Culture At Large

Why antigay laws are poor Christian health policy

Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

At least since the Reformation, Christian thinkers have devoted a lot of attention to the idea of vocation. Martin Luther was among the first to apply this concept to work outside the institutional church. He argued that every legitimate occupation is a calling. Those in ministry have an important role in society. But laypeople in various jobs and professions have their own duties and authority. And we often get into trouble when these roles are confused.

The challenge is vividly demonstrated on issues of public health such as HIV/AIDS. Religious institutions have an essential role in calling individuals to lives characterized by morality, integrity, restraint and commitment. If churches, synagogues and mosques do not play this social role, it is hard to imagine what other institutions would fill the gap. Success in public health often requires changed behavior. And religious institutions - in Africa, in America and nearly everywhere else - are trusted, authoritative guides to behavior.  

At the same time, I have met many Christians involved in professions related to public health, and their calling is different. While reinforcing the need for responsible behavior, they are also required to understand and accommodate human behavior as it is. Sound public health practices, for example, will warn people against engaging in high-risk sexual practices, but also provide condoms or other protection to people engaged in high-risk sexual practices. This is not a moral compromise; it is the nature of the public health vocation. In this field, realism about sexual behavior is a requirement for the common good. And serving that common good is a moral calling.

Antigay laws in Nigeria and Uganda represent a deeply troubling misunderstanding of the role of faith in politics.

These issues came into focus when Christian physician C. Everett Koop became Surgeon General in the 1980s at the beginning of the American AIDS crisis. Koop responded to a medical emergency with frank information about the way the disease is transmitted and by promoting the use of condoms to block transmission. Initially, he was criticized by some Christian leaders for engaging in moral compromise. But Koop understood his vocation, stood his ground and saved many lives in the process.

The current debate in Africa over antigay laws brings these issues to mind. Harsh legal prohibitions of homosexual acts in Nigeria and Uganda - including a 14-year sentence for first time offenders in Uganda - have sometimes received the support of evangelical churches. This represents a deeply troubling misunderstanding of the role of faith in politics. Christians engaged in public life should be characterized by commitments to human dignity and moral persuasion - not by supporting legal penalties that incite abuse. 

On this matter, it is also important for Christians to hear and respect the views of public health professionals. Study after study has shown that when men who have sex with men are singled out for prosecution and discrimination, they are less likely to get education on HIV/AIDS, less likely to get tested, less likely to be treated and more likely to spread the disease without knowing their status. Antigay laws are disastrous health policy. 

It is the calling of churches, in Africa and elsewhere, to urge high standards of behavior. But it is the calling of public officials - including public health professionals - to seek the common good by dealing with human behavior as it is. And both of these are important vocations. 

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