Untold Consequences: Rick Warren’s AIDS Activism

Editor’s Note, December 22, 2008, 5:19pm: In the post below,
Kathryn Joyce writes that “[Rick] Warren and his fellow evangelicals
brought new visibility to the issue; simultaneously, faith-based AIDS
groups such as Kay Warren’s HIV/AIDS Initiative at Saddleback Church
began receiving significant funding through PEPFAR and disbursing it to
organizations on the ground that follow their religious guidelines.”

Kay Warren wrote a comment on the post stating: “Saddleback Church [has] not received a penny of PEPFAR money.”

Due to an editing error, the statement was indeed
incorrect and has now been deleted. Records publicly available from the website of the Office of
the Global AIDS Coordinator (OGAC) do not show Saddleback Church as a
direct recipient of PEPFAR funding.

However, expert sources for this article underscored that while there
is no known direct funding link between Saddleback and PEPFAR, the key
question is which of the organizations and churches in various countries affiliated with Saddleback
have received funding from PEPFAR. RH Reality Check is investigating
these links and will report back to our readers on this issue when we
return from our publishing hiatus in January.

The outcry among progressives since Wednesday, when
President-elect Obama announced that Saddleback megachurch pastor Rick Warren
would deliver the inaugural invocation, has been profound.  Supporters of reproductive and LGBT rights
recalled Warren’s many insults to their causes: his comparison of pro-choice
supporters to Holocaust deniers and of gays to pedophiles; his "ambush" of
Obama during the election campaign’s first (albeit unofficial) debate at
Saddleback Church; and his general embodiment, beneath his jolly Hawaiian
shirts and "new evangelical" concerns for AIDS, poverty and climate change, of
religious right intolerance.

It’s possible that Obama’s selection of Warren was a move
designed to outrage, as Salon’s Mike Madden writes, noting that the two figures have
consistently used each other politically, to signal to that they’re willing to
anger and depart from their friends. But Warren’s
undeserved reputation as a new-breed "moderate" evangelical, with his benevolent
AIDS work in Africa supposed to negate his
anti-gay and anti-choice advocacy at home, rests on a deeply flawed foundation.
Warren’s AIDS activism is nearly as troubling as the rest of his ideology
(which even he acknowledges only differs from James Dobson’s in style). 

Warren’s transformation into the evangelical AIDS "it
person" is relatively recent. Earlier this month, on World AIDS Day, he awarded
President Bush his ministry’s first international P.E.A.C.E. award for
contributions to fighting HIV/AIDS. Warren’s own AIDS work, together with his
wife Kay, began in 2002, ostensibly when Kay read a magazine article
about the burgeoning population of AIDS orphans in Africa. That year, Warren
led a group of evangelical churches in pushing a reluctant Bush administration
to adopt a global AIDS policy, resulting in the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, launched in

"For all intents and purposes, [PEPFAR] was a good thing to
do," says Jodi Jacobson, consultant for RH Reality Check and the founder and former executive director of the Center for
Health and Gender Equity
(CHANGE), an NGO that promotes sexual and
reproductive health and rights. "But with the entry of evangelical churches, in
alliance with the Catholic Church, all funding for prevention became very

A division of aims within the global AIDS movement between
those advocating for prevention funding and those working for treatment access helped
draw faith-based groups. Though treatment and prevention are complementary in
fighting HIV/AIDS, the entry of religious right activists exacerbated this
divide between the two priorities. Treatment access advocates sought out partnership
with evangelicals hoping for increased funding and attention for expensive
treatment programs. But the faith-based solution naturally brought with it
skewed policies that limited prevention options and led to what Jacobson calls
the "profoundly ineffective" spending of AIDS money: with $20 billion spent on
treatment over the past five years, but six new infections for every person
treated. "No one doesn’t want people to have access to treatment," she says.
"But my argument is about the tradeoff. You can’t treat your way out of this

