J. Stephen Morrison
Senior Vice President & Director, Global Health Policy Center at CSIS
The ‘Summit on the Role of the Christian Faith Community in Global Health and HIV/AIDS’ was held at Georgetown University on Wednesday July 25, squarely in the middle of the week-long International AIDS Conference (IAC). The Summit was attended by some 400 participants, and featured a powerful set of co-chairs: Rick and Kay Warren, co-founders of Saddleback Church; Rick Stearns, president of World Vision; Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services; and Dave Evans, president, of Food for the Hungry. Anita Smith, of the Children’s AIDS Fund, presided.
The Summit was one of several vivid expressions during the IAC of the centrality of the faith community to the global response to HIV/AIDS. Senior American faith leaders participated in a highly successful IAC special session on the faith community, which marked a significant expansion of the opportunities for faith leaders to have a voice at the IAC biannual gathering. American faith leaders were also invited to join high-level discussions in the White House, Congress, and the State Department.
The Summit revealed the impressive range of political support that the faith community enjoys. Presidents Obama and Bush each delivered highly complimentary taped video messages, as did presumptive Republican presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney.
Appearing in person were Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA), former Congressman Mark Green (R-WI), and Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ). Franks eloquently argued: “The greatest thing we can do to show our faith is reach out to a needy child… AIDS is a crushing burden on human dignity. We have a moral obligation. Every child is a child of God with rights.” Senator Graham appealed to those present to “help me to help you.” “Let’s build a faith-based coalition behind foreign aid.”
A full panoply of senior Obama administration officials were in attendance: Ambassador Eric Goosby, head of the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator; Raj Shah, the Administrator of USAID; Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and Lois Quam, head of the Global Health Initiative. Key African partners were also present, including Bishop Joshua Banda (Zambia), and Elioda Tumwesigye (a parliamentarian from Uganda).
What are the faith community’s special assets?
Rick Warren’s answer: “If you want to stop AIDS you must go through local churches. They are cheaper and faster.” Plus pragmatism: “I am a co-belligerent with Elton John” in battling AIDS, or with feminists in battling pornography. Christians can and should find the areas of common ground and ask “Why won’t you work with me?”
Compassion and the ability to address “every person in fullness” are essential attributes of the faith community, Georgetown University President John DeGioia told the participants. The community is able to mobilize extensive community, volunteer, and medical service networks to reach poor, remote areas. It combines “good science and moral authority,” according to Michael Gerson. It has a special capacity to balance medical and behavioral change: “For every medical intervention, there is a behavioral component,“ noted Ambassador Goosby. That includes a “truth telling capacity” to address high-risk behavior. The faith community has proven it can deliver quality; Zambian Dr. Mwayabo cited over 90% viral suppression results among patients in mission hospitals on anti-retroviral treatment. It achieves scale: World Vision, for example, reaches over one million orphans and vulnerable children. Administrator Shah focused on the community’s unique, powerful assets, including its staying power, ability to create capacity locally, and success in eliminating preventable childhood deaths.
The speakers also raised concerns about the challenges they face: “the onward march of secularism that drives people of faith out of the public space” (Lord Paul Boateng, Food for the Hungry). The rising emphasis on treatment may diminish the focus on behavior (Kent Hill, World Vision). Faith groups are often disadvantaged (former HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt) while “our government gets in the way of faith groups” (Governor Romney). The U.S. government is forcing African governments to change laws to reach the LGBT communities (Bishop Banda).
After the Summit, Kay Warren reflected on what it had achieved. In particular, she found that the Summit renewed the spirits and enthusiasm of those who attended, and it made unequivocally clear that the faith community is committed over the long term, emphasizing that “there is no exit strategy.” And it created the opportunity to motivate people to stretch the boundaries of what is possible – to be “reckless.”