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The Religious Community, AIDS Ministries and Prevention: One Person's Opinion

By Rev. Kenneth T. South

March/April 1995

People often ask, "Why isn't 'the church' more involved in AIDS prevention?" I take that to mean that they are referring to the entire religious community in America, not just the Christian Church. It's always difficult to answer this question in a few sentences, but I usually begin with two important clarifications.

First, no one can speak for the entire religious community in America. J. Gordon Melton, in his new Encyclopedia of American Religion says that America "now has a greater diversity of religious groups than any country in recorded history." Melton goes on to note that of the 1,600 denominations in the U.S., 44% are, in fact, non-Christian. One hundred and fifty million Americans report to being "card carrying members" of one of these denominations. Thus, Americans follow the teachings of the Creator, Jesus, the Almighty, Buddha, Shankara, God, Allah, the Great Spirit, the Goddess, and Mahavir among many others. So, as a nation while we are people of faith, we are people with very divergent views as to how faith provides us with a view of the world and a way to live in it.

Second, I remind the questioner that some within the religious community, especially AIDS ministries, have been involved in AIDS prevention on one level or another since the beginning of the epidemic. Were the questioner to ask, "Are there 'enough' people of faith involved in AIDS prevention," my answer would be, "No." Why? At the core of the vast majority of religions in America is a call to compassion, a call to care for the sick, seek justice and reach out to the neighbor in need, that "golden rule" echoed in the Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Jewish, Sikh and Zoroastrian traditions, which reminds the follower to "love one each other as you would be loved."

When faced with the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, faced with individuals struck by a relentless virus, thousands of religious institutions and tens of thousands of persons of faith contributed an abundance of compassion, service, leadership and even dollars. The ethic of compassion within our traditions, after all, seems to be a collective ethic, a way in which the body of believers pulls together under an ethic of love for the common good of all.

So religion in America has no problem with support of the Ryan White Care Act or with the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) Act or with those changes in the social security system permitting more support to more poor people with AIDS. Even those of us who may "love the sinner but not the sin" don't fight compassion. When it comes to care, we are there. The issue of AIDS prevention, however, has to do with some very difficult issues for the religious community in this country. The response of the faith community to AIDS prevention is as murky as its response to compassion is clear. Prevention means for many in the religious community the acknowledgment that America is also a sexually active country. Married, monogamous, heterosexual couples no longer comprise the majority of Americans:
  1. almost half of America's marriages end in divorce, adding millions of people to the dating game;
  2. among those looking forward to marriage, many are waiting longer than in the past, "tying the knot" at an older age;
  3. Americans are living longer, which means there are more senior citizens than ever before. And since it is still true that women outlive men by at least ten years, there are many more single mature women than ever before;
  4. gay men and lesbians make up a significant portion of the population, and since they are not able to marry legally they are also considered single, at least by the U.S. census bureau.

All of these factors underline the ever-increasing likelihood that Americans may be more sexually active than ever before. Perhaps most dramatically, in Sex and America's Teenagers (The Alan Guttmacher Institute, New York, NY), it is noted that of the twelve million Americans infected each year with a sexuality transmitted disease, three million are teenagers. Ironically, among some populations, the incidence of HIV infection has been decreasing while the number of sexually transmitted diseases is on a dramatic rise.

While the faith community generally supports the response of compassion where care for the person with AIDS is concerned, the faith community ethic surrounding sexuality, specifically sexual behavior, is quite another matter. For the faith community, it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to get any kind of consensus around safer sex education or the promotion of condom use or even the distribution of AIDS prevention materials. From the call to compassion, to care, found deep within the religious community view of things, a dramatic philosophical and political shift occurs -- for the call to prevention raises that extremely personal ethic where sex is concerned. (It is interesting to note that the term morality is now almost exclusively used only in the context of sexual behavior. When people say "but this is a moral issue" they almost always are referring to something involving sex and its expression.) My hunch is that when we start talking about sex and sexuality in a religious/ethical context, we are getting too close to home, too personal, too close to the core of our beings. As a chaplain working in two different state hospitals I noticed a commonality among the most disturbed patients: their auditory hallucinations, the "voices," were always talking about sex AND religion.

Some would argue (calling up a first century, Hellenistic world view) that there is pandemonium in the religious community surrounding sexuality because sensuality is antithetical to spirituality, that the mind and the body are at odds. To the contrary. I submit that it is precisely because our sexuality is ingrained within our spirituality that we have such turmoil. While many in the faith community have found a common goal in supporting the sick and dying with compassion, what prevention efforts there are stretch across a broad continuum: some religious bodies enthusiastically support the CDC's prevention guidelines, including the distribution of condoms and teaching safer sex practices; groups somewhere in the middle support only abstinence-based programs; and yes, some religious groups will not even mention AIDS, as if it will go away.

Let us challenge the faith community and all who profess reverence for life to seek ways to see the AIDS epidemic first as a threat to the public health, the life of the community. Let us challenge them to find ways to examine their ethics and theology to see if there is room to acknowledge that withholding life saving information from those at risk is in itself immoral. Let us continue to examine those barriers within our own institutions and agencies which block us from proclaiming a message of wholeness and healing through direct, unambiguous, life-affirming prevention messages. It is not an option. Lives depend on it.

Rev. Kenneth T. South is Executive Director of AIDS National Interfaith Network.

This article previously appeared in the March/April 1995 issue of Interaction, the newsletter of the AIDS National Interfaith Network.




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