Culture War

03.26.14

World Vision’s Gay Compromise

The evangelical charity’s decision to hire openly gay employees is an example of how religious organizations will adjust to the inevitable, and the thankless task of figuring out a third way.

Editor's Note: After this story was published, World Vision announced it was reversing its decision to hire employees in same-sex marriages after an outcry from conservative evangelicals led to a massive financial loss. 

World Vision, a global Christian anti-poverty nonprofit and one of America’s top ten largest charities, announced yesterday it has changed its policy and will now hire gay employees who are in legal same-sex marriages. The billion-dollar-a-year organization already requires employees to agree to an evangelical lifestyle code, including abstinence outside of marriage. In an interview with Christianity Today World Vision president Richard Stearns justified the policy shift as an acknowledgement of the diversity of opinions on homosexuality inside the American church. Stearns argued that World Vision has historically removed itself from contentious theological debates in favor of unity around their core focus on poverty. He also strongly urged supporters not to interpret the change in hiring policy as a salvo in war over gay marriage. With naiveté that boggles the imagination, Stearns hoped that the evangelical world, and in particular the organization’s large evangelical donor base, would also look past this “minor” policy shift and continue their support.

The conservative evangelical blogosphere immediately exploded with condemnation. A who’s-who list of influential conservatives like Franklin Graham (son of Billy) and Russell Moore (political voice for the Southern Baptists) excommunicated World Vision for its capitulation to the dark side. Other notable figures made it clear that the entire Christian faith, and perhaps even Western Civilization itself, is threatened by World Vision and others who profess to be Christian and tolerate gay relationships. Many urged Christians to stop their monthly financial support of third-world children through World Vision (even if it means breaking off relationships between sponsor and child) and supporting alternative organizations who do not employ “unrepentant homosexuals.”

World Vision is arguably the biggest and broadest “parachurch” organization in America, and thus has the unenviable role of trying to please everyone. Unfortunately, as their detractors made brutally clear, in the culture war over gay rights there is no such thing as not taking sides. Never mind that World Vision is being punished for ideological (as well as theological) shifts in the U.S. over which they have no control. How dare they suggest that multiple well-meaning opinions on homosexuality could possibly co-exist within the same Christian organization, especially one that already employs members of pro-gay marriage churches)? In a country where 70 to 80 percent of adults still identify as Christian, World Vision’s failed attempt at a neutral position amid wildly different theological positions strongly resembles the broader political and social debate, where attempts at neutrality and nuance tend to be ruthlessly punished by both sides.

The inevitable path of the evangelical old guard is toward the margins of culture and society, where, like their fundamentalist ancestors, they will preach doom from a distance.

Evangelicals have historically been defined by a unifying focus on evangelism, as well as an active engagement with secular society. But the World Vision scandal is just the latest indication that the “big tent” of Cold War evangelicalism has collapsed. Evangelicals have found myriad ways to blend seamlessly into secular culture without, in their view, sacrificing their core commitments or message. (Exhibit A: any megachurch). But this issue, more than any other, seems to bring out the fundamentalist roots of the movement. Richard Stearns and World Vision are learning the hard way that, just as middle ground doesn’t exist in the broader culture war over gay rights, third-way positions are impossible in the fragmented landscape of evangelicalism. Jaded by endless political defeats, the Christian right is circling the wagons and cutting off those who compromise.

The inevitable path of the old guard is toward the margins of culture and society, where, like their fundamentalist ancestors, they will preach doom from a distance. But Richard Stearns is only the latest in a growing group of Christians, evangelical or not, who are openly wondering at the possibilities of faithful Christianity after the last “surrender” is signed on a governor’s desk. The next generation of evangelical Christians—the much-studied millennials—is increasingly tired of the culture war, with its obsession on making everything into a turn-or-burn doctrinal issue. Conservative evangelicalism is losing millennials in gobs, and the World Vision fallout is sure to only accelerate the fallout. 

What trail will this new generation blaze, when the political dust inevitably settles in favor of gay rights? Conservatives may want to write them off as lost to secular culture, but there are many signs that that a more complex and interesting future is on the way. To be sure, many prominent progressive evangelicals authors—Rachel Held Evans, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell—have openly endorsed some version of gay marriage. But a close reading of all three reveals not a “capitulation” but a priority check, an attempt to keep Christian love for neighbor at the center of the faith while maintaining the classic evangelical focus on Biblical authority and personal integrity. While the demagogues on both sides will undoubtedly reject this as bald contradiction, these authors (and many like them) are carving a place for faith in public life after the war over gay rights is over.

Even those young evangelicals who still have qualms about gay marriage can find friends outside the wagon circling. Conservative evangelical Tim Keller, pastor of the millennial-swarmed Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC, tellingly refuses to address homosexuality from the pulpit, much to the chagrin of his culture-warring brethren. The Spiritual Friendship movement, started by openly gay Wesley Hill, scrambles the categories by supporting acceptance of gays while preaching celibacy for all but married heterosexuals. Across the country, Christians like these quietly forging a middle way that balances a respect for Christian scripture and tradition with distaste for anti-gay absolutism and the judgmentalism that often follows it.

Yet all this depends on young Christians, particularly evangelicals, having the courage to stand in no-man’s land. I know firsthand that it is utterly exhausting for a young evangelical to think independently in the cratered wasteland of the culture war. I could run and hide from the gay marriage apocalypse, and perhaps that would be easiest path, but my Christian call to love my neighbor and share my hope is ultimately more important.