Special Report

World Vision Withdraws From the Brink

A brave move likely to set off secularist fury.

By 3.27.14

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Igniting a furor among Evangelicals after Monday’s announcement accepting same sex unions by employees, the $1 billion relief group World Vision on Wednesday completely reversed itself and apologized for its “mistake.”

After a board meeting, World Vision’s president and board chair affirmed it will “revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.”

They added: “We have listened to you and want to say thank you and to humbly ask for your forgiveness” for neglecting World Vision’s “commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage” and belief in the Bible as the “inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.”

Seemingly World Vision had not been fully prepared for the uproar. Southern Baptist leaders, representing America’s largest Protestant body, strongly denounced Monday’s policy. The head of the 3 million member Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination, urged members to reroute funding away from World Vision, later urging support after Wednesday’s shift. Franklin Graham had very publicly lamented that World Vision no longer believed in the Bible.

World Vision’s Monday policy was a muddle from the start and seemed like possibly the clueless construction of a secular public relations firm. It affirmed same sex marriage, inclusively in deference to liberal Protestant churches, while still implausibly insisting singles remain celibate until married, which liberal Protestants mostly don’t. It insisted employees must still uphold the Apostles Creed without admitting liberal Protestants typically reject it, ignore it, or reinterpret it into meaningless metaphor.

Sexual liberalism in religion always walks hand-in-hand with theological liberalism, which made continuance of World Vision’s Evangelical identity impossible under Monday’s policy, and which is why Evangelical critics were so viscerally aggrieved.

There are reports that after Monday several thousand World Vision donors, out of a reported more than 400,000, threatened ending their support. There’s also an indication that work with overseas missions partners, working in traditional cultures, was imperiled. The later was probably more persuasive than the former, although both should have been anticipated before Monday. Ironically, Wednesday’s policy may cost World Vision far more dollars than Monday’s.

Angry LGBTQ groups and their allies, who previously were unfocused on World Vision’s internal policy, furiously now may target it for boycott, demanding that government and corporations halt funding. Liberal supporters of Monday’s policy angrily denounced Evangelicals withdrawing support, with one declaring: “It’s astounding to me that Christians would take food from starving children because a gay person might have helped in getting it there.” Will that same professed concern for starving children inhibit liberal demands for corporations and government to defund World Vision?

Evangelical critics of Monday’s policy largely acclaimed World Vision’s full throttle reaffirmation of traditional Christian teaching on Wednesday. The episode was a model of Christian repentance and forgiveness, some celebrated. But the story is not anywhere near over, and seriously religious groups must prepare for the encroaching storm of secularist intolerance for any substantive dissent from secularism’s very narrow understanding of tolerance.

It was coincidental that Hobby Lobby’s Evangelical owners were on Tuesday at the U.S. Supreme Court defending their right to dissent from Obamacare’s abortifacient insurance mandate on employers. Such court cases, and public relations battles, over Christian public witness and religious liberty will become increasingly common. World Vision’s management, at least on Monday, likely thought it could evade involvement in such culture conflicts. But the middle ground has shrunk. Secularists won’t abide dissidents. And the seriously religious believe their faith, at the risk of their own souls, commands resistance to the culture and adherence to a higher authority.

Maybe, providentially, World Vision’s spiritual and public relations mishap will alert other religious groups to remain stalwart from the start and not prevaricate. Principled defiance of a cultural blitzkrieg can be electrifying and rally the previously passive. But a blitzkrieg is still violent and takes few prisoners. How many will risk themselves in defense of religious conviction as the costs become increasingly higher?

As a further complication, there is a growing romance surrounding religious persecution among some religionists, especially young Evangelicals. They are often averse to political action, wanting to avoid the old Religious Right’s example. But they sometimes idealistically imagine a glory in submissively suffering for their faith, partly because the notion is for them still abstract and untried.

A more prudent faith argues that troubles in our fallen world come of their own and should not be sought or romanticized. Mature faith also understands that political justice, rightly understood, includes protections for liberty of faith and conscience. All who contend politically and juridically for religious and speech freedom are literally doing God’s work on behalf of the dignity of all humanity.

Kudos to World Vision for relatively quickly rediscovering its doctrinal and intestinal fortitude. Religious groups like World Vision will need double doses of such warming fortitude in the cold, secularist Winter ahead.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.