How US evangelical organizations deploy ‘human rights’ and ‘development’

Armed with the surety of belief in the ‘responsibility to act’ and international legal tools – US- or UN-funded Christian civil society organizations have used international law to further their goals internationally.

Kevin Crow
26 June 2018
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Charles Habib Malik, a key evangelising figure in the intellectual debate that defined the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).When President Truman introduced Point Four ‘development’ in his 1949 Inaugural Speech, he spawned an American globalist mission with moral and economic dimensions. Point Four believed in an American exceptionalism that linked the idea of ‘development’ to the salvationist ideals codified in the budding Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though it would be a decade or two before either ‘human rights’ or ‘development’ really gained steam as a globalist mission.

Whatever the motive behind his speech, Truman and the US government’s declared belief in the ‘good’ of this mission and belief that international law should be used to accomplish it – although appealing as a ‘self-evident good’ – had little theoretical or empirical justification. It was simply something that Truman presented as the right thing to do, and as early as 1955, African and South Asian countries were on board with the ‘development’ part of that equation, as indicated by the documents that emerged from the Bandung Conference.


President Sukarno Opening Speech at the Bandung Conference, 1955, Indonesia. YouTube.However, ‘development’ amongst the ‘developing’ carried different implications than it did amongst the ‘developed’. For example, in accepting some of the budding globalist doctrines of the west, the Bandung Communiqué repeatedly emphasized this significant caveat: while Bandung’s participants accepted capitalism and globalization as tools through which so-called ‘developing’ countries could better their economic situation relative to western states, western states were not to dictate the terms of how that ‘development’ occurred. Such an approach, to Bandung’s participants, would reek too strongly of colonialism, whose grips even in 1955 had not completely receded from either the African or Asian continents.

This contrasts sharply both with President Truman’s salvationist ‘development’ mission in Point Four and the universalist mission codified in the UDHR. Against this backdrop, this essay analyzes how US evangelical organizations have tapped into the UDHR and other secular codifications of debatably religious ideals. It argues that – armed not only with the surety of belief in the ‘responsibility to act’ from Truman’s Point Four, but also with international legal tools that enable the actualization of that belief – Christian civil society organizations, gleaning funding from the US and UN, have used international law to further US Christian goals internationally.


Harry Truman delivering his famous inaugural address, in which he announced the US mission to bring the benefits of capitalism to 'peace loving peoples' through the project of 'development'January 20, 1949. YouTube.After analyzing three exemplary cases (among the many that exist), I suggest that evangelical civil society’s use of law reveals much more than it perverts the potential of the human rights and development legal regimes to be used as instruments of international social control.

The first two short cases deal with concrete cases of conservative US evangelical groups using domestic and international legal regimes to suppress LGBT rights internationally; the domestic component of this has to do with funding and the international component has to do with human rights treaties. The third short case deals with the more abstract case of how international development legal regimes are exploited by conservative civil society groups as instruments of social control, dealing also with the use of US law regarding ‘development’ funding.

Case 1: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) Art. 16 and its varying expressions in other international legal texts have been used most prominently by the Alliance Defending Freedom (“ADF”) to repress LGBT rights.

Founded in 1993 as the ‘Alliance Defense Fund’, the ADF is a US Conservative evangelical NGO whose mission is to fund litigation that ‘defends’ “religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and family”, meaning opposite-sex marriage as traditionally defined. The ADF is funded predominantly by the National Christian Foundation (“NCF”), which is the largest organization in the US engaged in re-syphoning tax breaks to Christian causes; and to a lesser degree, by the DeVos Foundation and Academi (the former Blackwater Group, famous for government-funded murders in Iraq).

While the NCF uses law to channel money that would otherwise join the public tax pool into special Christian interests, Academi uses profits supported by government contracts (ultimately supported by public funds) to pursue those same interests. And although this was not the case when it began supporting the ADF, the DeVos Foundation has now narrowed its proximity to the state: Richard and Helen DeVos founded the Foundation, and their daughter-in-law, Betsy DeVos, now serves as Secretary of Education in the Trump Administration.

The ADF supplies grants to lawyers who wish to preserve ‘traditional’ definitions of marriage; they funded litigation based on the now defunct Defense of Marriage Act in the US, which confined the right to marry only to opposite sex couples, and funded amicus briefs in support of the same Act when it was challenged and ultimately struck down under the scrutiny of the US Supreme Court.[1] Internationally, using the non-binding UDHR Art. 16’s “men and women” language as interpretive authority, the ADF has used the binding “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” rights – codified in the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 9, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 18 – to defend organizations that suppress LGBT rights by excluding members of the LGBT community.

Moreover, using the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (“ICESCR”) Article 13’s “right to education” and the right of parents “to choose for their children schools, other than those established by public authority,” the ADF has successfully argued cases that both suppress the rights of children by empowering parents to choose how their children will be educated, and protected in some cases the right to indoctrinate children with anti-LGBT ideas.[2] Indeed, ICESCR Art. 15, which enshrines a given public’s right to “culture”, has been similarly deployed.[3]

Case 2: US Federal Research, Pell Grant, and ‘development’ funding have also enabled evangelical civil society organizations to transcend state and international governments to spread conservative Christian goals. The most egregious example is the World Congress of Families, which promotes anti-LGBT laws internationally on the basis of UDHR Article 16, using human rights law to fuel anti-gay movements in Russia, the Czech Republic, and other European states.

