Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse under fire in possible dry run of faith-based aid controversy
An article in Monday's New York Times began, "An American evangelical relief group that is using private donations and United States government money to help victims of two earthquakes has blurred the line between church and state as its volunteers preach, pray and seek converts among people desperate for help." That organization is Samaritan's Purse, run by Franklin Graham and recently praised by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Jesse Helms as the kind of organization he'd like to fund more of. The article is highly critical of the organization's evangelistic work, quoting anonymous sources who "privately complain that members of Congress have put pressure on them to finance the group's work, even though they have serious reservations about its proselytizing." The criticism is important, of course, because the work Samaritan's Purse is doing overseas is akin to the faith-based aid President Bush would like to see more government funds being used for domestically.

Yesterday, Samaritan's Purse countered with a convincing press release. The organization noted that federal funds account for less than 3 percent of it's budget last year, that "they are used strictly and exclusively to fund the purchase of … relief supplies, and are never used to fund any of our direct Christian ministry," and that such federal grants are strictly monitored and audited. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) "has never questioned or challenged our use of federal grants in El Salvador, Honduras, Kosovo, or any other country where we have received government funds. Even The New York Times article contains no charge that we have failed to adhere to these federal guidelines," the press release said. But the most devastating point in the press release notes, "While USAID has made a commitment of $257,000 for various components of Samaritan's Purse's ongoing work in El Salvador, as of today they have not funded this grant, meaning that none of the work in El Salvador described by The New York Times was funded with USAID dollars—not one nickel."

So far, no clarifications, apologies, or corrections have appeared on The New York Timescorrections page, but it seems that Franklin Graham and his organization have issued a legitimate challenge to the article. Whether that will matter in the scheme of public relations is another matter. So to balance the scales a bit, let Weblog note an article now that it missed back in December: A SmartMoney Magazinearticle listed Samaritan's Purse as one of the best charities in the country (based on how much of their budget actually went to program activities, how much of each dollar donation they spent on fund raising, and how little incoming money they saved). Samaritan's Purse was at the top of the "religion" list, with a total score of 81.0, besting Wycliffe Bible Translators' 76.1, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's 74.7, and Focus on the Family's 74.1. Compared to other relief organizations, it would have placed second, between International Rescue Committee (84.9) and U.S. Fund for Unicef (79.5).

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