COLUMBIA, Tenn. (BP)–I’m a card-carrying member of the professional religious right. No, that’s an understatement. To simply call me a “member” would profoundly understate my antagonistic role in the culture wars. Fans of comic book movies may remember a scene in “X2,” the sequel to “X-Men,” when Pyro tells a frightened police officer: “You know all those dangerous mutants you hear about in the news? Well I’m the worst one!” and then proceeds to wreak fiery havoc on an entire neighborhood.
I am that havoc-wreaking mutant (in a peaceful sense). I sue governments and individuals who deprive Christians of their constitutional rights. I’m the guy you will see on the “O’Reilly Factor” or hear on conservative talk radio decrying the abortion lobby, opposing jihadist Islam, or fighting to end the leftist ideological monoculture on campus. To the secular and religious left, I am the equivalent of a Sith Lord (or at least a particularly nasty apprentice).
In other words, I make my living fighting the culture war. I travel the country speaking to thousands of Christians about our cultural and political battles, I raise a significant amount of money to fight those battles, and I’m constantly interacting with the media — both religious and secular. You could say I have my finger on the pulse of that part of Christian America that is particularly concerned with threats to life, to marriage, and to religious liberty.
And that’s why I chuckle when I hear the common critique of the religious and secular left: “Evangelicals are obsessed with gays and abortion.” The criticism is so common that it’s often internalized and adopted by the church itself. Similar to our reaction to another leftist refrain (“Christians care about children until they’re born”), we act as if the critique is legitimate — as if it’s the result of some kind of empirical, good-faith analysis of Christian action in America. But it’s not. It is, pure and simple, a talking point.
And it’s false. Demonstrably false.
What if I told you that American Christians, in fact, are “obsessed” with helping the poorest and weakest members of our society? Would that improve our image? What if I told you that this “obsession” was so obvious as to be demonstrable even to the most hardened skeptic? Would that make you doubt the good faith of the “obsessed with gays and abortion” critique?
While the full scope and sweep of all Christian charitable activity (both in donations and volunteer time) would require book-length treatment, we can at least begin to isolate one critical factor: money. Our obsessions are reflected in our expenditures. Obsessed with Apple products, I have put my money where my heart lies: in an iPhone, an iPad, a Macbook Pro, and an iMac (and listing the rest of the family inventory would take the rest of this column). So where do Christians put their charitable dollars? What is their charitable obsession?
We can find part of the answer by looking at the budgets of the largest and most influential Christian organizations. A website called Guidestar.org publishes the tax filings of most charitable organizations, so register (it’s free) and take a tour of Form 990s.
First, you’ll notice that Christians do give lots of money to what I’d call “pure” culture war organizations, but not as much as the Left. The largest (by budget) include my employer, the Alliance Defense Fund, and the Family Research Council. Of the pro-life organizations, two of the largest are National Right to Life and Americans United for Life. These organizations raise quite a bit of money — almost $60 million combined. But it’s not as much as the leading legal organization on the Left. The ACLU Foundation (which does not include the various state ACLUs) took in $98 million with the national ACLU itself raking in an additional $33 million.
But what about organizations like Focus on the Family? Focus is big, no doubt, with gross receipts exceeding $135 million. But anyone with even a passing familiarity with that organization knows that the vast majority of its efforts are thoroughly divorced from the “gays and abortion” side of the culture wars. Its website and radio show are primarily dedicated to such topics as enriching your marriage, dealing with unruly teens, and reviewing TV shows and movies for their family-friendliness.
How do those numbers stack up with leading Christian anti-poverty charities? Let’s look at just three: World Vision, Compassion International, and Samaritan’s Purse. Their total annual gross receipts (again, according to most recently available Form 990s) exceed $2.1 billion. The smallest of the three organizations (Samaritan’s Purse) has larger gross receipts than every major “pro-family” culture war organization in the United States combined. World Vision, the largest, not only takes in more than $1 billion per year, it also has more than 1,400 employees and 43,000 volunteers.
And I don’t begrudge them a single dime. In fact, I’d say our relative priorities are just about right. When you see World Vision efforts on the ground in Africa, you see they are often standing as a firewall between life and death, hope and despair. Samaritan’s Purse and Compassion International are likewise standing in the gap for the “least of these,” living out the pure religion that Scripture commands.
So given these realities, what is our real “obsession”? Historically, monetarily, and with our time and lives today, it is serving our fellow man. We fight the culture war, but largely as a defensive struggle — fighting against changes instigated by the Left, like legalized abortion, the redefinition of marriage, and attacks on the basic free speech rights of Christian parents and students. Do critics expect no opposition to such cultural change? Do they believe any such opposition is inherently illegitimate?
Imagine a world in which mainstream coverage of Christian America reflected our actual expenditures and actual efforts. You’d barely hear from people like me, and perhaps you wouldn’t even have to. We’d have the entirely justified reputation as America’s most generous community. Yet instead we’re labeled as “homophobic” or “anti-choice,” and that label dogs us in all aspects of our public life.
But that’s because of other people’s obsessions. Not ours.
David French is a lawyer, writer, soldier and veteran of the Iraq war. He is the director of the Alliance Defense Fund’s Center for Academic Freedom. This column first appeared at Patheos.com, a website for dialoguing about different religions. The column appeared at Patheos’ evangelical portal, http://evangelical.patheos.com.