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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bizarre White House meeting undermines faith-based outreach


I recently experienced what was by far the most disturbing and bizarre of dozens of White House meetings and events that I've attended--the White House Forum for Faith Leaders in conjunction with the International AIDS Conference 2012.
I should have followed the example of Joshua DuBois, Executive Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, who welcomed the gathering of about 150 AIDS activists by bringing greetings from President Obama--and then quietly ducked out a side door. He missed the subsequent three-hour-long show, which included blaming the faith community for discouraging AIDS funding and spewing hatred, demonizing pharmaceutical companies and turning sacred hymns into secular mantras.
First, to be fair, some speakers at the event offered glimpses of sanity and civility.
Gayle Smith, Senior Director for Democracy and Development, National Security Staff at the White House, for example, allowed that "We've been very privileged to come into office with an extraordinary foundation built by President George Bush."
President Bush launched the effective and well-respected (if grudgingly by his opponents) President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The Obama administration, however, has been slashing funding for the U.S.-run PEPFAR program in favor of the multinational Global Fund, which not long ago was wracked by scandal and mismanagement.
Dr. Ariel Pablos-Mendez, Assistant Administrator, USAID Bureau of Global Health, effectively encapsulated the mission of faith-based organizations by saying, "In the end it's about love. It's your core competency--your motor, your driver. You understand the communities, you lead, engage, care for these communities."
Other speakers, however, seemed scarcely able to disguise their disdain for faith-based organizations, even as they grudgingly acknowledged the unmatched reach of such organizations.
The World Health Organization, for example, has released a report that "estimates that between 30% and 70% of the health infrastructure in Africa is currently owned by faith-based organizations." The Gallup World Poll asked sub-Saharan Africans in 19 countries about their confidence in eight social and political institutions. Overall across the continent, they were most likely to say they were confident in the religious organizations (76%) in their countries. I know of many medical missionaries and faith-based medical institutions who make tremendous sacrifices to reach out in love and compassion to those afflicted with AIDS.
One speaker who seemed particularly wary of faith-based organizations was Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, Deputy Executive Director of the UNFPA. In 2002, the U.S. State Department deemed the U.N. population agency ineligible for U.S. funding because of its involvement with the Chinese government's notorious one-child policy, which the Chinese enforce through coerced abortions. The Chinese government's policy of forcibly aborting babies considered undesirable by the state apparently comports with the dark side of the UNFPA slogan--"to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted."
Ms. Albrectsen first allowed that "the faith leaders in this room [the vast and vocal majority of whom seemed to enthusiastically toe the Obama party line] are critical agents of change," and conceded that "16,000 health centers on African continent are operated by Catholic Church."
Then, however, the UNFPA official darkly asserted, "Ignorance and corruption can assume the mantle of religion. They suppress accurate information and they whip up stigma and even violence."
She offered no specific examples.
Ms. Albrectsen also incredibly blamed faith-based organizations for discouraging donations to  AIDS work.
"The plain fact is that the funders with those resources ... if they perceive that dogma holds back our work, they'll find other places to put their funds. Some faith-based spokespeople have [advocated] a restrictive approach to condom distribution, [which] is unlikely to provoke sympathy among those who choose to spend their meager resources on the fight against HIV and AIDS."
Reinforcing a decidedly aggressive agenda of the Obama administration, Ms. Albrectsen admonished the audience to "work for empowerment of women…work for better information and services directed specifically to girls and women…and show zero tolerance for violence against women and girls."
Many people regardless of political or religious persuasion appreciate concerns related to women and girls. However, when it comes to AIDS--the supposed focus of this White House meeting--the CDC has estimated that roughly three of four adults and adolescents living with an AIDS diagnosis in the U.S. are men; worldwide, estimates of adults living with HIV/AIDS split the percentages roughly equally between men and women.
Other speakers amplified the content of their ideological screeds with a verbal volume unmatched in any White House meeting I've attended. This seemed to delight many in the audience, who seemed to think we were in the secular equivalent of a gospel revival meeting. Almost raucous shout-outs from the audience punctuated the often rhythmical pontifications of the speakers. The louder the speaker and the shriller the message, the more the audience seemed to respond with enthusiastic approval.
One speaker in particular illustrated the substitution of secular dogma for religious values. When the time came for his presentation, the Ugandan representative of an organization called the "International Network of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV (INERELA+), stood up and sang. Dressed in religious garb, he smiled as he replaced the refrain of a sacred hymn, "Nothing but the blood of Jesus," with the secular mantra, "Nothing but a comprehensive approach."
His song apparently delighted those who advocate a "comprehensive" approach to AIDS emphasize condom distribution and disdain the "ABc" policy that stresses sexual risk avoidance and faithfulness in marriage as a primary strategy and condom use as a secondary strategy. The offensiveness of perverting the message of the sacred hymn did not seem to occur to him or to many others in the audience, who laughed with approval.
A speaker from Bolivia launched her presentation first by chiding her hosts for not inviting more leaders from Latin America and then by railing against U.S. pharmaceutical companies--she named Merck and Johnson and Johnson--for not making their medicines available at little or no cost. She literally demonized pharmaceutical companies by joking--at least I hope she was joking--that pharmaceutical companies have "demons."
The idea that free-market profit encourages innovation and the development of new medicines, and that decreasing or eliminating that motivation would only serve to stifle pharmaceutical development, seems not to have crossed her mind.
Not to be outdone by the first singing act, the last speaker instructed all of us in the audience to stand up and hold hands. She then led everyone in a rendition of a song sung by Diana Ross, "Reach out and touch someone." When the song mercifully concluded, she instructed us all to give a "full-body hug" to those next to us.
Really.
I left the White House never so glad to leave it behind me. As I exited the building, I turned to face a horde of protestors from the AIDS 2012 conference marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. They chanted slogans and waved signs demanding that pharmaceutical companies give up their medicines.
I wanted to direct them right into the White House auditorium; they would have fit right in.

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