AIDS Epidemic in the South: Religion to Blame?


A recent segment of the PBS NewsHour focused on the South as the “Epicenter of the AIDS Crisis in America.” In spite of life-saving drugs that are available to treat HIV and AIDS, hundreds are still dying in the city of Atlanta and Fulton County, Georgia, the focus of the report.

A 2014 CDC analysis estimated that 44% of new HIV diagnoses in the United States were among African Americans who only comprise 12% of the total US population. Of this group, an estimated 57% were gay or bisexual men. 39% of these men were aged 13 to 24. In Fulton County alone, it is estimated that there are 3,000 people infected with this disease who do not know it. In addition, finding treatment and reaching treatment centers is sometimes an insurmountable problem. One commuter without a car had to make a two-hour trip each way to receive treatment.

Why is this group particularly at risk and why in the South? In the PBS feature the only mention of religion was an off-hand comment about Georgia being part of the “Bible Belt.” But doesn’t religion deserve more attention when it comes to this epidemic than a two-word metaphor? A close examination of the role religion has played in the United States, particularly in the South, shows that religion has indeed contributed greatly to the incidence of HIV/AIDS in this population.

Religion plays at least three different roles. The first is the history of religion and the black community. Slaveholders in colonial America promoted Christianity among their slaves. They allowed them to establish religious communities with their own pastors, but restricted the type of messages that could be promoted. Slaveholders had long emphasized those passages in the Bible that condoned the owning of slaves. Leviticus 25:44-46 sums it up pretty succinctly; “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” Slaveholders went to church every Sunday feeling justified in their right to own slaves. They also encouraged their slaves to adopt the very religion that was used to enslave them.

Frederick Douglas, a freed slave and 19th century orator, called out the white Christian slaveholders—“I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” After the abolition of slavery, most black families did not share Douglas’ views and continued to worship in segregated black churches throughout the United States, but particularly in the South. As Sikivu Hutchinson notes in her book, Moral Combat, the pull of religion on black families in the country even today is very strong. It is often the only network for social support and women in particular are drawn to the church communities. [1]

The second reason that religion plays a role in this dilemma is its advocacy of abstinence-only sex education in the public schools. Research has shown that youth who receive this type of education have pre-marital sexual relations earlier than those who receive medically accurate sex education. Millions of dollars per year are appropriated from federal tax dollars to support abstinence-only sex education. The Secular Coalition of America lobbied extensively for the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act—REHYA— S. 2765 and H.R. 1706 in the last Congressional session. This act would require medically accurate sex education that addressed issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, birth control, and LGBT issues. However, in spite of this effort, both bills died in committee. Without the proper sex education as provided in REHYA, youth will continue to more vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS.

The third way in which religion furthers the crisis in HIV/AIDS involves the Religious Right’s opposition to homosexuality. The Biblical dictate of Leviticus 20:13 requires that “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” At a conference attended by former presidential candidate Ted Cruz, Pastor Kevin Swanson recently suggested that this is exactly what should be done today in the US. Pastor Swanson did not limit his authority to only the Old Testament. He stated that the Apostle Paul said the same thing in Romans 1:32.

Imagine the social stigma of a young black person living in the South who has contracted this dreadful disease. He or she fights the religious stigma of being gay and having sex outside of a marriage impossibly defined in his church and family as between one man and one woman. In addition, he or she faces all the other issues faced by minorities in our country. In spite of accurate sex education, life-saving drugs, and the legalization of gay marriage, this young black person may contract HIV, not know it, not get treatment, and die as the infection progresses to AIDS.

Many people chide me in my ardent atheism. They often say that religion is a personal issue and you should not criticize people for their views. But can we afford this charitable view when it results in thousands of deaths that could have been prevented? Or do we need to examine religion for all of its faults and challenge its basis in our culture today. I vote for the latter.

Karen L. Garst


[1] Sikivu Hutchinson, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (Los Angeles, CA: Infidel Books. Kindle Edition, 2011), 33-34.


About the Author Karen Garst