For President Bush this is far more than politics. He sat with a dozen of us, mostly from faith-based communities, in the White House for an hour before he gave his talk. I've spent a lot of time with presidents over the years, but I've never seen one more engaged in an issue, more aware of the stakes, and more passionately committed as Bush is on this issue.
And the president fervently believes that the faith-based community offers something that is indispensable—that is, the power of the Gospel to change destructive behavior. It's the only way we are going to stop the carnage: 40,000 Africans a week dying from AIDS.
The president made it clear that the House and Senate must act quickly, not only to pass a law, but also to make it clear that the faith-based community will be full participants. At the end of the meeting the president said, "We need to do this because it is the right thing."
I added, "It's not only the right thing, Mr. President—it works."
"I know that," he replied. "That's what delivered me from alcohol, and I wouldn't be sitting at this table otherwise."
I responded, "I wouldn't be sitting at the table either."
Yet there's a danger that the president's initiative may be derailed in Congress. The House International Relations Committee failed to pass two critically needed amendments.
The first amendment puts abstinence first. The African nation that has been most successful in fighting AIDS is Uganda, which aggressively promotes abstinence and monogamy. Combating AIDS is a matter of "ABC": Abstinence, Be faithful, and only then, if necessary, Condoms. The result is a dramatic delay in the onset of teen sexual activity and a reduction in the AIDS infection rate from 22 percent to 7 percent over ten years.
In his speech yesterday in the East Room, President Bush cited the Uganda experience. It's the model for what he is proposing.
The second amendment that the House committee did not accept is the conscience clause that enables faith-based groups to work without compromising their beliefs. The problem is that Congress wants faith-based solutions, but without the faith that makes the solution possible. You can't have it both ways. So we need an amendment that makes it clear faith-based groups can hire people who believe what they believe and not hire people who don't.
The Senate and the House get hung up on issues like these, and if they don't hear an overwhelming response from the American people, they are likely to pass an AIDS bill that will keep Christians from being involved.
The full House is going to consider this bill very soon—so get to your House members. Call them on the phone. Tell them that it is imperative that they support the president's initiative, but only with amendments that make abstinence first and provide a conscience clause for religious workers.
I think this initiative is one of the most important bills that has been offered by our government. As the president said, it will define what kind of nation we are. I don't say this often, but we need you. Please call. Please help.
Urge your congressman to support the amendments to the AIDS bill (H.R. 1298) that make abstinence first and provide a conscience clause for faith-based organizations. The Capitol switchboard is 1-202-224-3121.
William J. Bennett and Charles W. Colson, "Africa's AIDS Crisis," Washington Times, 29 April 2003.
Read BreakPoint's fact sheet on "A Responsible Approach to a Global AIDS Policy."
"President Urges Congress to Act Quickly on Global HIV/AIDS Initiative," Remarks by the President on Global HIV/AIDS Initiative, The East Room, White House Office of the Press Secretary, 29 April 2003.
Arthur Allen, "Sex Change: Uganda v. Condoms," New Republic, 16 May 2002.
Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala, "Prevention Means More than Condoms," Daily Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), 4 October 2002.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 020317, "The African AIDS Crisis: Fighting a Modern-Day Plague."
Newsbusted: Planned Parenthood, Cecil the Lion, Hillary Clinton, Jim Gilmore, Christ Mathews, Debbie Wasserman Shultz