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The latest on how pastors can help the fight against AIDS

I. Summary of this post:

The good news is that Christians are doing more than ever on AIDS and it is making a huge difference and the whole world is noticing. The bad news is that Christians have a reputation for hampering prevention efforts by insisting prevention must be done through abstinence education. Bonobush

II. Why is AIDS in the news right now? What are some fun and great resources on AIDS to listen to and watch?

In the last couple weeks, I listened to the Bill Gates and Bill Clinton sessions of the Aug 13-28, 2006 XVI International AIDS Conference that was held in Toronto, Canada.  The video and audio are available online here for free. I also read Rick Warren’s post (which has now been removed because he only keeps one post up on his site at a time) about attending the conference. See Warren's AIDS webpage here. I also watched a four-hour Frontline documentary online (for free!) entitled the “Age of AIDS” at pbs.org from May 2006. It was a great way to get quite a comprehensive history of the disease.Gates_and_clinton

III. We don’t want people in the future to look back on us and say we had our head in the sand!

The strongest lesson I came away from all of this was that as a leader, I do not want to let fear, comfort or public opinion keep me from doing the right thing at the right time.

In the Frontline documentary, it was sobering to hear of the slow, fearful and inadequate responses of Ronald Reagan and Nelson Mandela. Neither consulted the best experts on the issue. And neither led their countries in the crisis with calm determination. It is of course much easier to see the missteps now when we have so much more information. So I do not mean to judge them harshly. But their examples do teach us the enormous impact leaders can have positively or negatively.

IV. There is growing consensus among Christians and non-Christians that AIDS is one of the most important justice and compassion issues in the world.

What are the biggest problems in the world that we need to be paying attention to?

1. Many evangelical pastors would say the biggest problem in the world is that not enough people know about Jesus.

2. Others prefer to say that the biggest problem in the world is that we do not see the kingdom of God coming fully on earth as it in heaven.

3. Some pretty intelligent people like Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and Warren Buffet see AIDS as the biggest problem facing humanity.

But don’t these seemingly different answers actually have a lot of overlap?

Christians as diverse as Rick Warren, Franklin Graham, Bono and George W. Bush would all say that AIDS is one of the biggest signs that this world is not how it is intended to be. Bill Clinton says it this way (I’m paraphrasing here): “I was drawn to this issue because people in rich countries are no longer dying of AIDS. People in poor countries are. This is wrong.”  Franklin Graham says we need to keep people from dying from AIDS so they can hear about Jesus.  The reasons surely intersect. 

V. The good and bad reputation of Christians on AIDS:

What is interesting is that AIDS workers and victims are hearing a lot about Jesus or at least they are hearing a lot about Christians. They hear three things.

1. Christians in the United States are rich and they are giving generously.

a. Bono, Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, and AIDS activists are all hailing PEPFAR (The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), President Bush’s $15 billion plan to fight AIDS, as effective and revolutionary.

b. I am more proud of this than most anything else the United States is associated with. And we should be. According to the US government, 561,000 more people are receiving antiretroviral treatment. This allows these people to work and live essentially normal lives as opposed to dying terrible deaths.

2. Christians in the United States are rich and we wish they would give more.

a. This is nothing new.

b. Many Christians are stepping up to give like never before.

3. Christians in the United States give money with strings attached.

a. The US plan to fight AIDS requires that 1/3 of the money used for prevention be used for abstinence related programs. There are different reports about how this big an impact this has had on the effectiveness of AIDS prevention.

i. Some say it has been a huge hassle and an impediment.

1. See this Johannesburg, South Africa August 15 article about United Nations special envoy on AIDS for Africa, Stephen Lewis, denouncing this requirement.

2. The Frontline documentary also laments this requirement.

3. Congress’s independent and nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has a report about this here.


ii. Others say that it is simply a requirement they must deal with and that countries have found ways to make it work.


1. This is the point of view of Bill Clinton as discussed with Bill Gates here.

b. Prevention is very important. Read the following excerpt from the transcript of the Frontline documentary:

NARRATOR: Ninety-five percent of all new infections are in poor countries. In the absence of aggressive prevention programs, it's estimated there will be at least 40 million more infections over the next decade. Treatment programs will never keep pace.

Dr. DAVID HO: I still admire the compassion. I still commend the effort to treat. But we live in a world of limited resources. We have to bear in mind that during the years when this concerted treatment effort took place, approximately 2 million were treated. But during those years, another 15 million or so got newly infected.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: What we've got here is a tortoise and a hare, in which the tortoise will never catch the hare. The hare is the spread of AIDS, the tortoise is the slow-moving treatment programs. We have to attack HIV/AIDS as we've attacked every other infectious disease in the last century-and-a-half. We have to attack it as it spreads, before it spreads.

c. The Family Research Council, a Christian lobbying group, is proudly championing their effort to keep the requirements in the law and to enforce the law as you can see here.

It seems to me that we need to (1) encourage Bush and our politicians to continue to fund AIDS relief; (2) continue to give more to World Vision to help children affected by AIDS, and other outstanding organizations; (3) talk about whether these restrictions requiring abstinence education are really the right thing to do.

