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The Social Impact of Aids in the United States
and the religions of Native Americans are not discussed. Although powerful forces in the personal lives of their adherents, these religions are not ordinarily given to public statements from official representatives about their beliefs.
The primary objective of this chapter is to describe how organized religion has responded to the epidemic and to note the ways in which that response has affected the broader public response and the formation of public and health policy. Many Americans have strong feelings about religion and its place in public life. It is difficult to write about religion without making, or suggesting, value judgments, and even strenuous efforts to avoid such judgments will sometimes be interpreted by some readers as condemnatory or complimentary. In this chapter, the panel has made such efforts to avoid judgments on various religious responses to the epidemic and also to avoid any prescriptions of how religion should respond or what religious should teach. Rather, the intention is to elucidate the role that religious organizations have played in the epidemic and, in so doing, stress the importance of taking that response into account in efforts to understand the impact of AIDS in American society.
The response of religion to the epidemic has been multifaceted. Not only are there many religious communities with their distinct traditions, but within the traditions themselves various themes intertwine with varying emphases. This complexity makes generalization difficult and simplification perilous. As discussed in this chapter, certain themes from certain traditions were more noticeable in the early years of the epidemic, which led to the impression that religion in general was unsympathetic toward those touched by the epidemic and hostile toward preventive efforts. Unquestionably, many people in the gay community strongly believe this is so, as evidenced by two events sponsored by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP): a disruption of Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, where demonstrators desecrated the communion wafers and chained themselves to pews while 4,500 protested outside, and a demonstration outside Boston's Holy Cross Cathedral during an ordination ceremony, where ACT-UP members, some of them "in drag," tossed condoms at newly ordained priests as they left the building. A broader view of the religious response shows these negative reactions, to be sure, but also a more complex picture of religion and AIDS in the United States.
The important role that religious organizations can play in the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been recognized by the lead federal agency in the effort to contain the epidemic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Realizing that its resources are limited and that the widest possible cooperation with other social institutions is needed, the CDC, through the National Partnership Program of its National AIDS Information and Education Program, began in 1989 the development of programmatic relationships with the business