Due to a conflicting meeting, I had to decline an invitation to attend Sec. Hillary Clinton's recent speech at the National Institutes of Health. While I appreciated the invitation to a faith-based organization (fbo) like the Christian Medical Association, I've also come to realize that some within the administration tend to see fbo's as more of a tool than a partner.
Prior to the public unveiling of Clinton's speech, President Obama's AIDS ambassador, who heads the U.S. PEPFAR program to fight AIDS, hosted a number of fbo leaders in what turned out to be a meeting to coordinate publicity for the speech. The administration apparently expected fbo's to help the administration create a "buzz" for the Secretary's speech.
We learned during that meeting that the administration's theme would be "Turning the Tide Together."
I noted to our host that the "together" part of that message is often lost when it comes to working with fbo's. I suggested that it would be very helpful for administration officials to send a message to the public and the AIDS community about how fbo's are accomplishing effective work and why it's important for all to respect conscience rights.
Based on Secretary Clinton's speech, an observer would not have a clue that fbo's are doing much of anything to help AIDS patients. Yet according to the WHO, fbo's provide up to 70 percent of health care in sub-Saharan Africa, and that in the same region, fbo's also are the most trusted institution, according to Gallup.
It can be fairly argued, of course, that highlighting fbo's was not the purpose of the Secretary's speech. But at some point, if this administration wants to maximize the benefit of fbo's in fighting AIDS, it will have to take a much more positive stance toward fbo's, both in public statements and more importantly, in public policy--such as the protection of conscience rights. So far the administration's record in that respect has been nothing short of dismal--gutting the only federal regulation protecting conscience, mandating the provision of controversial contraceptives with virtually no conscience exemption, and writing grant stipulations that effectively block conscientious faith-based groups from funding.
That may not be the public relations message the administration was hoping for, but it's a message that needs to be addressed.