But churches anxious to follow Warren’s lead didn’t want to
provide comprehensive HIV prevention services, such as safer sex education or
condoms, so they lobbied for PEPFAR funding policy to be interpreted narrowly,
creating stand-alone abstinence-until-marriage programs out of the law’s 30%
abstinence-only earmark. The new faith-based arm of the AIDS movement Warren
had energized asked for, and got, a number of obstacles to prevention services:
a prohibition on needle exchange programs for drug users; a ban family planning
services in Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission clinics;
and the anti-prostitution loyalty oath, which required all groups receiving
PEPFAR funding, including those that work with sex workers, to condemn
prostitution. As with conscience clauses, Jacobson says, this ideological
interpretation of PEPFAR became a source of U.S. funding that "allows groups or
organizations to avoid having to provide prevention treatment or care according
to evidence-based criteria." The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation has stated that "PEPFAR has been successful not because of provisions such as the mandatory abstinence set-aside, but in spite of them."

Warren and his fellow evangelicals brought new visibility to
the issue; simultaneously, faith-based AIDS groups brought a faith-based, rather than evidence-based, agenda to HIV prevention work. In Kay Warren’s HIV/AIDS
Initiative at Saddleback Church
, that includes the core
argument that "healthy choices" require faithfulness to the principle of abstinence,
and "faithfulness requires faith": an evangelical priority that echoes her
husband’s reassurance to the far-right World Net Daily that his number
one priority in his AIDS work was the salvation of non-Christians.  Warren
has made clear that his collaboration with non-evangelical AIDS activists
wouldn’t lead him to compromise on his biblical convictions. 

"As a pastor, my job is to
change behavior," Warren said. "I’m going to be training pastors how
to teach behavior change." 

"Despite his success in elevating the profile of the global HIV/AIDS
epidemic among communities of faith in the United States who previously
thought it was outside the scope of their concern, the prevention 
approach that Rick Warren promotes is riddled with hypermoralistic
dictates," says Ariana Childs Graham, international policy advocate at SIECUS. "According to Warren, churches have a ‘moral obligation’ to
promote abstinence and faithfulness as the only health behavior,
ignoring the full range of prevention strategies that evidence has
demonstrated needs to be part of successful HIV-prevention

In 2005, PEPFAR increased its commitment to faith-based groups
through President Bush’s New Partners Initiative, which sought to
tap churches and faith-based groups as funding recipients. "What it meant is
that the old partners, the public health people who distributed condoms, were
disdained," says Jacobson. "Then new partners, many of whom had never stepped
foot in Africa, were suddenly getting millions of dollars to go there. As far
as we were concerned, it was a slush fund for the far right." 

Progressive attempts to reform PEPFAR during its reauthorization process in February 2008
were heated. The late Rep. Tom Lantos championed a revision of the bill which
struck the abstinence-until-marriage earmark, the prostitution pledge, and
other prevention restrictions, and opened the door for PEPFAR programs that
integrated family planning with HIV prevention as a natural combination of
sexual health services. 

The response of Warren and his fellow conservative PEPFAR
supporters was cynical and swift. Staging a press conference on the day of
the National Prayer Breakfast, four days before Lantos’s death, Warren joined a
menagerie of stalwart anti-choice leaders, including Reps. Chris Smith, Marilyn
Musgrave and Joe Pitts, and activists Wendy Wright, Chuck Colson and Day
Gardner. The group declared that the Lantos revision would "pour billions into the hands of abortion providers with little or no
regard for the pro-life, pro-family cultures of recipient countries," strip
abstinence programs of their funding and, by lifting the prostitution pledge,
enable the sex trafficking of women. Lantos’s reauthorization bill lost every
point on reproductive health, and PEPFAR was reauthorized in its flawed state. 

How that flawed policy plays out can be disastrous. As journalist
Michelle Goldberg noted at Religion Dispatches, one of
Warren’s protégés in Uganda, the rabidly anti-gay pastor Martin Ssempa, has
interpreted Warren’s faith-driven solutions to the HIV/AIDS epidemic by burning
condoms at universities and offering faith-healing to disease-stricken congregants.
Other PEPFAR grantees, as Jacobson’s colleagues in the global AIDS movement
have witnessed, use their funds to promote fundamentalist interpretations of
marital roles, advising women that if their husbands beat them, they should try
harder to please them. 

"We found enough examples of these things to make me very
worried," says Jacobson. 

Warren further entangles religion
and treatment in his very own "Purpose-Driven Nation," Rwanda. He offered to extend an undisclosed amount of
aid to the country if it adopted his bestselling book as an action plan for the
nation, using churches as centers for capacity building and American
evangelical leaders as medical and development advisors to the Rwandan
parliament. The plan included the provision of a set of development kits to
churches such as "school in a box" and "clinic in a box," the latter of which
Warren says will eventually include AIDS medicines. The problem with this arrangement
is comparable to the problem with other faith-based initiatives entrusted with
the distribution of state services: that the provision of aid and services is
performed with state dollars but with no accountability regarding the fair and
non-coercive availability of that aid. Emmanuel Kolini, the Anglican archbishop of Rwanda, who called
homosexuality a form of moral genocide, is on the National Steering Committee of Saddleback Church’s Western Rwanda HIV/AIDS Healthcare Initiative.

"When such a high-profile, leading spokesman on an issue that
affects women and gay people and men who have sex with men and sex workers
reinforces messages of stigmatization of anyone who’s different, it creates a
climate in which money is going to organizations that have little to no
accountability," says Jacobson. "We don’t know what’s going on with these
groups abroad. In my mind it ties in to religious leaders who seek to heal the
sick, but on their terms or not at all."

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  • invalid-0


    I read with much interest your article and the concerns you raise about Rick Warren.You points are pretty strong.

    I was however shocked about what you pointed out about Pastor Martin Ssempa,a quote you picked from journalist Michelle Goldberg……., one of Warren’s protégés in Uganda, the rabidly anti-gay pastor Martin Ssempa, has interpreted Warren’s faith-driven solutions to the HIV/AIDS epidemic by burning condoms at universities and offering faith-healing to disease-stricken congregants.

    I was a student at the scene where Pastor Martin burned the condoms and here is what happened.40million condoms that had been distributed to general population were found to be highly defective.The Uganda police chief at that time issued a national recall of the 40million engabu condoms.Pastor Martin Ssempa burned two of those condoms at Makerere University during the freshman week at Lumumba Hall.
    The quotation above distorts the fact and nobody ever seems to talk about the millions of defective condoms that were recalled and destroyed because they were not safe for public use.

    Its also untrue that Pastor Martin Ssempa’s congregants are “disease stricken”

    I invite you to come to Uganda and check oput these facts.

    Thank you.

  • jodi-jacobson

    Dear Simon,

    Thanks for your note.

    I know the circumstances surrounding the "defective" condom issue and in short, this was a misleading campaign created by the Museveni government at the time it was receiving huge sums of money from PEPFAR.  Both the goverment itself and the Bush Administration were lauding Uganda as an "abstinence" success story, which evidence showed in any case not to be true.  There were two incidents.  One in which the government claimed condoms that it had earlier been distributing were defective, and the other in which condoms were actually held from distribution throughout the country by the government.  We wrote about this extensively while I was at the Center for Health and Gender Equity, (some of the articles, releases and related papers can be found here) and I also traveled to Uganda several times to conduct research on this and other issues. Morever, a test batch of these condoms was sent to Switzerland to an independent lab and were found to be just fine.

    Ssempa was and has been an anti-safer sex, anti-condom crusader since the time he started getting funds from PEPFAR.  If that were not the case, then immediately on suspicion that the condom stock was defective, they would have moved quickly to restock.  They did not—for over 9 months.

    Best wishes, Jodi Jacobson

  • invalid-0

    I’m asking the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution, in January, calling on Barack Obama to withdraw his invitation to Rev. Rick Warren, because of his homicidal homophobia and sex intolerant HIV/AIDS misinformation campaign both here and in Rwanda and Uganda.

    It’s a post to the discussion board, “Rev. Rick Warren is homicidally homophic and sex intolerant in Africa.”

  • invalid-0

    I could correct half a dozen false statements in this blog, but I must zero in on your completely false statement that the HIV/AIDS Intiative at Saddleback Church has been the recipient of PEPFAR funds. We have not received a penny of PEPFAR money. I’m not sure where this idea came from, but it is totally untrue. You should check your facts before you make statements that lead to wrong conclusions in the minds of your readers.

  • invalid-0

    This is the best debunking of what Obama has called an area of “common ground” with the Warren camp in defense of his ridiculous selection of Warren as a speaker at the inauguration.

    Of course the objective of reducing AIDS infection around the world is a desire shared by many governments and organizations. Unfortunatley, PEPFAR, Warren and the Bush administration have chosen to make their own righteous conclusions about how to do so instead of adopting effective methods based on fact and scientific study. This heedless plunging into a world health crisis has strangely garnered praise for those who are in reality spreading disasterous policies and notions.

    The media has been too pathetically useful in accepting and spreading what are essentially glossed lies that mask the ineffective and damaging intentions of PEPFAR and Warren.

    With Obama’s selection of Warren, he and his cabinet are signalling that they believe what they hear and are not looking at the facts. Yes, dialogue is good. No, distortion and ineffective ideological missions do not belong on stage.

    As long as AIDS continues to be treated as a deserved plague on those who have sex, it will spread and kill. This approach should not be praised or rewarded with access or profile but should be denounced for what it is: inhumane.

  • http://thedevilanddanvojir.blogspot.com invalid-0

    Dear Kathryn:

    Please contact me for copies of three letters: two from me and one from Elizabeth Styffe. Note that after I wrote the second letter, I never heard from Styffe again. This is very telling.

    I wrote Styffe that I thought that the Christian community (especially the Southern Baptist Convention) missed its chance to REALLY do some good after the AIDS crisis hit. AIDS was first diagnosed in 1981. The first faith-based AIDS agency was the Episcopal Archdiocese of Los Angeles. By that time, 63,000 had died. To this date, I know of NO SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION CHURCH OR AGENCY that ministers to people with AIDS INSIDE THE U.S.

    You will note the very lovely response I received from Styffe, brimming with passion and cooperation. You will also note that in my response to her letter I requested that her letter be posted on my blog so that people could see how progressive Kay Warren and Saddleback Church intended to be.

    As I’ve said. No response. Nada. Nothing.

    After Warren’s Pat-Robertson-like statements on Sean Hannity’s show, I realized that Warren is an emerging Chirstofascist of the worst kind.

    PLEASE email me if you can. I really think you need to see this correspondence!

    Thank you,

    Dan Vojir

  • invalid-0

    Dear Kathryn Joyce,
    Iam very grateful for your article. it gives me liberty to bring truth to those who have never ever bothered to research more on Dr. martin Ssempa’s story of “burning condoms.” Iam one of the students who was in the vicinity at that time and I remember very well only two condoms which were even expired were burnt. This incident happened in late September two months after the Government of Uganda had repeatedly announced the recall of these condoms. As a matter of fact, Government authorities through the ministry of health and Uganda AIDS Commission championed this move. Dr. Ssempa is just being accussed of doing a justified thing that the Government was already doing.

    Secondly I have personally attended more than one service at Dr. Ssempa’s church and my goodness, the young people this pastor has raised are a treasure not only to Africa but the world over. There are no sick people in that church as journalist Goldberg lied. Come and see for yourself.

    We should commend the efforts of Dr. martin Ssempa worldwide because he has brought sanity to the many young people who didn’t have it. Come to any University in Uganda and ask about Pastor Ssempa and you will get a genuine report. You don’t need to meet him personally but just see the impact of his genuine work. Let us support this guy to transform our young people other than condeming and demonising him. he is no bad guy. this dude is good. he has shaped our nation.

    I respect your opinion, only that they have to be based on the truth not hearsay as you and Goldberg have done.

    Merry chrismas(that’s if you believe in it) and happy new year of truth based reporting.

    James Okurut
    Makerere University.

  • emma

    Wow, this is problematic in so many ways. It really bothers me that Rick Warren is basically using people in poor countries as a prop to boost his cred as a ‘humanitarian’ (and to boost his book sales, naturally). This is nothing but cultural imperialism and paternalism that attempts to infantilise the people of Africa. Trying to dictate to adults that they shouldn’t have sex, attempting to convert the population (naturally, the brown people need benevolent white guys to save them from sin and evil), the denial of both services and reality. This is incredibly dangerous. It’s also pretty sickening – unfortunately, literally so for the victims of Rick Warren and fellow ideologues who exploit the most vulnerable in the world in order to impose their beliefs and gain power and money.


    I don’t think I’ve been this disgusted in a long time.

  • invalid-0

    Dear Kathryn,
    Iam not yet done. I want to know why every right thinking pastor is associated with funding from Bush? Rick and Ssempa have never been taken off that list much as there is no evidence linking them to that. At one time, homosexuals said so but they failed to prove when put to task. HIV/AIDS activists railed so many abusive words at Dr. Ssempa claiming that he was being supported by Bush. There has been no evidence todate proving that. I dare you to bring it out.

    One thing I know about Dr. Ssempa is that he is married to an American woman. He has also gotten his masters and phd papers in the US Universities. Not everyone who is married to an American black, white or hispanic is an inlaw to Bush to qualify for that PEPFAR money.

    Looking at the conditions for getting that fund, I highly doubt whether Ssempa even qualifies for it. Ssempa uses his personal resources to put together his work, atleast I have seen this myself. I can prove it. For example recently in an Outreach they had in one of the big Secondary schools in Uganda, Ssempa personally mobilised his own funds and the school topped up what he was lacking and goodness gracious this outreach was very powerful. It was successful. The students came face to face with reality. They confronted their personal issues and at the end of the two day outreach it was joy for these young lads. Oh thank you Dr. Ssempa for this. if I had a means I would really support the likes of you.

    Finally, evil has never stopped challenging truth, truth any way has never been trampled at any one time. For truth always emerges out even if evil seems to have succeeded. Ssempa’s actions will one day be discovered if they are fake. If his actions are true which ofcourse I know, shame upon his critics.

    Once again merry xmas and happy new year.

    James Okurut
    Makerere University.

  • invalid-0

    Hello, Since your article appeared their have been rumblings of the gay left
    (Bob Ostertag has two articles on Huff Po, Melissa Etheridge on Huff Po and blogspots of Keith Hennessey and Justin Bond0. Most of the gay and global aids communitites are not getting their panties tied in a knot over the Warren issue. I am a friend of Jodi Jacobson thru HealthGap work and a well-known global aids treatment activist. I think Obama is being a bit friendly with Warren to let him down gently when Obama changes the PEPFAR regulations to include needle exchange, sex workers and eliminate the 1/3 abstinence only cut of the prevention funds. Don’t blame Warren for the sins of Bush, Cheney, et al. We must all now coalition build to make Obama walk his talk on aids globally and locally and on civil unions locally. The last thing the gay community needs is a predominatly wealthy white group demonstrating against Obama on Jan 20 and alienating the allies we need to change PEPFAR and obtain civil unions. Let us learn from the past to CHANGE the future. No use crying over spilt milk, or wasted global aids prevention funds. Let’s CHANGE PEPFAR while we have the
    John Iversen, co-founder ACT UP/East Bay, Berkeley Needle Exchange, Berkeley, CA

  • http://www.cakesecret.com invalid-0

    Do people realize that Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church is one of the largest recipients of faith based “initiatives” money? This explains his cozying up to Obama. He doesn’t want to lose all that sweet sweet taxpayer-funded cash flow. All about the money.

    The faith-based initiatives do one thing though — they subvert faith by attaching it to the corrupting powers of government funding. It also shows that many social conservatives aren’t against government largess, so long as they are the ones spending the money. How many social conservatives voted in favor of the investment bank and auto bailouts? Answer: lots of them.

    Goldwater is turning over in his grave.

  • http://coloredopinions.blogspot.com/2009_01_01_archive.html invalid-0

    Could you elaborate on this statistic:” six new infections for every person treated”?

    How many were treated? How many new infections? And, are there any charts representing what I assume is an increase in infection rates?

    The statistic is powerful in any case because the cost of preventing even one new infection can’t compare to the cost of treating one case, and, any HIV/AIDS program treating one case for every six new infections is failing miserably.