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Group Seeks Change in Attitudes About Fighting AIDS Among Evangelical Christians - 2003-06-19

The United Nations estimates more than 34 million people across the globe have AIDS, the often-lethal immune system breakdown caused by the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus, or HIV. Seventy-one percent of the people living with AIDS are in sub-Saharan Africa. In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Bush asked the U.S. Congress to commit $15 billion over the next five years to deal with the AIDS crisis in Africa. The news was hailed by the dozens of private and public relief organizations already working with AIDS patients in the region. Some of these groups are run by evangelical Christians, who've devoted a lot of time and effort in recent years to the global fight against AIDS. But the leaders of these religious groups believe the battle hasn't been nearly as rigorous as it could be, or should be.

Steve Haas remembers vividly the night President Bush announced he'd be seeking billions of dollars from Congress for AIDS treatment and prevention in Africa.

"I stood on my kitchen counter and screamed. And I mean that literally," he said.

Mr. Haas is vice president of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that works with children and families in some of the world's poorest countries. The group is deeply involved in fighting the spread of HIV-AIDS crisis in Africa, donating food and medicine to families affected by the disease and working actively to educate people about how the virus is spread. Recently, World Vision commissioned a poll of evangelical Christians in the United States and found that in spite of the seriousness of the HIV pandemic, just seven percent were willing to donate their time and money to fighting the disease.

"Those statistics were damning, damaging and obviously needed to change," he said.

Steve Haas says he knows why evangelical Christians are reluctant to get involved in the fight against AIDS. It's because they consider many of the behaviors that spread the disease, such as drug use and promiscuity, to be immoral. And as a Christian, Mr. Haas says he can understand that, to some extent. He thinks the behaviors are immoral, too. But he also says it isn't his job, or any person's job to judge.

"The Scriptures are pretty clear about judgement, and that's not ours. It never has been ours. That's God's. Our job is to love," he said. "Our job is to be compassionate. Our job is to be ambassadors of reconciliation, as it's stated in the New Testament. These are still people that are worthy of God's touch and care."

To that end, World Vision has begun to reach out not just to AIDS victims in Africa, but also to evangelical Christians here in the United States, educating them about the seriousness of the crisis and about their obligation as Christians to care. Steve Haas says the group is changing attitudes, but it hasn't been easy. When AIDS was first identified by public health officials in the early 1980s, several prominent evangelical leaders, such as televangelist Jerry Falwell, proclaimed the disease to be God's punishment against homosexuals and promiscuous heterosexuals. Twenty years later, that's still the view of many evangelicals. But according to Ronald Sider, a professor at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, it would be a mistake to assume that all evangelical Christians see AIDS as a punishment for sin.

"People like Jerry Falwell simply don't represent a majority of evangelicals," he said. "There is a strong group of people, call it the 'Religious Right,' if you will, and Jerry's a part of it - that represents maybe 35 percent, at the most 45 percent. But there's an evangelical middle that is regularly horrified by that kind of statement. They have a much more open attitude, a deeper concern for the poor, and so on."

But what this evangelical middle may not have is an understanding of just how dire the health situation in Africa is. Steve Haas of World Vision also says many American evangelicals don't understand that by helping people with AIDS and working to prevent the spread of the disease, they can also help to fight many of the issues they're already concerned about.

"When it colludes with poverty, one of our great enemies, when it colludes with bad water, another great enemy, when it colludes with diseases that are so preventable in children, it is absolutely toxic in every way. And so by focusing on HIV and AIDS, we actually get to these other issues that are central to our planning," he said.

One third of the AIDS prevention funds in President Bush's $15 billion plan have been earmarked for programs that promote sexual abstinence. The idea is popular with many evangelicals here in the United States. But some religious groups already working in Africa, including World Vision, insist that condom distribution should also be a part of any AIDS prevention plan.