AIDS, Homophobia & the Religious Right

By | November 16, 2011

Charles L. Rulon

Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences

Long Beach City College

 Medieval religious beliefs intensified the persecution of AIDS victims

Scientists have been working around the clock for decades to con­quer AIDS, a tragic dis­ease spread by a deadly virus that has already killed tens of millions of people.  Like most crises, AIDS has brought out the best and the worst in human nature. Thousands of pro­fes­sional and voluntary care-givers have gen­­er­ously come forth to care for the sick.  Fund raisers have generated millions to fight this dis­ease.  These are expres­­sions of human compas­sion at its best.

But AIDS has also aroused mean-spirited responses due to the fact that the disease first struck already stigma­tized popu­la­tions: gay men, IV drug users and prosti­tutes. Attacks against gay men began to rise sharply in the late 70s, shortly after the epidemic hit.  In 1986, the presi­dent of the South­ern Baptist Convention announced that AIDS was God’s way of indi­cating His dis­plea­sure with the homosexual life­style.  His view was widely suppor­t­ed across our nation in thou­s­ands of Christ­ian churches and on hun­dreds of Chris­t­ian tele­vision and radio stations to tens of millions of follow­ers.

Over three decades later millions upon millions of Christians in the U.S. continue to believe that homo­­­­­sexual behavior is hated by God, that AIDS was brought by God as a punishment, and that those with AIDS must have deserv­ed it for their “wick­ed lifestyle.”  This is in spite of the fact that:

a. Mono­ga­mous gay men rarely got AIDS, unless they shot drugs.

b. Almost no lesbians were infected with the AIDS virus.

c. In Africa, Asia and South America, hetero­sexual popu­la­tions were the hardest hit with AIDS.

d. Many heterosexuals in the U.S. acquired AIDS via blood transfu­sions from contaminated blood.

e. Tens of thousands of newborn ba­bies got AIDS from their in­fected mothers.

This religious “wrath of God” explanation for AIDS has been used to explain deadly epidemics throughout history.  Yet, would the elimination of any disease have been possible if this disease really were caused by an angry god?  Kill the rats and fleas and the plague disappears.  Eliminate the mosquito and malaria disappears.  Sterilize the drinking water and cholera disappears.  Vaccinate enough people and small pox is eradicated.  If history is any guide, AIDS will also be eventu­ally conquered.  But it won’t be by Christians persecuting homosexuals, or by Muslims burying them alive.

In the meanwhile, those who believe that AIDS is God’s way of punishing homosexuals will not be donating money to fight this disease.  Nor will they be helping those who are dying alone in some hospital, or on some street corner, shunned even by their “God fear­ing” relatives.  Instead, their “wrath of God” beliefs and propaganda will actually help to spread AIDS.  This is because young males who want sex from women will rare­ly reveal any past homo­sexual or IV drug usage.  Neither will married gay men who are still in the closet to their wives.   So the virus spreads to women and then to their fetuses during pregnancy.

In addition, the Christian Right with its non-stop efforts to elec­t con­­ser­va­tive judges, legis­lators and school boards, plus its relentless error-filled propagan­da and watch­dog acti­v­i­­ties, has blocked many education­al pro­grams rela­ted to AIDS for the last three decades.  They have kept homo­phobia alive, kept sex educa­tion out of the schools, and kept IV drug addicts from obtaining sterile needles.

 The Catholic Church and AIDS

One of the biggest obstacles to AIDS education and to AIDS control pro­grams over the last three decades has been the Roman Catholic Church—a church that minis­ters to the spiritual needs of roughly one-sixth of the entire world popula­tion!

In 1986 the first condom commer­cials finally began to appear on television.  But it was not because the U.S. had the highest rate of unplanned teen pregnancies and one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases of all Western devel­oped na­tions.  No.  Instead, it was finally in response to the deadly serious AIDS epi­dem­ic that broke out in the late 1070s.  Even then the uproar, po­litical pressure and threatened boycotts from the Christian Right, in par­ticular the Roman Catholic Church, squashed most ads.

In 1989, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston even urged Catho­lic parents to pull their chil­dren out of pub­lic school AIDS classes because their discus­sions of sex and con­doms were “amoral.”  Just teach child­ren to be good and to abstain, said the Archdio­cese.

In 1995, Catholic officials in Brazil criticized the government’s new AIDS prevention campaign because it advocated the use of condoms to protect against the spread of AIDS.  In 1996, even though Kenya had a very serious AIDS problem, Kenya’s top Catholic bishop publicly burned several boxes of con­doms along with pam­phlets promoting safe sex.

Catholic Church officials have declared that condoms offered no protection against AIDS.  Some have even asserted that condoms actually caused AIDS by lulling people into believing they were protected.  Health professionals continue to strong­ly dis­agree.  Dr. James Prescott voiced his outrage back in 1987: “The willingness of the Roman Catholic church and moral funda­mentalists to subordi­nate the pre­vention of the spread of a deadly disease that will take millions of lives to their ill-conceived reli­g­ious beliefs of per­ceived evil in condom usage simply staggers one’s sense of moral conscious­ness.”[i]  Almost 25 years later, little has changed.[ii]

Some closing thoughts

There is no question that much Catholic Church ef­fort world­wide has been di­rect­ed to­ward aiding the poor, the sick, the elderly and the handi­capped, plus main­tain­ing child care centers, and pro­viding drug and alco­hol reha­bili­ta­tion programs.  Many kind and char­i­t­able programs are rooted in Catholic reli­gious teach­ings.  Also, many priests have been at the fore­­front of civil rights movements, cam­­paigns for dis­ar­ma­ment, struggles for economic equality and against capital punishment.  Many priests have also been active in cam­paigns to save our planet from be­ing envir­on­men­tally trashed by greed and power struggles.  Some have been killed for their efforts.  That’s why it’s so unfortunate that the Catholic hierarchy has chosen to continue to vig­or­ous­ly op­pose condoms in this age of AIDS, not to mention stem-cell research, all modern contra­ception, the morning-after pill, steri­li­za­tion procedures, all abortions, in-vitro fertilization, and gay marriage.

When certain reli­gious beliefs are being forced on others and result in the suffer­ing of inno­cent people, these beliefs deserve to be investigated and exposed if necessary.  Yet, when such harm is exposed, religious leaders often cry foul and accuse skep­tics of blasphe­my and reli­gion bashing.  However, history teaches us that religious be­lief systems, if not kept in check by ongoing skeptical inquiry, have the po­ten­tial of developing autho­ri­tarian, Holy Crusade systems of moral absolutes and truths.


[i] Dr. James Prescott. “AIDS, Sexual Oppression and Violence,” The Humanist, July/Aug. 1987.

[ii] For a detailed coverage of the Roman Catholic’s position on condoms and AIDS, including the Church’s justification,  see <>

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