Bodies, not souls

Charity | A group that feeds children does not a ministry make

Issue: "The plots thicken," Jan. 12, 2008

Viewers of The Inspiration Networks, Trinity Broadcasting Network, and Sky Angel are familiar with heart-wrenching infomercials from the Christian Children's Fund (CCF). Founded in 1938, it is one of the nation's largest relief organizations, with a 2006 income exceeding $206 million. It is also average or slightly above average in financial efficiency, with less than 20 percent of CCF income typically going to fundraising and administrative costs.

CCF also does, more or less, what it says it is going to do: It feeds children. If it called itself the Children's Fund, no one could object. But Christians who contribute to it thinking that, because of the name, the Christian Children's Fund helps children spiritually as well as materially should think again. Kristen Hongisto, a spokesperson for CCF, told WORLD, "We do not call ourselves a ministry. We are not Bible-based. We are not a Christian organization except in the sense that we do good work."

CCF has no doctrinal statement, is not a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, and does not require any statement of faith for any staff or board members. But CCF has some religious attachments: It "partners" with "traditional healers" in Africa and Asia because, in Hongisto's words, "We work with local leaders who are on the ground in the areas we serve. They know what's best for the local population."

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Do they? Not according to Doctors for Life International (DFL), which has 1,300 members, mostly in South Africa. DFL is committed to "holistic healing" but is troubled by the use of "occult powers in most of the therapeutic acts of traditional healers. . . . Traditional healers make their diagnosis (and therapeutic combinations) with the aid of 'spirits' and under the control of the 'spirits.'"

The expression "traditional healers," in short, may be a politically correct term for what used to be called "witch doctors," and DFL has fought for a decade to keep South Africa from treating them like health professionals. CCF's partnership with traditional healers undercuts such efforts. DFL also says that traditional healers prescribe herbal and other therapies that are either ineffective or have detrimental side effects.

So if CCF is not a Christian organization, why does it market itself to Christian audiences under the name "Christian"? Perhaps because, as bank robber Willie Sutton said about his favored destinations, "That's where the money is." Mainstream media stories generally ignore the inconvenient truth that religious conservatives-whether measured by amount of money given, percentage of income given, or hours volunteered-are more generous than progressive liberals.

The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, and Syracuse professor Arthur Brooks (WORLD, Dec. 9, 2006) have all released studies showing that religious conservatives, especially regular churchgoers, account for most of the charitable giving in America or give more than religious liberals or secularized Americans. Newtithing.org's list of the 10 most generous states includes five "Bible Belt" states (and Mormon-dominated Utah). Political "blue states" make up almost every state in the bottom half.

So CCF's continued use of the name "Christian" is a smart move. Sure, many Christians watching Christian television ads might reasonably expect that CCF would care about souls as well as bodies. Yet, many viewers make assumptions and write checks. CCF does some good work, but so do organizations such as Compassion International and Children's Hunger Fund, which combine the material relief offered by CCF with spiritual nourishment that can make a permanent, even eternal, change in a poor child's plight.

-Rusty Leonard heads Wall Watchers, an independent watchdog organization


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