Untold Consequences: Rick Warren’s AIDS Activism

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Untold Consequences: Rick Warren’s AIDS Activism

Kathryn Joyce

Rick Warren's AIDS work in Africa supposed to negate his anti-gay and anti-choice advocacy. But Warren's AIDS activism is nearly as troubling as the rest of his ideology.

Editor’s Note, December 22, 2008, 5:19pm: In the post below,
Kathryn Joyce writes that “[Rick] Warren and his fellow evangelicals
brought new visibility to the issue; simultaneously, faith-based AIDS
groups such as Kay Warren’s HIV/AIDS Initiative at Saddleback Church
began receiving significant funding through PEPFAR and disbursing it to
organizations on the ground that follow their religious guidelines.”

Kay Warren wrote a comment on the post stating: “Saddleback Church [has] not received a penny of PEPFAR money.”

Due to an editing error, the statement was indeed
incorrect and has now been deleted. Records publicly available from the website of the Office of
the Global AIDS Coordinator (OGAC) do not show Saddleback Church as a
direct recipient of PEPFAR funding.

However, expert sources for this article underscored that while there
is no known direct funding link between Saddleback and PEPFAR, the key
question is which of the organizations and churches in various countries affiliated with Saddleback
have received funding from PEPFAR. Rewire is investigating
these links and will report back to our readers on this issue when we
return from our publishing hiatus in January.

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The outcry among progressives since Wednesday, when
President-elect Obama announced that Saddleback megachurch pastor Rick Warren
would deliver the inaugural invocation, has been profound.  Supporters of reproductive and LGBT rights
recalled Warren’s many insults to their causes: his comparison of pro-choice
supporters to Holocaust deniers and of gays to pedophiles; his "ambush" of
Obama during the election campaign’s first (albeit unofficial) debate at
Saddleback Church; and his general embodiment, beneath his jolly Hawaiian
shirts and "new evangelical" concerns for AIDS, poverty and climate change, of
religious right intolerance.

It’s possible that Obama’s selection of Warren was a move
designed to outrage, as Salon’s Mike Madden writes, noting that the two figures have
consistently used each other politically, to signal to that they’re willing to
anger and depart from their friends. But Warren’s
undeserved reputation as a new-breed "moderate" evangelical, with his benevolent
AIDS work in Africa supposed to negate his
anti-gay and anti-choice advocacy at home, rests on a deeply flawed foundation.
Warren’s AIDS activism is nearly as troubling as the rest of his ideology
(which even he acknowledges only differs from James Dobson’s in style). 

Warren’s transformation into the evangelical AIDS "it
person" is relatively recent. Earlier this month, on World AIDS Day, he awarded
President Bush his ministry’s first international P.E.A.C.E. award for
contributions to fighting HIV/AIDS. Warren’s own AIDS work, together with his
wife Kay, began in 2002, ostensibly when Kay read a magazine article
about the burgeoning population of AIDS orphans in Africa. That year, Warren
led a group of evangelical churches in pushing a reluctant Bush administration
to adopt a global AIDS policy, resulting in the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, launched in

"For all intents and purposes, [PEPFAR] was a good thing to
do," says Jodi Jacobson, consultant for Rewire and the founder and former executive director of the Center for
Health and Gender Equity
(CHANGE), an NGO that promotes sexual and
reproductive health and rights. "But with the entry of evangelical churches, in
alliance with the Catholic Church, all funding for prevention became very

A division of aims within the global AIDS movement between
those advocating for prevention funding and those working for treatment access helped
draw faith-based groups. Though treatment and prevention are complementary in
fighting HIV/AIDS, the entry of religious right activists exacerbated this
divide between the two priorities. Treatment access advocates sought out partnership
with evangelicals hoping for increased funding and attention for expensive
treatment programs. But the faith-based solution naturally brought with it
skewed policies that limited prevention options and led to what Jacobson calls
the "profoundly ineffective" spending of AIDS money: with $20 billion spent on
treatment over the past five years, but six new infections for every person
treated. "No one doesn’t want people to have access to treatment," she says.
"But my argument is about the tradeoff. You can’t treat your way out of this

But churches anxious to follow Warren’s lead didn’t want to
provide comprehensive HIV prevention services, such as safer sex education or
condoms, so they lobbied for PEPFAR funding policy to be interpreted narrowly,
creating stand-alone abstinence-until-marriage programs out of the law’s 30%
abstinence-only earmark. The new faith-based arm of the AIDS movement Warren
had energized asked for, and got, a number of obstacles to prevention services:
a prohibition on needle exchange programs for drug users; a ban family planning
services in Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission clinics;
and the anti-prostitution loyalty oath, which required all groups receiving
PEPFAR funding, including those that work with sex workers, to condemn
prostitution. As with conscience clauses, Jacobson says, this ideological
interpretation of PEPFAR became a source of U.S. funding that "allows groups or
organizations to avoid having to provide prevention treatment or care according
to evidence-based criteria." The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation has stated that "PEPFAR has been successful not because of provisions such as the mandatory abstinence set-aside, but in spite of them."