UDHR Article 16 states that “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.”[4] Employing interpretive methods that are common to western lawyers, and that are internationally codified in Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, both the ‘plain meaning’ and the ‘object and purpose’ of Article 16 in light of the entire UDHR text can be reasonably (if controversially) read to support the conclusion that the UDHR protects only the right of opposite sex couples to marry.[5] Indeed, several of the other most basic rights enshrined in the UDHR – e.g., the right to life – use the language “everyone has the right” to delineate once and for all the innate rights of humanity, which supports an intentionalist interpretation that the phrase “men and women” describes the relationship between the genders and not the collectivist interpretation which would favor ‘both men and women’. (‘Intentionalism’ describes a mode of interpretation that seeks to read treaty texts to mean what the original authors intended them to mean, rather than reading the text in light of contemporary understandings of the words.)

Similarly, the fact that the Article specifies how the right will not be limited (not due to “race, nationality or religion”), and the fact that this list does not include “gender”, could be read as a deliberate exclusion, so long as one adopts an interpretation of the Art. 16 list as exhaustive rather than indicative.

Therefore, even if such arguments are not entirely convincing given the emphasis on equality in the Preamble of the UDHR, which is the most common reference point for international lawyers determining ‘object and purpose’ of any treaty, the fact that such interpretive methods are widely accepted in the practice of international law renders the World Congress of Families’ position a reasonable (even if repulsive) use of the UDHR, speaking strictly from the perspective of an international lawyer.

Accordingly, these uses of international human rights law lend credibility to the World Congress of Families’ anti-LGBT activities abroad – even if only in the eyes of their supporters – because such interpretations of treaty-based rights are difficult for international lawyers to categorically reject:

Case 3: Shifting from international human rights to international development discourse, two other prominent US evangelical NGOs ­– Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision – receive USAID funding and regularly bid on UN development contracts but have the authority to impose conditions on communities that receive benefits from those funds and contracts.

Both organizations were founded by evangelical minister Bob Pierce (who believed Christianity was the cure for Communism),[6] both focus on ‘international development’, and both receive substantial ‘development’ and various ‘humanitarian aid’ contracts. World Vision has consultative status with UNESCO and partnerships with a number of intergovernmental organizations and evangelical groups around the world. With a stronger missionary focus, Samaritan’s Purse specializes in emergency relief and infrastructural projects related to water, sanitation, nutrition, medical care, and public health.[7] It receives USAID funding and works closely with UN development initiatives around the globe.[8]

Any conditions imposed by religious organizations on communities receiving government aid should be suspect to scrutiny, but the prohibition on ‘proselytism’ keeps many of the most obvious abuses at bay. As a result, religious conditions on aid are rarely if ever explicit, but Samaritan’s Purse has come under fire for blurring the lines between church and state, most notably when members of its staff required victims of the El Salvador Earthquake to sit through a half-hour prayer meeting before receiving assistance in 2001.

Perhaps more blatantly, World Vision’s mission statement declares that it will “serv[e] as a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ” – the word ‘witness’ being common evangelical-speak for ‘proselytize’. As the 36th largest recipient of US government funds for international ‘development’,[9] World Vision boasts a long and varied history of conditioning development aid or disaster relief upon various forms of proselytism, from requiring children in disaster areas to listen to short religious speeches before USAID-funded meals, to allowing Christian ‘sponsors’ of poor children to write letters laden with religious messages to those children, to working with organizations such as the Joshua Project to identify “unreached people groups” – evangelical slang for “people with the least exposure to evangelical Christianity” – where World Vision can increase its presence.

Ideological suppression

It is not my aim to label any of these uses ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but simply to call attention to them; these are some uses of human rights and development law that are motivated by suppressive or coercive goals.

These cases and many others reveal the degree to which the state, through the auspices of civil society, has engaged human rights and development law for ideological promotion through the proxy of evangelical civil society organizations. In this way, we might consider the US human rights / development agenda and Christian civil society organizations as two expressions of the same faith: that certain rights are static, intrinsic to humanity, and universal – that the validity of these rights for anyone depends upon their validity for everyone.

There are many non-religious development-based NGOs that are engaged in related forms of ideological suppression through less obvious means, for example, the glorification and global proliferation of capitalist and neoliberal goals. Indeed, these examples should also be cause to examine the justification for leftist ideological suppression of the right, and perhaps to question whether ideology can ever be viewed as something separate from law in the first place.

Indeed, it could be that such examples reveal more to us about the nature of law itself as an expression of belief than they do about the legal regimes of development or human rights, or about the groups that use them.


The first page of the Bandung Communiqué.



[1] United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. Docket No. 12-307 (2013).

[2] For a list of global involvement in these cases, see the ADF International website.

[3] Id.

[4] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 16.

[5] See VCLT, arts. 31-32. See also ICJ Statute, art. 38.

[6] Information derived from the websites of these organizations, available at https://www.samaritanspurse.org, and at http://www.wvi.org, respectively.

[7] Information on the organization available at https://www.samaritanspurse.org.

[8] See e.g. Kamari Clarke, Fictions of Justice (CUP 2009).

[9] A list of the top 40 recipients is available on USAID’s website.

How to cite:
Crow K.(2018) How US evangelical organizations deploy ‘human rights’ and ‘development’ Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 18 June. https://opendemocracy.net/kevin-crow/how-us-evangelical-organizations-deploy-human-rights-and-development



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