In 2003, President George W. Bush asked Congress for $15 billion to fight AIDS in developing countries. During the 1990s, HIV spread rapidly, especially in Africa, where some 250 people were dying from AIDS every hour. The US had been accused of not doing enough to fight the epidemic, and when the bill passed, many conscience-stricken Americans, moved by images in the press of dying women and children, praised the administration. But some were not sure. Much of the money will go to church-affiliated charities or faith-based organizations, including some evangelical Christian groups that have very little experience with AIDS.
While Catholic and Protestant churches have been running AIDS programs since the 1980s, few evangelical Christian groups have done so. Indeed, as the deadly virus spread around the world, many evangelical Christians were silent or worse. Jerry Falwell called AIDS God’s judgment on promiscuity, and former Senator Jesse Helms, a longtime congressional ally of the evangelicals, told The New York Times in 1995 that AIDS funding should be reduced because homosexuals contract the disease through their “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.” When lawmakers moved to amend the Americans with Disabilities Act to protect people with HIV from discrimination, some evangelical Christians lobbied against them. In a 2001 poll, only 7 percent of American evangelicals said they would contribute to a Christian organization that helped AIDS orphans.1
Shortly after the 2000 election, some evangelical Christians began to change their tune. “We cannot turn away,” Helms wrote of the global AIDS crisis that had by then killed 20 million people over two decades. “It is true,” wrote Ken Isaacs of Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical charity run by Billy Graham’s son Franklin, “that when we choose to act outside of God’s mandate for sexual purity, we should be prepared to deal with the consequences.” “However,” he went on, “God calls Christians to tell others of the redeeming love of Christ and the eternal life they can have through him.” Also, with so many people on the verge of death, “AIDS has created an evangelism opportunity for the body of Christ unlike any in history.”2
It is worth noting that during the 2000 campaign, Bush, a born-again Christian, promised to provide more federal funding to faith-based groups working on various social problems. Thus it may be no coincidence that some of the same people who once treated the issue of AIDS with indifference suddenly seemed so concerned about it. Do evangelical Christian groups have a role to play in fighting the AIDS epidemic? Maybe they do, but at the moment they are engaged in an unseemly battle with secular AIDS organizations over US government contracts that could derail what little progress there has been in combating the epidemic.
Most of the $15 billion in the AIDS plan is to be spent on treatment and care for people with AIDS, but $1 billion is earmarked for HIV prevention through abstinence-only-until-marriage education. Since 1996, the US government has spent hundreds of millions of…
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