brought education, health care, and work for women's rights with them under a rubric of modernization even as they also debated the proper lines between spreading Christ and culture. While they may have disagreed on what all to include, early evangelicals envisioned their global mission work as a comprehensive gospel.
American evangelicals were not far behind. By the 1820s, evangelical Protestantism had become the dominant expression of American Christianity. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, a loose evangelical movement formed around a common penchant for revival and reform. Camp meetings and voluntary societies propelled this impulse at home as evangelicals sought to reshape American society not only through conversion but also through a benevolent empire led by movements for literacy, better health, temperance, and (most controversially) abolition. The voluntary associations that evangelicals founded gave them maximum flexibility to move past theological or institutional boundaries to rally around common causes while also providing far more social support than a young U.S. government could or would offer. These reform efforts sought to convert a culture. American evangelicals did not always work in concert with a U.S. political narrative, but notions of America's "chosenness" worked well in these efforts at home. They also worked well as motivation to export these values abroad.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, thousands of men and women carried confidence in a benevolent empire overseas. What American missionaries originally inherited from British evangelicals they quickly spun off as essentially American. If the United States had marks of a chosen nation, homegrown evangelicals were keen on exporting the moral virtues of the new country. Nineteenth-century missionaries were often the American public's eyes and ears embedded around the world in ways the U.S. government and military had never dreamed. The popular consumption of their reports from the field in letters and religious periodicals shaped Americans' global imaginaries as much as it defined evangelicalism. They basked in their distaste of empire and how it set them apart from European competitors even as they benefited from safe travel, military support, and commerce available through British colonies. American evangelicals abroad demonstrated that the United States was different from other nations, even if they did promote an informal, moral empire. In the late nineteenth century, the best and brightest joined the mission cause heading out under the banner of the Student Volunteer Movement or YMCA to reshape the world with the technology, culture, and virtues that the West deemed universally beneficial. Evangelical missions often merged with America's international outlook as each influenced the other.
By 1925, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy had fractured the Protestant evangelical consensus. If most American Protestants resonated with the evangelical label in the nineteenth century, now both sides of a new theological divide forfeited the term. Most often historians have recounted this feud in the context of denominations and theological education. Certainly, these institutions were a major part of the story, but as significant were divisions in American foreign missions. By the 1920s, much of the broadscale optimism was gone, and so was the uniting vision of a comprehensive gospel. American global missions evolved for many reasons, but a significant one was a theological divide that split those who appealed to the primacy of evangelism and those who focused on social and cultural change. Yet, this divide did more than separate conservatives and liberals; it disencumbered a broad-based and united evangelical mission enterprise and its primary role in shaping Americans' global outlooks. These views drastically began to change in the twentieth century with the end of colonialism and increased U.S. international engagement, and while American Christians continued to play a significant role, it was a different one. Not only was the way in which American Christians engaged the world fervently debated, but various approaches often served to define them.
By the 1940s, a coalition of "neo-evangelicals" reclaimed the term cast aside by all parties a generation before. Symbolized by the National Association of Evangelicals and their slogan "Cooperation Without Compromise," these new U.S.-based evangelicals defined themselves against fundamentalists by seeking to reengage mainstream culture, restore a Christian America, and regain the social standing of traditional Christianity as they understood it. But they also preserved a boundary between themselves and the ecumenical Protestants, for many years the so-called mainline, who symbolized for them the dangers of deviation from orthodoxy and the elevation of political over spiritual aims. In contrast to ecumenical missions, for example, neo-evangelicals embraced evangelism, not social action, as their sole end. World Vision emerged out of this context.
This initial coalition, however, remained short-lived as evangelicals continually redrew their boundary lines. By the 1970s, evangelicalism lost much of its definitional precision as it outgrew its function as a united movement, fracturing instead into a number of smaller interest groups. In the late 1960s and 1970s, "young evangelicals" revolted against the newly established evangelical leaders, and an "evangelical left" emerged under leaders like Ron Sider and Jim Wallis, who challenged evangelicals to accept responsibility for social issues, theological dialogue, and political awareness. Beginning in the 1980s, the Religious Right attempted to build a conservative coalition in opposition to liberals and secularists. The past decades have led to further fragmentation and internal diversity.
While evangelicals rarely agreed upon a single vision for their movement, they invested the term "evangelicalism" with various meanings through defining, maintaining, and transgressing a number of definitional boundaries. Boundary disputes led to internal squabbles as to who counted as an evangelical, but they also led evangelicals to define themselves in contrast to others across the theological spectrum, from fundamentalists and the Protestant mainline to Catholics and secularists.
Throughout the movement's history and definitely as a renewed form of evangelicalism emerged in the second of the twentieth century, these boundary disputes often turned on global issues. In overseas mission efforts, evangelicals debated the relationship between evangelism and social action and questioned whether cooperation with nonevangelicals or government agencies watered down one's religious identity. In politics, they most often championed an ardent Cold War anticommunism and U.S. interventionist efforts in underdeveloped nations, even as they debated the impact of economic and cultural globalization. As evangelicals took an active interest in U.S efforts to shape the world during the "American century," their support helped to influence public engagement abroad and to rework their status at home as the nation's mainstream faith even while demonstrating evangelicalism's own internal diversity.
