It’s unconstitutional for faith-based organizations (FBOs) to proselytize using public funds, but some FBOs manage to circumvent these rulings by conducting their evangelistic charity projects overseas. In a recent article for Firstpost, an Indian website, Rupa Subramanya argues that this may begin to strain foreign relations, just as it strains the boundaries of constitutional law.“Despite uncertainty about whether it is even constitutional, given the U.S. First Amendment’s ‘establishment clause’ separating church and state, FBOs have played an important role, starting during the administration of President Bill Clinton, carrying through that of George W. Bush in a significant way and continuing into that of Barack Obama,” Subramanya writes, referring to what is now the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Among the worst offenders: Samaritan’s Purse. The Boone, N.C., based charity, founded by Franklin Graham, is active in India, and conducts international aid projects with the intent to evangelize local beneficiaries. That makes sense given who runs it: Graham, son of Billy, is infamous for making inflammatory remarks about Muslims, atheists and LGBT people, and there’s no question that his charity work is intended to double as a conversion tactic.
Samaritan’s Purse’s most famous initiative, “Operation Christmas Child,” is an excellent example of Graham’s missionary ethos. To participate, individuals fill shoeboxes with toys, toiletries and Evangelical literature; the boxes are then sent to children in developing countries.
Because Samaritan’s Purse targets children and requires little effort from participants, it’s appealing to U.S. Christians: The organization reportedly sent 10 million shoeboxes overseas in 2014 alone. That’s proselytization on a mass scale, and Subramanya accurately calls it “an increasingly sophisticated and savvy enterprise.”
She also notes, correctly, that it’s facilitated by the federal government. USAID lists the charity as one of its partner private voluntary organizations (PVOs).
“Registered PVOs are eligible to compete for grants and other types of funding, and gain greater visibility with USAID staff and Missions,” a 2014 report explains.
Although Samaritan’s Purse also funds a medical mission, agricultural programs and anti-human trafficking initiatives, these efforts can’t be divorced from the group’s sectarian intent. In fact, it’s been a consistent problem: Graham was censured in 2001 for proselytizing during a USAID-funded trip to conduct earthquake relief in El Salvador.
Despite this, Graham has managed to build a significant missionary enterprise, and it thrives with the federal government’s help.
Subramanya’s article also takes aim at Take Partners Worldwide, another publicly funded Christian charity that administers “microloans” to aspiring small-business owners. “These servant-minded business professionals seek to grow their own businesses for the betterment of the Kingdom, and have access to business training and networking opportunities,” the website states, and explains that they “mentor micro-entrepreneurs in urban and rural sectors.”
This aid model clearly prioritizes Christians. It would be unconstitutional for a publicly funded charity to operate like this in the U.S., but the faith-based initiative program has created a loophole that allows individuals in developing countries to fall through the cracks.
USAID isn’t the only public entity responsible for funneling money to FBOs. The U.S. President’s Plan For AIDS relief (PEPFAR) also partners with local FBOs, ostensibly to conduct AIDS relief, and it is difficult if not entirely impossible to find out how these local religious groups use the funds they’re given. It’s known, however, that the last Bush administration prioritized FBOs that taught abstinence-only sex education and discouraged the use of condoms, and it’s unclear how much has changed during Obama’s tenure in office.
Whatever the status of PEPFAR’s partnerships, it’s evident that there’s still a serious constitutional problem posed by the activities of publicly funded FBOs.
“Going forward, either grants to FBOs should be genuinely inclusive, and widely engage non-Christian FBOs, or the next administration should seriously consider turning the clock back to the days in which the makers of US foreign policy and development assistance took seriously the First Amendment,” Subramanya concludes.
We agree. There’s an ongoing lack of transparency and accountability for FBOs, even though they heavily rely on public funds for their global work. It’s time to remedy the oversight.