VI. Is abstinence education so important to us as Christians that we will let people die for it? Let’s major on the majors. I really don’t sense among Christians that abstinence education is an issue we want to major on and for people to die because of majoring on it. Relieving AIDS as thoughtfully and compassionately as possible is what we want to major on.   

Let me just focus more on this last point.

A number of times I heard things like this: “Evangelical Christians in the United States hamper practical prevention efforts by arguing that US money should not go toward education about condoms.”

I thought to myself, “I’m an evangelical Christian in the United States and I am pretty in touch with what we believe and think. I don’t think this is a big issue for us! We don’t have a problem with condoms. Yes, we don’t want to encourage people to be sexually promiscuous. But are we really doing that by teaching people how to save their lives by knowing about condoms?  Yes, our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters do raise good questions about the implications of the use of birth control. But this is an issue for Catholics and Christians and all people to consider - not a discussion to impose on unbelievers by withholding from them knowledge of something that could save their lives. Consider this quote by a Catholic writer Michael Swan in the Catholic Register in an outstanding article entitled Church caught in condom conundrum :

Though it does seem strange to imagine the Pope recommending better and safer ways to commit sins, the church has a history of meeting the poor and the outcast — including prostitutes and addicts — and helping them gradually embrace the life God gave them instead of the life the economy, their education and their addictions left them.

That article says that according to the reasoning of some Catholic ethicists, the good of condoms saving lives outweighs the potential bad of contraception.  This is exactly right. 

We are earning a bad reputation for evangelical Christians about something that is really not what most of us believe. Even when we are part of something great like President Bush’s Plan, we still find a way to alienate the people we are trying to help and also alienate other compassionate people who are trying to help AIDS sufferers! If teaching about condoms is key to preventing AIDS, let’s do it. AIDS is too big of a problem to tackle with one hand tied around our back - especially if we don’t have a good reason to do so!” 

It seems to me that Bush, Christians and even the Family Research Council don’t have a big problem with encouraging people to use condoms if it will save millions of lives. This is not a crucial issue for evangelicals. See this quote from the Family Research Council as evidence:

This Act, signed into law by President Bush, incorporated the successful Ugandan approach of "ABc" for preventing HIV/AIDS. "A" stands for being abstinent, "B" for being faithful, and little "c" a last resort for condoms for select high-risk groups.

There is an understanding that we cannot expect that non-Christians will remain abstinent for life. There is also an understanding that people will likely not refrain from sex with their AIDS-infected spouse.

Late in my research, I found someone had beat me to my proposal. Barbara Lee has proposed changes to the PEPFAR plan in her bipartisan PATHWAY Act of 2006 (Protection Against Transmission of HIV for Women and Youth Act of 2006). (The link is to the entire bill which took me just a couple minutes to read). Evangelicals should be cheering that we can make this AIDS relief more effective rather than arbitrarily insisting that 1/3 of the prevention efforts get spent on abstinence training.

Here is an open letter to Barbara Lee about this:

Dear Barbara Lee,

I like your Pathway Act of 2006.

I am an evangelical Christian pastor and I work at an evangelical Christian university. I guess I am an evangelical Christian because I like the magazine Christianity Today, trust the Bible, and think it is transforming for people to really get to know Jesus.  Under that definition, most Christians are evangelicals, which is fine by me. I see you are a Baptist. :-)

I have done some research on AIDS and was appalled that we evangelicals have a mixed reputation on AIDS. We are doing so much good raising money, sending workers to help, etc. But we also have the reputation of hampering prevention efforts because the Family Research Council wanted to ensure abstinence education would occur. They had good intentions. In general we evangelical Christians do think that the world would have a lot less problems if they would stop trying to find fulfillment through sexual encounters. And abstinence programs do work to some extent. There are studies that show abstinence training delays the sexual activity in teens. And we as Christians do think that abstinence shouldn’t be seen an unattainable or weird. So we hope some abstinence training takes place but I think most of us don’t want to legislate it if it ends up being counter-productive by hampering AIDS prevention efforts.

Most importantly to us as Christians, there are millions of people being infected and dying of AIDS. We evangelical Christians are a pragmatic bunch. We want to do all we can to help people not get infected and to relieve the suffering victims. Let’s get rid of the strings since they are getting in the way.

I suppose there are some people who would call themselves evangelicals who would oppose this bill. But I don’t think they will stay opposed for long once they learn the facts.  We evangelicals probably wouldn’t want our tax dollars going toward abortion clinics but we don’t have a problem with condoms. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Franklin Graham, Christianity Today, professors at Christian colleges, and anyone else in the evangelical community who wants to see AIDS addressed, would take your side on this one.

I hope it passes.


Andy Rowell

In the end, this is how I feel. It is compassionate and right to say:

"If you do not have sex, you will not get AIDS from sex.  But if you do decide to have sex, please use a condom.  If you do not use drugs, you will not get AIDS from drugs.  But if you do decide to use drugs, use a clean needle.  I still don't want you to do these things.  But I care about you and don't want you to die prematurely because of your stupidness and sin."   

I would tell this to my son or daughter.  Wouldn't you?  So why don't make sure Africans know this?  A (Abstinence) B (Be Faithful) C (Condom) makes sense.  Let's not get in the way by insisting A gets all the attention.  History will judge us harshly if we do.