Conservative theologian, homophobe, and author Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, writes in the CNN BeliefBlog that the “Church is world’s most powerful weapon against AIDS.” Never mind that the Church is against AIDS preventing measures like contraception and sex ed (or any education, really), not to mention a virulent anti-science stance. Let’s face it: telling Africa, like America, to practice abstention is not going to cut it (it worked so well for Bristol Palin, after all).
The RealityCheck.org looks at the “untold consequences” of Warren’s AIDS activism:
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.
“Healthy choices” i.e. conversion of non-believers to Christianity, is the means of battling the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Rick Warren even told World Net Daily that the reason for his AIDS work was to turn non-Christians into Christians. Because Christians always make the right choices, right?
But that doesn’t answer the question of how Warren thinks the “Church” can be more effective than governments. So setting treatment decisions aside, let’s look at Warren’s claims to Christianity’s unique position:
One of the great lessons of this fight is that the single fastest way to mobilize at the grassroots level around the world is through local congregations. Nothing comes close to the size and scope of this pool of compassionate volunteers.
According to him, the Church is uniquely positioned to combat the world AIDS epidemic:
The church has the largest distribution network on the planet. There are more churches in the world than all the Wal-Marts, McDonald’s and Starbucks combined. The church was global 200 years before anyone else thought of globalization. We could take you to thousands of villages around the world where the only institution to speak of is a church.
Yes, as a result of centuries of ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide, the ruthless exploitation of indigenous cultures, the Church is all over the place. That should translate to lots of Christians, right? That’s part of Warren’s argument:
Plus, the Christian church is the only organization growing faster than the new infection rate: while 7,000 people are newly infected globally every day, and church growth experts estimate that the church is adding 35,000 converts daily in China alone.
But Church membership is declining in the U.S. and in other parts of the world as well, especially Europe.
The Christian Post reported in 2009 that,
The Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church – the two largest Christian communions in the country – have joined the ranks of mainline denominations in reporting membership losses, the latest church yearbook shows.
And it’s not the Southern Baptists and Catholic churches alone that have suffered losses:
[T]he United Church of Christ (down 6.01 percent), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (down 3.01 percent), the Presbyterian Church (USA) (down 2.79 percent), the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (down 1.44 percent), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (down 1.35 percent), and American Baptist Churches USA (down 0.94 percent).
But the problem may be worse than that. According to a 2008 Gallup Poll, actual church membership (as opposed to people who say they are Christian) is declined 14 percent between 2000 and 2008. And of course there is the issue of just how many of those people who claim membership in a church actually attend services there, and fill the collection plate. As ThinkChristian.net admits, “The number of Americans labeling themselves “Christian” is down from 91 percent to 82 percent in little over fifty years.”
Ouch. And according to the Courier-Journal.com, “The Louisville-based Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recorded a loss of 3 percent of its members in 2010, including those in 26 congregations that left for other denominations.”
As the Courier-Journal goes on to note,
The decline marks the latest in nearly a half-century of steady losses in membership in one of the nation’s most historic religious denominations. It mirrors similar losses in several other Protestant denominations.
The situation is even worse in Europe. As James P. Gannon wrote in USAToday in 2006:
A series of Eurobarometer surveys since 1970 in five key countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy) shows that regular church attendance fell from about 40% of the population to about half that figure. Declines were sharpest in predominantly Catholic nations.
It’s true that in places like Africa, South America and even Communist China, sustained efforts at cultural genocide have ensured that Christianity is doing well.
But how much money and resources do these overseas converts provide to the Church’s mission in Africa? The China Charity and Donation Information Center reported in its 2009 First Half-Year Report on Charitable Donations in China that total charitable contributions in China amounted to $1.92 billion in the first half of 2009. Americans in 2009 gave more than $307.75 despite the recession according to Giving USA, an annual report compiled by the American Association of Fundraising Counsel. This giving was down 3.6 percent from the previous year. Of that $307.75 billion, $100.95 billion went to religious or Faith-Based charities. It doesn’t sound like rising membership in China is going to fund overseas needs let alone replace declining membership (and therefore revenue) from the United States.
In other words, it’s quite easy to find lists of groups gathering charitable contributions to send to China; less easy by far to find numbers of funds coming out of China to help AIDS victims in Africa.
It’s no secret that fundamentalists want the church (however that is defined) to replace the federal government, so it’s easy to see why such claims as Warren makes would be popular and sell to the base. After all, if they can force everyone to come to Faith-Based organizations for all their needs their membership will grow exponentially, rather than decline as it has been. Brazen, federally-funded proselytization would be the order of the day – it is now for many groups. If you want to eat, convert.
And then there is the little issue of these Christian organizations, particularly Faith Based groups, take in millions of dollars from a supposedly despised federal government. Sounds like the Church isn’t doing so well that it needs help itself from the federal government it wants to replace. A little food for thought: According to the HIV/AIDS Policy Fact Sheet (February 2006),
The President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 federal budget request includes an estimated $22.8 billion for domestic and global HIV/AIDS activities.1 This represents an 8.3% increase ($1.7 billion) over FY 2006 funding for HIV/AIDS of $21.1 billion. Federal funding for HIV/AIDS has increased significantly over the course of the epidemic2 (although it represents less than 1% of the overall federal budget).
If the federal government reduced defense spending by even a fraction, it is clear that the federal government of the United States alone (out of the world’s many predominantly Christian countries) has a reach that far exceeds that of Rick Warren’s “Church”.
Gannon makes much of the fact that in 2001 conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan wrote in his book, The Death of the West, that a European-style “de-Christianization of America” is the goal of many liberals. He warned that liberalism is succeeding in its goal. We are still hearing this today, this supposed association between Christianity and European civilization. But Europe’s roots go far deeper into a Pagan past that the Church would like to forget ever existed. Christianity is not the essential glue that binds Western civilization together. Atheistic countries, such as those in Europe, seem to be doing fine in the Post-Christian world. The real threat is from the opposite direction: the reactionary forces of Christian fundamentalism that want to reassert their old place in Western culture. But it was the Renaissance and the European Enlightenment that set Europe apart – going back to the days of the oppressive Theodosian Code is a step backward and that is what would truly destroy the West, not the loss of Christianity.
And this is something fundamentalists cannot stand. To their minds, Christianity must be relevant, and increasingly, this is not true. Younger people are moving away from the Church. Many Christians say they believe in things like reincarnation and multiple paths to salvation, teachings far outside traditional Christian doctrine. Worse for Warren’s narrative, Trinity College in Connecticut did a study in 2009 that shows atheism is on the rise. Religions like my own form of paganism are also fast-growing.
Rick Warren has been accused by some of his fellow Christians as being a false prophet, selling a version of Christianity and a version of Jesus’ teachings that are contrary to the Bible. I would argue here that he is also being a false prophet with regards to Christianity’s place and power in not only America, but in the World. I would further argue that not only is Warren overselling the Christian cure for AIDS (conversion over prevention) but he is overselling Christianity itself. Let’s face it, the time to make the hard-sell is when nobody wants what you’re selling.