Despite President Obama’s promise to stop funding ineffective, discredited faith-based programs claiming to reduce HIV infections and unwanted pregnancies, U.S. taxpayers’ dollars are still bankrolling them.
Freelance investigative journalist Andy Kopsa has uncovered the institutional bias toward those programs, run by anti-gay, anti-choice conservative religious groups at home and abroad at a time when anti-AIDS programs for LGBT people are denied adequate funding.
The following excerpts come from from Kopsa’s report in The Nation, entitled “Obama’s Evangelical Gravy Train”:
[Since] taking office, Obama has done little to end Bush-era funding to a whole range of conservative religious groups. …
Faith-based offices were set up in agencies as diverse as the Department of Health and Human Services, the State Department, the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense and the Department of Agriculture and given hundreds of millions of dollars a year to distribute to faith-based groups.
As a presidential candidate, Obama promised to make a sharp break from Bush administration policies by holding federally funded faith-based groups accountable. “If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them,” he said during a July 2008 stump speech.
But a review of a database of federal grants, independent reports and numerous interviews with government officials and grantees reveals that little has changed since Obama took office. …
Instead of seeking out new implementing partners that would follow best public health practices, [under the Obama administration] many Bush-era grantees have seen their funding renewed again and again. An entire federally funded evangelical economy took root during the Bush years, and under Obama it continues to thrive. …
It’s not as if advocates haven’t sounded the alarm to administration officials. [They have long raised concerns about U.S. funding for the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, or IRCU, which pushed hard for that country’s Anti-Homosexuality Law, which lost $6.4 million in U.S. in March after the law was enacted, and about] the Children’s AIDS Fund (CAF), an American organization, led by the husband-and-wife team Shepherd and Anita Smith, that operates in Uganda.
The Smiths got their start working with Watergate crook Chuck Colson and his evangelical prison ministry; later, Shepherd ran Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign. They took on AIDS as their mission in the 1980s, fashioning what they saw as a love-the-sinner, hate-the-sin approach that focused on ministering to the sick, particularly children. Over time, they would articulate a more fulsome conservative evangelical approach to AIDS centered around praying people out of homosexuality, abstinence-only education, virginity pledges and robust criticism of condoms, laid out in their 1990 book Christians in the Age of AIDS. Even in recent years, Shepherd has pounced on modest failure rates to denounce condom efficacy against HIV.
“The first evangelical ministries to see AIDS and respond were those already in place in the gay community, helping heal sexual brokenness and bring gays out of their lifestyles,” the book reads. The Smiths go on to caution Christians against buying into “society’s attempts to make homosexuality an acceptable alternative lifestyle.” …
In a memo to USAID officials, Representative Henry Waxman, then ranking minority member of the Government Reform Committee, wrote that the funding of CAF was so out of bounds that it “raises serious concerns about the integrity of the PEPFAR [U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] grant review process.”
Yet CAF has received at least $45 million since then through direct PEPFAR grants, and still more as a third-party grantee, subcontracting with Catholic Relief Services, for example. As recently as February of this year, CAF received $1 million for its New Hope clinic in Kampala.
A Christian anti-AIDS clinic with no condoms
On a hot but breezy day in August 2012, I visited New Hope. The clinic is located in Kampala’s Naguru district, on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, and is funded by PEPFAR to provide care and treatment for people with HIV and AIDS. The clinic is also tasked with implementing an HIV prevention program to include comprehensive sexual education and access to condoms.
There were very few patients the day I visited, and the clinic’s administrator ushered me into a counseling room with several posters on the wall. One depicted HIV as a gang of scowling green blobs being attacked by anti-retroviral drugs, represented by smiling cells in crisp white lab coats; another was an image of Jesus, his hand raised, light spilling from his opened chest and Jesus I trust you! written below. Below Jesus was a portrait of the Virgin Mary and on the opposite wall, an image of St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes.
A poster at the Children’s AIDS Fund clinic in New Hope reads “Jesus, I trust you!”
A few minutes into our chat, I asked the clinic administrator about condoms. She paused. Finally, she said, “We are very suspicious of those.” When I asked whether the clinic provided comprehensive sex education—including instruction on the correct and consistent use of condoms—she said she didn’t know for sure and left to find a more senior clinic employee.
That employee arrived, but was no more able to answer my questions. All she could do was show me was a spot in a three-ring binder where she swore sex-ed materials were supposed to be and a big empty cardboard box labeled “CONDOMS,” which was relegated to a back hallway of the clinic. PEPFAR guidelines stipulate that grantees make condoms available and distribute them as part of a comprehensive prevention strategy. …
Abstinence-only programs: “no beneficial impact”
Public health experts have long discounted abstinence-only programs as ineffective. While there is scattered evidence that the approach, used with very young adolescents, can delay adolescents’ first sexual experience, there’s no reliable evidence that it reduces either teen pregnancies or sexual transmitted diseases. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that virginity pledges, a staple of religious abstinence-only programming, did not decrease the occurrence of teen sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and resulted in pledge-takers not seeking medical attention once infected. And in 2011, a definitive nine-year study by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that “these programs have no beneficial impact on young people’s sexual behavior.”
Adolescent health advocacy groups have pushed the Obama administration to stop funding these ineffective, ideological programs, asking that such funds be redirected toward comprehensive sex ed instead. … Yet the funding for such programs has continued.
Read the full article for more information, including details about direct and indirect Obama administration funding for these programs, at home and in Africa:
- He Intends Victory, an “ex-gay” ministry in Uganda, praised by Pastor Rick Warren, which bills itself as a Christian HIV/AIDS education and support group. It is funded by CAF, which in turn is federally funded.
Samaritan’s Purse, led by Franklin Graham, the son of televangelist Billy Graham, which includes Bibles in “hygiene kits” delivered to African countries devastated by wars or natural disasters and runs a “Families Matter” prevention program. Samaritan’s Purse has received $23.3 million from the U.S. since Obama took office in 2009.
- Truth in Action Ministries, running an abstinence-only program in Mississippi, which received a portion of $739,000 in federal funds, including $67,000 to oversee it.
- The Evansville Christian Life Center in Indiana, which won a federal abstinence-only grant for $244,110.
- The Center for Relationship Education, which produces abstinence-only programs and received more than $1 million in federal funds for its work.
- The Indiana Family Institute, which ushered a same-sex marriage ban through the state legislature and was chosen as the state’s partner in implementing a $1.5 million federally funded “healthy marriage” program.
- The Family Leader program in Iowa, which received $3 million in federal funds for “healthy marriage workshops” while campaigned for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
- And many more.
Faith-based groups like Children’s AIDS Fund and IRCU aren’t the only ones equipped to deliver life-saving care and prevention in sub-Saharan Africa. Smaller, home-based healthcare organizations with no religious agenda are operating in Uganda with little funding but huge potential. That’s true in the United States too. Proven programs that reduce the risk of teen pregnancy and STIs could be getting the millions of dollars in government funding now allocated to CPCs.
The evidence is in that federal tax dollars are being used to support conservative, faith-based organizations that stigmatize young women, foster anti-gay sentiment and harm public health. Whether this funding is an expression of Obama’s ideology or a cynical attempt at political pandering is ultimately immaterial.
“Obama’s Evangelical Gravy Train” appeared in The Nation on July 8, 2014.