The Washington Post's article on the summit emphasized the conservative Christian messages promoted by its speakers, including but not limited to Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren. Intrigued, I watched a video recording of the summit, available at this Georgetown University link. While the speakers expressed genuine concern for victims of the HIV pandemic, a few right-wing messages found their way into the discussion.
The opening prayer was delivered by Bruce Sonnenberg, founder of He Intends Victory, a Christian HIV ministry. (See heintendsvictory[dot]org) I chafed at Sonnenberg's comment at the 4:12 mark, at which he said that "Jesus is truly the real answer to the issues of HIV and AIDS around the world."
Georgetown University president John DeGioia delivered opening statements, praising the charitable work of the summit's sponsors. DeGioia emphasized Georgetown's tradition of cura personalis (care for the whole person), stressing that people are more than their diseases, but rather unique human beings with multiple dimensions of health.
The summit invocation was delivered by Bishop Joshua Banda, senior pastor of Northmead Assembly of God church in Lusaka, Zambia and chairman of Zambia's National AIDS Council. During the invocation, Banda praised God as a force more powerful than HIV and applauded the gathering of HIV experts, researchers, academics, administrators, and innovators. I was perplexed, however, when Banda lamented how human life is "threatened by this vice and by the virus" at the 13:11 mark. It was unclear what vice he was referring to.
Lord Paul Boateng, a former member of the UK parliament and a Food for the Hungry board member, spoke about the role of faith in the HIV crisis. Faith, he said, is rooted in the love exemplified by Jesus and centers around transformation, outreach, and inclusion of all people. Love is not a "soft sentiment," he argued, but rather a constructive strategy. Boateng claimed that we are in a kairos moment of both challenge and opportunity. At the 15:57 mark, he characterized one of those challenged as the alleged "onward march of secularism and the driving of people of faith out of the public space."
The first keynote address, a pre-recorded speech by President Barack Obama, was introduced by Eric Goosby, former CEO of Pangea Global AIDS Foundation and the current U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Goosby praised President Obama's expansion of PEPFAR, telling the audience that the president sees HIV as "above politics." In the video, President Obama himself praised the role of faith organizations in responding to HIV. He discussed the importance of access to life-saving medical treatment, the importance of lifting the U.S. ban on HIV-positive people entering the country, and implementation of a global HIV strategy.
The second keynote address, a pre-recorded speech by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was introduced by Mike Leavitt, former Utah governor and HHS secretary. Leavitt spoke of his involvement in the struggle for "religious freedom," saying that citizens will decide as country the role of faith in way U.S. expresses compassion. He argued that faith-based organizations are allegedly "disadvantaged" in their opportunities to deliver help, but provided no examples of such supposed disadvantage. At the 31:38 mark, he claimed that alleged attempts to "diminish" the charitable role of faith communities would not be advantageous.
"In my experience, people will respond to those to whom they pay their tithes and offerings far more than they will those to whom they pay their taxes, and that there is in fact a goodness that comes to our country by beings able to use faith organizations for the purpose of being able to express our national compassion, and that as we go forward as a nation, any effort to diminish the capacity of the faith community to be a vehicle for our collective expression of faith is a mistake and not in our interest."What is he talking about? Who is supposedly trying to diminish the faith community's work? Is this some kind of dog whistle? I wondered.
In the Romney video, Mitt Romney praised people of faith who have helped HIV-afflicted communities for "doing God's work." He thanked advocates for showing HIV-ravaged Africa the compassion of America. However, Romney could not resist jabs at alleged big government, suggested by his comments at the 33:53 mark.
"Our government should stand by you and support this good work, but too often it gets in the way, and that has to stop. Regulations and bureaucracy should never discourage faith-based organizations from participating in our country's efforts to aid those abroad. Fidelity to faith should never prevent any group from caring for the sick. As president, I'll ensure that our people can live their values and care for others through their work."To read part II, click here.