After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion
(Oxford University Press)
US: Jul 2015
In 1996, during the height of the political drama between Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and President William Clinton, Gingrich quietly released a memo, titled, “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control”, that was circulated to all Republican members of the House of Representatives. The memo, primarily ghost written by Frank Luntz, contained a list of phrases that Gingrich wanted Republicans to use frequently to describe themselves and their campaigns, as well as words to describe Democrats.
As one might imagine, possible words to describe Democrats included “betray”, “corrupt”, “anti-flag, family, child, jobs”, “radical”, “unionized”, and “welfare.” Contrast that with the “Optimistic Positive Governing Words” suggested by Gingrich and Luntz: “choice”, “commitment”, “crusade”, “liberty”, “pro-flag, children, environment, reform” and, “moral”.
Indeed, one could argue that well before Gingrich’s “Contract with America”, conservative politics had been dominated by those that firmly believe that morality, or the lack thereof, was the primary driving force behind America’s success and failures. For Anthony Petro, assistant professor of religion at Boston University, and author of the new volume, After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion, “The ability to shape notions of morality” became a “source of religious power in America.” In the ‘80s public health became a battleground for the “moral language of health”.
Although this manuscript was completed before the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, it’s hard not to read and appreciate Petro’s work in light of the recent, federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and to see how much things have changed since 1982, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first started using the phrase AIDS—and how much things haven’t changed. When Petro recounts comments by Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell – that AIDS was God’s punishment not just for homosexuals, but for America, it’s eerily reminiscent of the rhetoric we have all come to know (and hate) of the late Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church.
Similarly, Petro suggests that the ‘80s’ and ‘90s’ conservative Christian movement “capitalized on public fear, combined with gaps in medical knowledge, to advance alternative theories about HIV, AIDS and its connection to homosexuality.” Again, it’s hard not to look at the current Republican war on intellectualism, Islam, science, and reason, and not see chilling parallels.
Petro begins the book at the site of a 1993 prayer rally in Columbus, Ohio, and the late Billy Graham’s announcement that AIDS was, in his opinion, a judgement of God. This sets the stage for Petro’s theme for After the Wrath: from its onset, AIDS was constructed first as a moral epidemic, and only then, a physical one. According to the author:
Few words have the potential to carry as much authority or be as rhetorically flexible as morality. In modern America, especially among political conservatives, invocations of morality have become a useful tool for public debate precisely because the term is unwieldy and shifting: morality doubles as both a religious and secular concept, often becoming the site of translation between the two.
After the Wrath of God is also a tribute to the early heroes of the movement to raise awareness of AIDS. Some of these figures include Larry Kramer and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), Cardinal Terrence Cooke, John Fortunato, Pernessa Seele, the Rev. Yvette Flunder, Troy Perry, Michael G. Meyer, Stephen Pieters, the Rev. Carl Bean, the Rev. Carl F. Titchener who, as “early” as 1987, handed out condoms during a sermon about AIDS, and Southern Baptist writers Earl Shelp and Ronald Sunderland. Shelp and Sunderland deserve special recognition, according to Pietro, because the duo were responsible for three books on the ideal Christian response to AIDS: AIDS: Personal Stories in Pastoral Perspective, AIDS: A Manual for Pastoral Care, and AIDS and the Church. Each volume centered developing ministries based on faith and compassion with a foundation of “accurate and current medical facts regarding AIDS.”
The book consists of only four chapters: “Emerging Mortalities”, on the initial response of the broad Christian community to AIDS; “Governing Authority”, a study of C. Everett Koop and the health policy politics of the Reagan years; “Ecclesiastical Authority”, an intensive examination of Cardinal John O’Connor and the Catholic Church’s response to AIDS and; “Protest Religion!”, which details the subsequent pro-AIDS movement that hinged on protesting much of the aforementioned religious policy on the syndrome.
Like Stephen King’s Different Seasons, which consisted of four novellas, After the Wrath is basically four novellas on AIDS and American religion that are broadly connected, but were clearly written at different times, and probably not in sequence. This makes it a limiting factor in the intended audience: academics, church historians, and public health professionals.
Yet while academic, After the Wrath is an amazing read and full of thought-provoking ideas and theories about how religion – leaders, institutions, and policy – frames responses to disease. Politics and religion are so deeply linked in the United States that the relationship is basically incestuous, and the effect of this relationship on public health is well analyzed, here. After the Wrath truly does justice to this area of health policy and illustrates the very real, and very tragic consequences of the moral and ethical legerdemain that is unfortunately, now, American politics.
