World Vision Tongue-Tied on Anti-Gay Religious Hypocrisy

SLATE | Apr. 1, 2014

In reversing its policy on the hiring of married gay employees, Christian mega-charity World Vision has a consistency problem. Citing the need to be “consistent … with the authority of Scripture and how we apply Scripture to our lives,” the group’s president, Richard Stearns, offered an unctuous apology for a policy issued just two days earlier, which had briefly allowed the hiring of married gay people. “We did inadequate consultation with our supporters,” Stearns told reporters and backers. “Our board acknowledged that the policy change we made was a mistake … and we're asking you to forgive us for that mistake.”

If discriminating against married gays is the “consistent” thing to do, what do we make of the fact that hiring married gays—two days earlier—was also the consistent thing to do? “Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us,” Stearns said in explaining the initial, more tolerant rule change, “makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues.”

All the inconsistent talk of consistency got me very confused. So I called World Vision to ask if, for the sake of consistency, the group barred the hiring of divorced and remarried people. After all, in its statement explaining the anti-gay policy reversal, the group cited the gospel of Matthew, the very same book in the Bible that clearly condemns divorce and remarriage as a sin no better than adultery (whereas the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention same-sex marriage): “Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” If it’s true that World Vision is committed“to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage and our own Statement of Faith, which says, ‘We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God,’ ” shouldn’t it bar the hiring of divorced and remarried people?

Cynthia Colin, the senior director of corporate communication at World Vision, dutifully responded to my multiple inquiries. I asked her:

Your statement says you “failed to be consistent with World Vision U.S.’s commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage.” Consistency would require banning divorced employees, and failing to do so while singling out people in a same-sex marriage could leave the impression that World Vision is biased against gay people, rather than committed to Biblical principles. Hence I am asking your policy on hiring of divorced people and if there is an exception for divorced people but not gay people I'd like to know the reasoning for this.

Colin confirmed that World Vision has no policy against hiring divorced and remarried people. “But we don’t ignore it,” she said of the Bible’s divorce proscription. “It is addressed.” She never explained what this meant when it comes to hiring. She then said the group does not ask people their sexual orientation. Which means that at least World Vision’s policy is no worse than the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil policy that the U.S. military belatedly ended three years ago. She then said that I had asked a “very good question,” that she was working very hard to get an answer to it, and that World Vision wanted to be “thoughtful in coordinating with our experts on this topic” and would need more time to offer a fuller response.

I appreciate this wish to be thoughtful in response to a press inquiry, but ideally, when your policies affect the careers and lives of real people, thought should already have been put into the arbitrary distinction between heeding the anti-gay sections of the Bible and totally ignoring the condemnations of divorce. In reinstituting the anti-gay policy, Stearns had said, “There are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs.” In other words, we’re committed not to following the Bible as “the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God,” but to picking and choosing which beliefs are fundamental and which we can safely ignore.

Eventually, after asking for more time, Colin emailed me this response: “World Vision United States calls its staff to a standard of abstinence outside marriage, fidelity within marriage, and upholds the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and woman.”

This simple reiteration of their policy was precisely the kind of vapid PR response I had told World Vision I was hoping to avoid. So I said so in an email:

Cynthia: I appreciate you offering a reply. As I'm sure you know in your heart, this is just the kind of vapid PR response I was hoping you'd avoid. As this passage in the Bible may remind you, World Vision is not, in fact, upholding the Biblical covenant of marriage, as it chooses to allow divorced and remarried people to be employees, which the Bible clearly condemns as sinful. This is why any rational observer will conclude that the ban on married gay employees is a matter of World Vision selectively reading the Bible to rationalize anti-gay bias, a likely appeasement to anti-gay funders. I don't want to be unfair to you, as I am sure you are good people doing good works and just trying to do your jobs. But if you have no stronger explanation of the selective use of the Bible to discriminate against gays, I'll have no choice but to take the religious hypocrisy angle in my piece.

I don’t enjoy hounding perfectly nice people about their organization’s rank hypocrisy. (OK, maybe a little.) But the constant use of the Bible to rationalize anti-gay discrimination while giving a pass to other crystal-clear biblical injunctions should be all the evidence anyone—including judges looking at so-called “religious freedom” laws—needs to conclude that bias, and not genuine religious faith, is at work. In this case, World Vision tried to take a positive step and ultimately bowed to angry pushback fromevangelical leaders and other conservative Christians. It’s not clear which is worse—acting on your own bias or enabling others’ bias in order to protect your funding. But neither does any favors to your PR people or your mission. Neither is what Jesus would do. And neither is consistent with the Bible’s exhortations on honesty, which might be proposed as a new mantra for World Vision to aspire to: “Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.”

Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire and a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, is writing a book called The Anti-Gay Mind.