If globalization played a significant role in postwar evangelical history, then no organization illustrates the impact of such global engagement more than World Vision. As it sought to expose Americans to global need, it shaped the view evangelicals had of the world even as its own global encounters reshaped the organization itself. World Vision leaders positioned themselves at the forefront of these shifting global dynamics as institutional insiders, serving alongside the likes of evangelist Billy Graham, Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright, and Christianity Today editor Carl F. H. Henry. Their words and actions shaped how the evangelical establishment debated the relationship of evangelism and social action, ecumenical engagement, and American foreign policy.
Yet, World Vision's success was even more evident at the popular level. As the organization evolved in its own identity as evangelical, American, and missionary/humanitarian, the popular reception of its message exposed a wide range of American Christians to spiritual and physical needs abroad. It also offered many a way to participate in a new brand of religious humanitarianism at home.
Most scholars have examined American evangelicalism through politics, theology, social status, or culture. Some highlight the embourgeoisement of evangelicals through their increasing education, wealth, or popular appeal. Others focus on the maintenance of a subculture and the continued conservative-liberal divide, with its widely publicized political and theological wrangling. These approaches are clarifying but insufficient because they miss the effect of global forces on a significant number of American organizations. In contrast to much of the scholarship on American evangelicalism, the dichotomy between evangelical left and right was never so clear on the ground, and it was often an increased global awareness that produced a type of evangelicalism unable or unwilling to fit neatly into either camp. Through its own exposure to diverse global evangelical and humanitarian communities, World Vision redefined its identity outside the narrow American evangelical subculture in which it had first taken root. Intensely aware of the divisions in American Christianity, it promoted a new stream of evangelical humanitarianism that appealed to a broad theological and political spectrum. It succeeded precisely because its new global perspective transcended American categories that grew less attractive to countless Americans who still considered themselves evangelical, or at least comfortable within a general born-again spirituality. At the same time, World Vision also appealed to an increasingly broad theological and political spectrum.
The Nature of Religious Identity
World Vision's transformation is not simply another story of a small, narrow organization encountering modernity and subordinating its religious identity to secular methods in order to flourish. As a number of mission agencies have moved toward international relief and development, it is tempting to define this evolution through a narrative of secularization, but that would be too simplistic. While there were a number of religious organizations that dropped evangelism or disentangled any religious underpinning to their work, most cases were more complicated.
Applying a modified "neo-institutional approach" taken from the field of organization studies makes it possible to identify how organizations function within a field of institutions. In many ways, international relief and development is a perfect example of such an institutional field. As organizations began to expand, gain access to governmental funding, professionalize, and compete with one another for resources and programs, they began to look alike. Because the field of international relief and development has become highly professionalized (and many would argue secularized), many scholars claim that an organization's religious identity does not matter. Religious or not, as a multibillion-dollar humanitarian agency, World Vision would be expected to act just like any other leading relief and development organization.
The reality, however, is that an organization functions within not only one field but rather multiple fields—often simultaneously. For example, World Vision has operated within an American evangelical subculture, a collection of missionary agencies, a global evangelicalism, large-scale fund-raising nonprofit organizations, and a secular development INGO network. Understanding World Vision fully requires investigating the multiple contexts and networks in which it operates and the various audiences to which it articulates its identity. Therefore, debates between evangelicals and ecumenical Christians on the relationship of evangelism and social action, secular and religious approaches to mission and development, and the acceptability or distaste of child-sponsorship marketing are not superfluous side issues but rather conversations and contentions full of meaning for the organization itself and its many constituencies.
If World Vision's growth does not follow a secularization narrative, neither does it fit within another commonly told story of American evangelicalism's politicization or polarization. World Vision grew from a small evangelical missionary support organization to a massive relief and development agency shaped by evangelical missiology and ecumenical theology as well as mainstream media, technology, and professional management in partnership with secular INGOs, as well as in cooperation with the global church. World Vision's religious identity evolved as a result of popularizing, professionalizing, and internationalizing forces in a period of increased global connections. The religious identity of a faith-based organization is not distinct and isolated but often intertwined with the structural shifts the organization undergoes over time, the tensions it encounters from both internal and external pressures, and the practices and production of its humanitarian work.
Religious identity is rarely static. Throughout the history of World Vision, it was precisely the rearticulation of its religious identity that contributed in surprising ways to the evolving self-definition of the organization. The question then is not whether World Vision as a development organization is Christian, but how it is Christian. The religious identity of faith-based philanthropies and the religious motivations of their various donor constituencies are only two of many forces that define these agencies. How does religion function in religiously motivated relief and development? Attending to the evolution and interplay of World Vision's practices, theology, rhetoric, and organizational structure helps demonstrate that institutions are never simply hierarchies or bureaucracies, but they also embody cultural logics—assumptions or ideas that motivate people. This approach pays attention not only to organizational structure but also to cultural and religious change, and this is often a two-way exchange. Sometimes religious practices and theology help produce structural change. At other times, structural changes alter religious identity.