Warren and his fellow evangelicals brought new visibility to
the issue; simultaneously, faith-based AIDS groups brought a faith-based, rather than evidence-based, agenda to HIV prevention work. In Kay Warren’s HIV/AIDS
Initiative at Saddleback Church
, that includes the core
argument that "healthy choices" require faithfulness to the principle of abstinence,
and "faithfulness requires faith": an evangelical priority that echoes her
husband’s reassurance to the far-right World Net Daily that his number
one priority in his AIDS work was the salvation of non-Christians.  Warren
has made clear that his collaboration with non-evangelical AIDS activists
wouldn’t lead him to compromise on his biblical convictions. 

"As a pastor, my job is to
change behavior," Warren said. "I’m going to be training pastors how
to teach behavior change." 

"Despite his success in elevating the profile of the global HIV/AIDS
epidemic among communities of faith in the United States who previously
thought it was outside the scope of their concern, the prevention 
approach that Rick Warren promotes is riddled with hypermoralistic
dictates," says Ariana Childs Graham, international policy advocate at SIECUS. "According to Warren, churches have a ‘moral obligation’ to
promote abstinence and faithfulness as the only health behavior,
ignoring the full range of prevention strategies that evidence has
demonstrated needs to be part of successful HIV-prevention

In 2005, PEPFAR increased its commitment to faith-based groups
through President Bush’s New Partners Initiative, which sought to
tap churches and faith-based groups as funding recipients. "What it meant is
that the old partners, the public health people who distributed condoms, were
disdained," says Jacobson. "Then new partners, many of whom had never stepped
foot in Africa, were suddenly getting millions of dollars to go there. As far
as we were concerned, it was a slush fund for the far right." 

Progressive attempts to reform PEPFAR during its reauthorization process in February 2008
were heated. The late Rep. Tom Lantos championed a revision of the bill which
struck the abstinence-until-marriage earmark, the prostitution pledge, and
other prevention restrictions, and opened the door for PEPFAR programs that
integrated family planning with HIV prevention as a natural combination of
sexual health services. 

The response of Warren and his fellow conservative PEPFAR
supporters was cynical and swift. Staging a press conference on the day of
the National Prayer Breakfast, four days before Lantos’s death, Warren joined a
menagerie of stalwart anti-choice leaders, including Reps. Chris Smith, Marilyn
Musgrave and Joe Pitts, and activists Wendy Wright, Chuck Colson and Day
Gardner. The group declared that the Lantos revision would "pour billions into the hands of abortion providers with little or no
regard for the pro-life, pro-family cultures of recipient countries," strip
abstinence programs of their funding and, by lifting the prostitution pledge,
enable the sex trafficking of women. Lantos’s reauthorization bill lost every
point on reproductive health, and PEPFAR was reauthorized in its flawed state. 

How that flawed policy plays out can be disastrous. As journalist
Michelle Goldberg noted at Religion Dispatches, one of
Warren’s protégés in Uganda, the rabidly anti-gay pastor Martin Ssempa, has
interpreted Warren’s faith-driven solutions to the HIV/AIDS epidemic by burning
condoms at universities and offering faith-healing to disease-stricken congregants.
Other PEPFAR grantees, as Jacobson’s colleagues in the global AIDS movement
have witnessed, use their funds to promote fundamentalist interpretations of
marital roles, advising women that if their husbands beat them, they should try
harder to please them. 

"We found enough examples of these things to make me very
worried," says Jacobson. 

Warren further entangles religion
and treatment in his very own "Purpose-Driven Nation," Rwanda. He offered to extend an undisclosed amount of
aid to the country if it adopted his bestselling book as an action plan for the
nation, using churches as centers for capacity building and American
evangelical leaders as medical and development advisors to the Rwandan
parliament. The plan included the provision of a set of development kits to
churches such as "school in a box" and "clinic in a box," the latter of which
Warren says will eventually include AIDS medicines. The problem with this arrangement
is comparable to the problem with other faith-based initiatives entrusted with
the distribution of state services: that the provision of aid and services is
performed with state dollars but with no accountability regarding the fair and
non-coercive availability of that aid. Emmanuel Kolini, the Anglican archbishop of Rwanda, who called
homosexuality a form of moral genocide, is on the National Steering Committee of Saddleback Church’s Western Rwanda HIV/AIDS Healthcare Initiative.

"When such a high-profile, leading spokesman on an issue that
affects women and gay people and men who have sex with men and sex workers
reinforces messages of stigmatization of anyone who’s different, it creates a
climate in which money is going to organizations that have little to no
accountability," says Jacobson. "We don’t know what’s going on with these
groups abroad. In my mind it ties in to religious leaders who seek to heal the
sick, but on their terms or not at all."