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Opinion

Could Tim Kaine's Faith Elevate Global HIV Funding?

August 24, 2016

Tim Kaine

Tim Kaine (Credit: U.S. Department of Education [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Watching Tim Kaine speak on the campaign trail or in interviews, it's hard not to wonder how a guy like this got involved in the world of electoral politics. There's not much about Tim Kaine that would be categorized as controversial, but if anything has emerged over the past month as potential red flag for Democratic voters, it has been his balancing act between toeing a party line that is unequivocally pro-choice while maintaining a personal stance against abortion. But that spiritual and political balance might be just what we need to push for more funding to fight the global HIV epidemic.

Kaine's nomination means that this will be the fourth election in a row in which either the presidential or vice presidential Democratic nominee was personally opposed to abortion. Like Kaine, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry have professed public and political support for a woman's right to choose while being personally against abortion. In all three cases, their individual opposition has been driven by their Catholic faith.

However, in contrast to Biden and Kerry -- who usually only bring up their Catholicism when prompted or when it is situationally appropriate -- Tim Kaine speaks about his faith life early and often, a habit that isn't often associated with the contemporary liberal.

"I do what I do for spiritual reasons." Kaine said in an interview on C-SPAN in June "Everybody has motivations in life, and I almost feel like I'm always, whatever I'm doing, I've got an inner dialogue going that's a spiritual dialogue."

Much of Kaine's personal emphasis on the spiritual comes from his upbringing in suburban Kansas City, where he attended Rockhurst High School, an institution run by members of the Jesuits. For those unfamiliar with them, the Jesuits are a nearly 500-year-old order within the Catholic Church that is renowned for its intellectual rigor and preoccupation with social justice issues. Jesuits have typically been seen as the scholars and front-line forces of the church's mission and, given the emphasis that Pope Francis places on ministry to the poor and disadvantaged, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he himself is a Jesuit.

Now, many of you might be wondering what all of this has to do with HIV/AIDS. The answer to that question, bizarrely enough, centers on George W. Bush.


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The Bush PEPFAR Legacy

In February 2008, President Bush wasn't exactly the most popular man in America. At that time, the writing was on the wall for the financial catastrophe that would come to be known as the Great Recession, and Bush's 31% approval rating reflected the public's discontent with his administration. However, when George W. Bush stepped off of Air Force One in the Rwandan capital of Kigali that month, he was greeted with what amounted to a hero's welcome.

The reason for that warm welcome was almost wholly the success of the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a massive U.S. government initiative intended to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in parts of the globe that are both hardest hit by it and least able to cope with it financially. By the time Bush touched down in Kigali, the U.S. government had committed a staggering $15 billion to PEPFAR, money that -- while not without controversy due the Bush administration's fetish for promoting abstinence -- had done incontrovertible good in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, providing 1.4 million people with antiretroviral drugs. In the years since Bush's farewell tour of Africa, there has been a 60% decline in new HIV infections among children in the hardest-hit Sub-Saharan countries, and PEPFAR has become the backbone of U.S. global health efforts, with 67% of all 2016 U.S. global health funding coming from the program.

And yet, despite all of the progress that has been made through PEPFAR, its future is disconcertingly precarious. During President Obama's two terms in office, funding remained relatively flat and, thanks to the further polarization of the Congress and the ascent of the Tea Party's take-no-prisoners ideology at the expense of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," bipartisan compromise has become exceedingly rare within the halls of Congress. This is where Tim Kaine comes in.


Faith in Action

The most publicized manifestation of Tim Kaine's Catholic faith, and one that voters will probably hear a dozen times between now and election day, is his decision to take a year off from Harvard Law School and volunteer at a Jesuit mission in Honduras. It's a very uplifting, humanizing story and is the prism through which the Clinton campaign would like voters to view Hillary's running mate. However, I'm not as interested in Tim Kaine's mission trip to Honduras as I am in a visit he made to the country a year and a half ago.

Back in 2015, Tim Kaine went on a three-day diplomatic trip to Honduras, in part to address economic and security issues between it and the U.S., but also to revisit the town of San Pedro Sula where he had taught carpentry and welding at the Jesuit Instituto Técnico Loyola 35 years before. Along with Kaine on this trip was Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), at the time the newly elected majority whip for the Senate. On the surface they may seem to make an odd pairing, but there is method to Kaine's bipartisan madness.

In an interview, Kaine described the way in which the diplomatic trip came about, talking about the push President Obama was making for significant investment in Central America in the wake of the influx of unaccompanied minors into the U.S. and detailing how he convinced Cornyn, who is on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Immigration and the National Interest, to make the journey with him:

"I like John a lot, so I said, 'Why don't we go down and try to what we can about this problem,' and he said, 'I'll make you a deal; ... [t]alk about energy reform in Mexico, and I'll come with you to Honduras to learn about Honduras and learn about this issue.'"

None of what Tim Kaine mentioned there might come across as remarkable, and it really shouldn't. What you have is a Democrat using experiences gleaned from his spiritual life and pursuit of social justice to connect with a Republican in a collegial manner and to explore ways to solve a common problem. This shouldn't be a radical notion, but in today's polarized political environment it kind of is, and that's a huge issue. When Congress passed the legislation that established PEPFAR, it did so with immense bipartisan support. In the House the bill was approved by 90% of those who voted on it, and in the Senate it had proponents as ideologically distant as Joe Biden and Jesse Helms.


The Need for Finding Common Ground

Had the climate that exists in Congress today prevailed back in 2003, there's a distinct chance that PEPFAR would not have come to fruition. More than ever, we need leadership that can bring politically opposed legislators to the table and find areas of common ground. In a recently released petition, Health GAP is imploring Hillary Clinton to commit to PEPFAR funding increases of $2 billion a year and to doubling the number of people the U.S. supports in HIV treatment by 2020. This is not an unreasonable request, and it is well within the power of the next president and Congress to get it done. In the five years between the creation of PEPFAR and the end of the Bush Administration, the amount of U.S. funding for global HIV relief more than tripled from $1.64 billion to $5.03 billion.

We know that Congress and the White House have the ability to significantly raise funding levels for global HIV relief. We know because they've done it before through bipartisan compromise and a genuine desire to use America's position in the world to make a profound and lasting difference in the lives of those most in need. Perhaps, if Tim Kaine were to become our nation's next vice president and our Senate's next president, he could call upon the missionary zeal that the Jesuits have so adeptly used to address social injustice to persuade his Congressional colleagues to come together to fund the global fight against HIV.

Drew Gibson is a social worker and freelance writer based out of Cincinnati, Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter at @SuppressThis or visit his blog "Virally Suppressed," which covers a multitude of issues related to public health and social justice.


Copyright © 2016 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.


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