January 18, 2005 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

The Reach of Charity

Despite the media attention to the tsunami in South Asia, it still barely registers with many people that the country hit hardest happens to be the world's most populous Islamic nation. Indonesia has lost more than 105,000 people, most of them Muslims. That tragic fact shines a light on a bracing yet neglected possibility: that the charitable tradition of the United States, supremely visible in its Christian relief organizations, could help change the course of Muslim-Christian relations.

Arab television stations such as Al Jezeerah may never admit it, but the truth is that America's private sector alone almost certainly will offer more help -- in dollars, material assistance and manpower -- than the entire Muslim world combined. Unlike any other developed nation, the United States sustains a powerful cultural mix of volunteerism, faith and philanthropy.

In 2003, for example, Americans donated $179 billion to non-profit organizations, the bulk of it coming from people who attend church at least once a week. The same religious citizens are fueling contributions toward tsunami relief efforts, now more than $350 million, an amount equal to the official U.S. government pledge.

"Religious participation is the most important driver in the decision to behave charitably," says Arthur Brooks, a scholar at Syracuse University who has written extensively on faith-based philanthropy. "Someone who understands Christian stewardship is axiomatically as interested in the relief of human suffering as they are in the redemption of the soul."

Indeed, America's churches and charities are working in virtually every corner of the globe to alleviate suffering, quite often in the midst of Islamic populations. The Salvation Army, for example, was already active on Nias Island, close to the earthquake's center. Within hours after the tsunami hit, Army staff were offering medical help to survivors and making plans to rebuild more than 200 homes destroyed by the waves.

Samaritan's Purse, led by evangelical Franklin Graham, is sending enough medicine kits to meet the basic needs of about 10,000 people for the next three months. World Vision is setting up 20 centers to help traumatized children get physical and psychological support. International Aid -- a "Christ-centered" network of mission hospitals, clinics, orphanages and churches -- is delivering generators, medical clinics and water-purification systems to help thousands of survivors avoid deadly disease. Catholic Relief Services is committing at least $25 million for long-term rehabilitation programs.

For now, the focus of much of their efforts is Indonesia -- where 87 percent of the population is Muslim and Islamic radicals regularly target Christian churches. Nevertheless, there are at least 75 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) partnering with the U.S. Agency for International Development to help tsunami victims. Most of these groups are faith-based, and many have worked quietly among Muslims for decades. Indeed, contrary to popular assumptions, Christian ministers are increasingly on the frontlines of international relief and development efforts in the Islamic world.

The reason, they explain, is a theology of hope: God's offer of grace and forgiveness extends to every person regardless of race or religion. It's this "good news" that sends believers into the most dangerous or destitute areas imaginable. Along the way, they help establish vibrant congregations and church-based organizations to reach their needy neighbors. "They have a long history of providing aid to non-Christians," Brooks says. "And they're surprisingly efficient despite the fact that they're very explicitly Christian."

When a devastating earthquake hit Turkey in 1999, for example, groups such as International Aid tapped a network of local missionaries to help deliver food and medicine. Today, Christian leaders in Sudan are intervening on behalf of Muslim refugees persecuted by the Islamist regime in Khartoum. Prison Fellowship International ministers to inmates in 105 countries, including Malaysia, Nigeria and Pakistan.

As political scientist Allen Hertzke argues in "Freeing God's Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights," faith-based initiatives like these can stiffen the moral backbone of US foreign policy. "A sense of religious calling has drawn these people to places where they become witnesses to injustice," he writes. "[They] provide one of the few significant counterweights to the domination of foreign policy by corporate interests or strategic calculation."

It's not the job of the State Department, of course, to promote Christianity or any other religion. But U.S. public diplomacy, mostly tone deaf to religious ideals and institutions, is failing to penetrate the prejudices of Muslim populations. If the Bush administration hopes to win hearts and minds in the Islamic world, it could take a cue from these diplomats of faith, hope and charity.

Mr. Loconte is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and editor of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm" (Rowman & Littlefield).

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Distributed Nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire