For most of the last century, save-the-worlders were primarily Democrats and liberals. In contrast, many Republicans and religious conservatives denounced government aid programs, with Sen. Jesse Helms calling them "money down a rat hole."
Over the last decade that divide has dissolved, in ways that many Americans haven't noticed or appreciated.
Evangelicals have pushed successfully for new American programs against AIDS and malaria, and done superb work on issues from human trafficking in India to mass rape in Congo.
A pop quiz: What's the largest U.S.-based international relief and development organization? World Vision, a Seattle-based Christian organization (with strong evangelical roots) whose budget has roughly tripled over the last decade.
Never miss a local story.
World Vision now has 40,000 staff members in nearly 100 countries. That's more staff members than CARE, Save the Children and the worldwide operations of the U.S. Agency for International Development — combined.
A growing number of conservative Christians are explicitly and self-critically acknowledging that to be "pro-life" must mean more than opposing abortion. The head of World Vision in the United States, Richard Stearns, begins his fascinating book, "The Hole in Our Gospel," with an account of a visit a decade ago to Uganda, where he met a 13-year-old AIDS orphan who was raising his younger brothers by himself.
"What sickened me most was this question: Where was the Church?" he writes. "Where were the followers of Jesus Christ in the midst of perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time? "
Stearns argues that evangelicals were often so focused on sexual morality and a personal relationship with God that they ignored the needy. He writes laceratingly about "a Church that had the wealth to build great sanctuaries but lacked the will to build schools, hospitals, and clinics."
In one striking passage, Stearns quotes the prophet Ezekiel as saying that the great sin of the people of Sodom wasn't so much that they were promiscuous or gay as that they were "arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." (Ezekiel 16:49.)
Hmm. Imagine if sodomy laws could be used to punish the stingy, unconcerned rich!
The American view of evangelicals is still shaped by preening television blowhards and hypocrites who seem obsessed with gays and fetuses. One study cited in the book found that even among churchgoers ages 16 to 29, the descriptions most associated with Christianity were "anti-homosexual," "judgmental," "too involved in politics" and "hypocritical."
Some conservative Christians reinforced the worst view of themselves by inspiring Ugandan homophobes who backed a bill that would punish gays with life imprisonment or execution. Ditto for the Vatican, whose hostility to condoms contributes to the AIDS epidemic. But I've also seen many Catholic nuns and priests heroically caring for AIDS patients — even quietly handing out condoms.
Some Americans assume that religious groups offer aid to entice converts. That's incorrect. Today, groups like World Vision ban the use of aid to lure anyone into a religious conversation.
Some liberals are pushing to end the longtime practice (it's a myth that this started with President George W. Bush) of channeling American aid through faith-based organizations. That change would be a catastrophe.
In Haiti, more than half of food distributions go through religious groups like World Vision that have indispensible networks on the ground. We mustn't make Haitians the casualties in our cultural wars.
A root problem is a liberal snobbishness toward faith-based organizations. Those doing the sneering typically give away far less money than evangelicals. They're also less likely to spend vacations volunteering at, say, a school or a clinic in Rwanda.
If secular liberals can give up some of their snootiness, and if evangelicals can retire some of their sanctimony, then we all might succeed together in making greater progress against common enemies of humanity, like illiteracy, human trafficking and maternal mortality.
THE NEW YORK TIMES