Religious groups have received almost 25% of the $15 billion in federal funds set aside for Pres. George W. Bush’s global AIDS battle, the Associated Press reported today. The groups stress the conservative Christian litany of abstinence first, being faithful second and condom use third. Some overtly spread the Word of God, as well.
Before I launch into my tirade, let me first offer some of my background. I am in fact a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and have been for 22 years. I have also lived in a country, South Africa, with a serious HIV/AIDS crisis. That experience and my faith-based background color my remarks.
Were these funds disbursed to religious groups who were working in the U.S., there would be a huge backlash. The Constitution prevents the government from promoting religion, otherwise known as the separation of church and state. The groups, however, do their work overseas, so they are not preaching Christianity to U.S. citizens. Rather, they bring the Good News and their HIV/AIDS instruction to the unchurched masses of the Third World. The federal funds no doubt facilitate the process.
Now, undoubtedly, these groups are doing some good diminishing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Given the apocalyptic proportions of the disease in some parts of the Third World, any help at all in fighting the disease is necessary. But federal funds are also aiding and abetting the accompanying imposition of religious instruction. Federal funds, just to remind you, represent tax money from all kinds of U.S. citizens, even atheists. Ordinarily, non-Christians would not be contributing to organizations that proselytize. In a rather indirect way, then, the administration is in fact bending the law against separating church and state.
Conservative Christian groups and congressmen have also insisted that any anti-AIDS group stress abstinence and fidelity as the best means to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, essentially the same line our public high school students get here at home. Groups that do not toe the “party line” — like those that suggest condom use as another effective preventive behavior — lose their funding. So once again we have the mighty U.S. imposing its own peculiar morality on the benighted multitudes of the Third World.
Abstinence and fidelity are effective preventive measures, don’t get me wrong, but telling a young girl who is already infected with HIV to be a “good girl” is cockeyed. There are children as young as 9 or 10 in some Third World countries who work the streets just to feed themselves, and perhaps their families. Preaching abstinence and fidelity to a starving, perhaps drug-addicted child is unrealistic, and does address the root of the problem. We are not dealing with middle-class teenagers here. For some young (and older) people in the Third World, being a sex worker means food on the table and clothes on their backs. For others, they do not have a choice in their “profession” — they are forced into sex work to benefit others’ welfare. For these individuals, encouraging condom use is the only realistic means to curb HIV/AIDS.
Instead of supporting the conservative Christian agenda, the U.S. should be spending its funds on the root causes of dangerous sexual activity, poverty, poor education and the lack of jobs in the Third World. It needs to fight HIV/AIDS on all fronts, in every way possible, and not try to make the Third World fit into the limited world view of a religious minority.