The Role of International Religious Humanitarianism
The relevance of religion in international humanitarianism is abundantly clear and can be found daily in various media. Evangelicals unite to fight against religious persecution in the Middle East, end sex trafficking in Southeast Asia, send funds to drill wells for clean water in Zimbabwe, and educate girls in rural Afghanistan. During the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Dr. Kent Brantley of the conservative evangelical agency Samaritan's Purse became a hero for his sacrifice working on the front lines. Having contracted and survived Ebola, he then served as a critic against what he saw as an inadequate U.S. government response and an advocate for increased public and private support. Editorials in Slate and the New York Times debated the implications that it was missionary doctors rather than World Health Organization officials who were on the ground treating this terrifying outbreak. In March 2015, Nicholas Kristof's column highlighted another missionary in rural Angola to demonstrate that international humanitarianism as much as opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage characterized evangelicalism.
Leaders in the relief and development sector have also come to realize that they can no longer overlook the role religion plays in their work. In the recent past, scholars and professionals within the field of relief and development often viewed religion in one of two ways. Some continued to perpetuate the unhelpful dichotomization of religious and secular organizations, segregating the two into separate spheres with little common practice or purpose. This separation led development scholars to overlook religion's role and refuse religious agencies a seat at the table. Others saw leading religious agencies as part of a shared relief and development sector, but they understood the sector as a shared culture that was highly rationalized, production-oriented, and professionalized. This view embodied a presumed secularization. Religious organizations may claim a religious motivation, but it was insignificant to the shared language and structures of secular development.
In recent years, a third perspective has come to appreciate the role of religion within development. Development studies saw religious agencies as fruitful dialogue partners in articulating notions of the common good. They also realized that religion served as an asset and key cultural factor in local communities. The limitation, however, was that too often this perspective simply used religion as an instrumental addition to its current agenda. Without fully engaging it, development idealized religion as a static set of beliefs. It encouraged "good religion" that benefited established development outcomes like the Millennium Development Goals , targets to eradicate global poverty initially agreed upon in 2000 by leaders of 189 countries, while it sought to keep "bad religion" that stifled development at bay. The relief and development sector rediscovered religion, but too often its perspectives led to the segregation, ignorance, or instrumentalization of religion in faith-based humanitarianism. In taking a broader perspective to engage the multiple fields in which faith-based humanitarianism operates, World Vision's story demonstrates how religious identity matters and is a key component in political, professional, and popular debates.
In addition, this study exhibits a growing trend to focus American religious history transnationally. Without overlooking the global encounters that occur when religious Americans engage others outside their own home contexts, it is also important to note that global encounters are not limited to immigration, mission trips, international development projects, and foreign policy directives. Transnational religious histories should be concerned not only with the debates over American empire and its policy and practices overseas, but also with the cultural imaginaries of American citizens. Whether it be a Christian America crusading against a godless communism, stories of religious persecution in the Middle East, or images of malnourished African children, how did evangelicals' views of the world come to shape their self-understandings? How did World Vision's own evolving understanding of its identity impact the global engagement that it then shared with its donors at home?
World Vision has continued to experience exponential growth. In the past fifteen years, its income has nearly doubled. Why? At one level, World Vision expanded as it continued to move beyond its American and evangelical origins through its embrace of professional development over conventional missions, international governance over American unilateralism, and ecumenical inclusiveness over religious separatism. At another level, World Vision grew as global issues caught the attention of American evangelicals. The organization returned to the local church not so much with a new message as a hope that evangelicals were entering a period in which organizations like World Vision and the culture that it represented could form a new evangelical mainstream.
It would be wrong to say that World Vision has completely transcended the culture wars of the last several decades. Over the past few years, in the United States it has sometimes found itself at the center of debates over sexuality, hiring coreligionists, and federal funding to religious agencies. While globally the organization is quite diverse, its American donor base still identifies overwhelmingly as evangelical or born-again. Yet, World Vision succeeded precisely as its new global perspective transcended traditional Western dichotomies that grew less attractive to countless American Christians. Intensely aware of the divisions in American Christianity, it worked to expand globally among Catholic, mainline, and secular organizations while later coming to hire nonevangelical and even non-Christian staff. 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. Whether through sponsoring a child, traveling on a Vision trip overseas, or advocating for increased funding to fight AIDS in Africa, World Vision supporters took part in a new stream of religious humanitarianism that saw its Christian responsibility as both a quiet sharing of faith and an intense passion to alleviate the suffering of those whom the Christian scriptures described as "the least of these."
A single snapshot cannot capture the current World Vision. The organization conjures up contradictory images. Some see relief workers after a massive earthquake. Others see child sponsorship and Christian education. Some see development experts testifying before the United Nations. Others picture short-term mission trips and a contemporary Christian music concert. Some see a culture warrior fighting secular forces and defending its religious rights. Others think of its efforts to build a broad-based coalition to work across traditional boundaries to reduce global poverty and preventable diseases. All of these images convey a small piece of the truth. World Vision is a diverse, complicated, global organization, and no one generalization encompasses it. For that reason, its history makes for a perfect study of how American evangelicals have come to understand their own development at home precisely through interpretations of their work in the world.