Can Faith-Based Charities Afford to Discriminate Against Gays?

Sudanese men unload sacks of sorghum during a delivery of aid from the World Food Program distributed by World Vision in Kalma Camp, in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2005.

Photo by Jose Cendon/AFP/Getty Images

For more than six decades, World Vision International has largely managed to stay out of the political fray, focusing instead on its global human development and humanitarian aid missions. With more than $1 billion in revenue last year$179 million in the form of public grants—the multi-denominational Christian organization is a massive player in the faith-based charity world. But earlier this week, World Vision’s cautiously apolitical nature gave way to controversy when it announced slightly more gay-friendly hiring policies—and then, in the face of a mounting backlash from the right, rescinded them.

The initial statement from World Vision president Richard Stearns was barely gay-friendly to begin with. Before the announcement, the organization hired only single and abstinent—or married and heterosexual—Christians. In the letter, Stearns carefully noted “we have not endorsed same-sex marriage,” adding, “we have always affirmed traditional marriage as a God-ordained institution.” Stearns merely suggested that the organization might defer to individual churches and denominations, many of which have fully endorsed same-sex unions. The new hiring policy would apply only to those working in World Vision’s U.S. offices.

Conservative denominations, many of which have been the most vocal opponents of marriage equality, were absolutely flabbergasted. A spokesperson from the Southern Baptist Convention—which claims more than 16 million followers in the United States alone—said the “devilish” decision would “empower the darkness.” Family Research Council president Tony Perkins positively freaked out on Twitter, calling the organization “World Division,” and linking to a story about “why we grieve for children” in the aftermath of World Vision’s decision to potentially hire married gay Christians.

In response to the uproar, Stearns issued a pitiful apology for his modest proposal a few days later, in which he practically grovels for forgiveness at the feet of the Christian right. (It is worth noting that his apologies were extended only to anti-gay religious leaders, never once mentioning any employees who might be affected by the stunning reversal.) But do the anti-gay conservatives who provoked World Vision’s response actually represent mainstream Christianity today?

World Vision’s struggle represents a much broader dilemma for many Christian leaders. As more and more Christians—especially young ones—accept LGBTQ individuals and relationships, anti-gay theology looks increasingly outlandish. But youth don’t run the church, and they have very little money to give, leaving leaders like Stearns dependent on more conservative constituencies, at least for the time being.

The trouble is, faith-based charities are also dependent on the government for funding, and the government is quickly losing interest in bankrolling bigotry. Many in development circles have criticized government cooperation with faith-based humanitarian aid operations, but in terms of human capital, organizations like World Vision represent a very effective vehicle for aid distribution. Is it too big to fail? While there are many nondiscriminatory organizations that do similarly effective work on a smaller scale, a precipitous cut in funding is unlikely. But a significant decline over a longer period doesn’t seem like a stretch.  

In retrospect, World Vision’s failure to anticipate the backlash seems incredibly naive. But the entire episode serves as a test case for others navigating a similar path. Religious leaders in America are held increasingly accountable for positions for—and against—gay rights. Congregations are split, followers are lost, and feelings are hurt.

The time has come for Christian leaders to make sincere and concrete decisions on LGBTQ equality. The debate is already moving from more liberal congregations to the most visible mainstream religious leaders and thinkers, In other words, a shift toward pro-gay values is no longer the exception. Stearns’ utter failure to navigate the ongoing—and rapidly expanding—battle for gay acceptance in congregations across America is a solid indicator of a tumultuous future for his organization. By backtracking on what was already an incredibly meager gesture of acceptance, World Vision has projected weakness to all its bases, religious and non-religious alike. Its failure, however, should serve as a wake-up call to religious leaders who haven’t yet addressed the issue of LGBTQ acceptance. This battle is not going away—it’s only just beginning.