Calling for an “AIDS-free generation” and the defeat of HIV through a “combination prevention strategy,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday at the National Institutes of Health demonstrated how her well-known “smart power” can be applied not just in military situations but also to issues of global health.
At her confirmation as Secretary of State, Ms. Clinton defined “smart power” as America shaping the world by using a “full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.” In the case of AIDS, she advocated a new form of “smart power” by “ending mother-to-child transmission, expanding voluntary medical male circumcision, and scaling up treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS,” along with “condoms, counseling and testing.”
Transforming her rhetoric into reality is a challenge not just for government policy makers, but also non-governmental organizations and faith communities. The test for the Obama administration and Congress will be whether they can sustain the bi-partisan support AIDS programs have enjoyed or whether lack of political will and budget-cutting will undermine what Clinton calls “this historic moment” when the world has an opportunity to defeat AIDS.
The HIV and AIDS pandemic has now been a global reality for 30 years. Over 30 million are now infected worldwide and nearly 30 million have died. Yet those of us who are leaders in faith communities are acutely aware of how many churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques will not even spend 30 minutes addressing what the United Nations has called “an unprecedented human catastrophe.”
As a United Methodist pastor, I am encouraged that the United States has made an “AIDS-free generation” a priority public policy and welcome Clinton’s challenge to faith-based communities to be partners in this “ambitious” effort. This provides an opportunity for religious leaders to break from our past conspiracy of silence, embrace new scientific ways of preventing HIV, make AIDS ministries a priority, champion human rights, and befriend persons living with HIV.
What I fear is that these noble goals will flounder because of persistent stigma, discrimination, and gender-based violence. Bias and bigotry, often fueled by religious teachings and intolerance, remain major stumbling stones around the world in the struggle to provide HIV education, prevention, care and treatment. Secretary Clinton did not address issues related to the key affected populations in detail (men who have sex with men, commercial sex workers, and persons who use injecting drugs) most threatened by HIV infection, though she did acknowledge that success depends on “repealing laws that make people criminals simply because of their sexual orientation.”
Funds need to be invested not only in anti-retroviral drugs, circumcisions, clinics, medical personnel, and medical research, but also in finding new strategies to overcome the deep-seated religious and cultural prejudices that often prompt persons living with HIV to say that “the way people treat you is worse than the disease.”
Secretary Clinton correctly noted that “the worst plague of our lifetime brought out the best in humanity.” Unfortunately since the earliest days of the pandemic, it has also brought out some of humanity’s worst responses. Faith communities must exhibit behavioral change—moving from condemnation to compassion and apathy to action—if “an AIDS-free generation” is to become a practical possibility in our lifetime, not just a utopian vision.
Thirty years ago I met with six gay men who were suffering from AIDS in a Denver hospital. They told me to “never give up hope” despite the obstacles. Their courage inspired me then and continues to motivate me now. They would have cheered Secretary Clinton’s speech. Let us all work together to make their hope and her vision of an “AIDS-free generation” a living reality.
Donald E. Messer, executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, Centennial, Colorado, is also chairperson of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee. He is the author of three books addressing the pandemic: “Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis” (2004), "52 Ways to Create an AIDS-Free World” (2009), and “Names, Not Just Numbers: Facing Global AIDS and World Hunger" (2010).