In particular, Petro lavishes extra attention and focus on former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, whose 1986 report on HIV and AIDS began a necessary, yet painful, public discussion on sex education. His pamphlet, “Understanding AIDS”, was mailed to over 100 million households in 1988. According to Pietro, “Koop hadn’t just crossed the line; he had redrawn it.”
After the Wrath of God contains a reprint of the “Understanding AIDS” cover page and it’s astonishing and slightly hilarious to see topics listed from “What Do You Really Know about AIDS?” to “Why No One Has Gotten AIDS from Mosquitoes”. In his February 2013 obituary for Koop, Slate’s Josh Voorhees wrote that the seven-page pamphlet was at the time, and continues to be, “the largest public health mailing ever”.
Reagan’s political appointee, Koop’s brazen public health policy was at odds with the conservative advisors and appointees that swathed Reagan; Pietro notes that William Bennett, Reagan’s Secretary of Education, referenced Koop’s theories as “straight homosexual propaganda, lifted out of their tirades.” The whole chapter devoted to the role of Koop won’t appeal to everyone – but the reader realizes that the depth of description is to make the argument that despite the moral crusade launched by many Christians against AIDS victims, Koop had a key role in bridging the medical with the moral. Pietro is clear that this role cannot be over-stated. According to the author, “One of Koop’s greatest accomplishments was not to spare medicine and public health of moral politics, but instead to translate public health into no less than a religious and moral commandment itself.”
The best chapter of After the Wrath of God is the last; the groups that coalesced around what many saw as presidential inaction represented just a sliver of the AIDS movement. Indeed, Petro does a fantastic job of untangling the complexity of the movement and its characters. After the Wrath of God shows just how complex the movement and its goals were.
Three decades later, it’s easy for many of us, especially those who only came of age after AIDS had become part of the conversation, to create a simplified narrative of the movement. In our minds, Ronald and Nancy Reagan were the Sith, and everyone who protested against them were the Jedi. In New York alone, the movement was divided by politics, class, and race, but gained its most powerful force behind its almost-cult like opposition to Cardinal O’Connor and the lack of Catholic (see religious) support for contraception, sexual health education, and some basic compassion for AIDS victims. Petro goes into great detail and unpacks Catholic policy on AIDS and homosexuality. Its primary architect was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (later Pope Benedict XVI).
Two of the most powerful groups – AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Women’s Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM!) – even came together to stage a series of protests, jarringly named, Stop the Church. Their most infamous protest was held on 10 December 1989, outside and inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. For what many viewed as the continued lack of support by the Catholic Church for victims of AIDS and the constant demeaning of homosexuality, thousands protested; while over a hundred people would be arrested, the most jarring incident happened inside when a young man, crumbled the sacred host, i.e., destroyed the communion wafer that Catholics view as representing the body of Christ (through the theory of transubstantiation).
Yet while much of the focus of After the Wrath of God is on the American Catholic church, there’s also attention paid to evangelicals. For example, Petro details the rise of Rick and Kay Warren and their HIV/AIDS Initiative based out of Saddleback, their church in Lake Forest, California. While Rick became a monstrous force and religious influence on the presidency and Congress since the ‘90s, Kay’s fame came from her attention to AIDS, particularly the devastation it caused in Africa. While Petro remains objective, it’s hard not to avoid the noxious reek and moral superiority of the Saddleback initiatives. These included the “ABC approach (abstinence, be faithful, use a condom);” SLOW (“Supply condoms and eventually microbicides for everyone”, “Limit the number of partners”, “Offer needle exchange”, “Wait for sexual debut”; and STOP (“Save sex for marriage”, “Teach men and boys to respect women and children”, “Open the door to the Church”, and “Pledge fidelity to one partner for life”. According to Pietro, these proposals all hinged on the role of the church as the morally credible crusader, but also the institution responsible for “behavior modification”.
In the 21 July 2015 edition of The New York Times Ben Detrick wrote a 20th anniversary encomium to Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s gut-wrenching tale of adolescence, Kids. “For cultural alarmists of the ‘90s Clinton era, the film ‘Kids’ represented a culmination of fears,” wrote Detrick. The film touched a nerve for many because of its focus on the lack of sexual precaution taken by the film’s youth. But now, I realize that in retrospect, Kids was released at an epochal moment of sexual politics in the United States, at the point when the sheer perseverance of thousands of activists had succeeded in placing AIDS on the national agenda, but right before the American conscience would be crushed by 9/11 and the new moral reckoning on terrorism and homeland security. Taken from that perspective, Petro’s After the Wrath of God is an admirable effort at showing us how the AIDS epidemic was turned into a moral panic by those in positions of power.
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