July 27, 2008

International Intrigue: The Religious Right’s Bad Medicine For Public Health

By Lynn, Barry W

I don't claim to be an expert on international churchstate relations. Americans United occasionally looks at religious liberty issues abroad, but frankly, there is enough work on these shores to keep us busy. Sometimes, however, we find that actions and policies of the U.S government affect people living in other nations. This is why I recently agreed to speak at a forum at Harvard University's School of Public Health that focused primarily on how the Bush Administration's "faith-based" initiative is impacting public health issues around the world.

The event, titled "Faith-Based Organizations: What Role Should They Play in Domestic and International Public Health?," took the form of a three-person panel discussion. I was pleased to be asked to take part and focus on an issue that is often overlooked.

I pointed out that one problem with the "faith-based" approach is that someone has to decide which faith gets the initiative. Since the election of George W. Bush, we have seen several disquieting examples domestically of programs that agree with the administration's conservative theological views being funded with tax dollars while projects that take a different view are not.

For example, in an Americans United lawsuit against a marriage counseling program in Washington State, the Justice Department saw no problem funding a program that counseled women that Christ was the head of the church, so the husband was the head of the family.

However, another faith-based counseling group failed to get a grant renewed because during its counseling sessions it stated the objectively true fact that some women do not find it easy to leave abusive relationships precisely because they believe they should adhere to a "husband-rules-the-roost" philosophy based on their own earlier biblical instruction.

Therefore, it was not surprising, but just as sad, to see that foreign assistance is also often going to groups with particular religious philosophies - even ones that promote discrimination and whose policies may end up harming the very people they claim to serve.

Samaritan's Purse, run by Franklin Graham, has received millions in government aid over the past decade, including one grant to construct a new hospital in wartorn Angola. The Boston Globe reported that Graham's hospital is hardly neutral on one issue, though. It will not allow Catholic chaplains to visit the sick, and it refuses to hire nurses who are not evangelical Christians.

Since there are many public health institutions that could benefit from U.S. assistance, I have to wonder why a group with noxious policies like this was moved to the top of the list.

Imagine if someone proposed building a public, taxfunded hospital in this country that hired only fundamentalist Christians and whose staff preached conservative theology to every patient. How long would it take before the lawsuits were filed? Obviously the need in Angola is great, but I find it hard to believe that there was no organization out there willing to build a hospital free of religious bias. I suspect the administration didn't look very hard.

Just as controversial is the policy requested by Bush (and approved by Congress) to utilize at least one-third of all anti- AIDS funding overseas in "abstinence-only" programs. We know a lot about the results of these programs in the United States, and they are total failures. So why are we exporting them overseas?

The Bush administration's representative at the Harvard event was Kimberly Konkel, associate director of health for the Department of Health and Human Service's Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Part of her portfolio is AIDS prevention programs, and she attempted to explain that this "one-third" abstinence funding didn't necessarily mean that one-third of the funded programs would promote only abstinence. In fact, she proudly noted that I just didn't understand that "the U.S. is the biggest condom distributor in the world."

This sounded like verbal sleight of hand to me, and I found myself wondering aloud if Focus on the Family leader James Dobson knows about this. If it is true that public health experts distribute condoms with a mere "wink and a nod" to abstinence, doesn't this highlight the utter hypocrisy of the administration's posture?

Consider a story that ran recently in The Washington Post about the situation in the Philippines, where condoms and other forms of birth control, while technically legal, are unavailable for most people due to cost. For years the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) tried to rectify that by making birth control available to the poor at no cost. Due to pressure from the nation's ultra-conservative Roman Catholic hierarchy, the USAID will discontinue the program later this year.

One woman interviewed in the story lives with her family near a sprawling Manila garbage dump. She wanted two children but has four. It's questionable whether this family will survive. If this is what "faith-based" policies have wrought, I say no thanks.

Ideology and principles do matter. However, when the evidence is in that some powerful person's "principles" are causing another vulnerable person to lose her health or life, maybe it's time to scrap the principle.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Copyright Americans United for Separation of Church and State Jun 2008

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