The tsunami that hit Asia last month has spurred massive drives for contributions, many of them from faith-based groups. Many of the groups pitching in are Christian. Most of the recipients of the aid are not. Most of the groups have chosen to follow the Red Cross code:

Some U.S. groups – including the relief arms of the Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist churches – follow a Red Cross code of conduct against furthering a particular religious or political viewpoint. Generally, these groups believe their works, rather than their words, sufficiently show how faith moves them.

Some evangelical Christian groups have elected not to follow the code, and are attempting, through their generousity, to win converts. Chief among them is Colorado Springs-based Family on the Family, led by James Dobson.

Many evangelical Christian groups, which put a stronger emphasis on winning new converts, believe relief can be packaged with religion as long as immediate needs are addressed first. After all, they say, this is when people are asking life’s deepest questions.

For example, while Focus on the Family says its goal is to provide aid, it is including excerpts from a book of James Dobson’s “When God Doesn’t Make Sense” in 300,000 of the packets it is supplying along with food, water and medicine.

The very mission of the Colorado Springs-based International Bible Society is to publish and distribute Scripture. So when the tsunami struck, the group prepared the distribution of 100,000 texts, including a book translated into Thai, “When Your Whole World Changes.” “We believe the Bible or Scripture booklets present relevant answers to problems people are facing,” said Judy Billings, an IBS spokeswoman. “With the disaster, people are open to God’s word. They’re in a crisis.”.

Others disagree:

A veteran missionary, Stephens emphasizes that he puts no conditions on helping people. If the chance arises, he said, he will share what he believes is the great hope of Christianity. “We need to be able to build a bridge to the people and their culture before there should be an expectation they want to hear what we want to share,” Stephens said. But for many evangelicals, working in natural-disaster areas is an opportunity to fulfill what they interpret as “the Great Commission,” Jesus’ call in the Gospel of Matthew to make his message known in all corners of the world. There’s disagreement, though, about drawing boundaries when calm times give way to chaos and suffering.

It should be obvious that groups will be less effective in providing aid if the recipients believe you have an alternative agenda.

Kathryn Wolford, president of Lutheran World Relief, said organizations that strongly push a religious message risk undermining all relief groups’ standing abroad, especially when diverse faiths and cultures collide. “It can create conflict and resistance because in that kind of situation people don’t necessarily distinguish one (relief) group from another,” she said.

If James Dobson and his group really are interested in helping as opposed to merely winning converts, they’d leave their propoganda behind this year and just try to help the victims with aid. If they forge a human rather than a religious bond during this perios, they might be welcomed back next year where they can test the reception of their religion on those they helped the year before.