OF ALL THE international forums and events to mark World AIDS Day on Friday, what may be the biggest will happen in an unlikely place: little Lake Forest, Calif., just north of Mission Viejo. Its coming signals a shift in political momentum as AIDS awareness is promoted not just by Hollywood celebrities and gay activists but by conservative evangelical Christians.
The Rev. Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, will host their second annual summit on AIDS starting today. Warren, author of the bestselling book “The Purpose-Driven Life,” is among the most influential evangelical leaders in the United States, and his summit will attract such politically diverse figures as Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).
The focus on AIDS by evangelicals isn’t new, but Warren is taking it to a new level. Though churches were initially and inexcusably silent on AIDS, attitudes began to shift as AIDS declined in the United States while growing in Africa. Pressure from his Christian base may have been a factor in President Bush’s 2003 decision to start an initiative against AIDS, devoting $15 billion over five years to fight the disease. Now, Warren aims to increase church involvement.
All this religious intervention in the traditional province of doctors and scientists hasn’t been entirely positive. Bush’s anti-AIDS money comes with morality-based strings attached that infuriate secular health advocates. The most self-defeating is a directive forcing recipients to sign a statement that they will not use the money to aid any group that “does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.”
This pledge has little practical effect; it doesn’t prevent those who agree to it from treating sex workers for AIDS. But many potential recipients fear that it will, so they either stop working with prostitutes or decline U.S. funds.
About 7% of the AIDS initiative money, meanwhile, must be spent on abstinence programs. Though these programs may help lower AIDS rates, it’s questionable whether they’re more effective than other prevention methods such as distributing condoms. At any rate, U.S. bureaucrats should consider regional health needs before politics when setting funding formulas.
Yet these troublesome policy issues are also relatively minor. Bush and his Christian supporters seldom get the credit they deserve for their role in the global fight against AIDS. U.S. spending on the disease overseas has risen more than tenfold under Bush, while Christian groups have given unselfishly to the cause. Churches, in fact, run health clinics in much of rural Africa; without them, stemming AIDS would be all but impossible. So praise the Lord and pass the antiretrovirals.