During a trip to Uganda last fall, I travelled through small villages near Jinja, a city about 71km from Kampala and home to the source of the Nile. Young Mormons, wearing the uniform of crisp white shirt, black tie, nametag and backpack, walked from hut to hut.
They travelled in pairs: one white Mormon and one black Mormon. My driver and guide told me that having a black missionary made the approach easier. Presumably, the young black missionary would speak at least Swahili.
However, those rite-of-passage mission trips are funded by the church, enabled through strict adherence by congregants to its aggressive tithing requirements.
But it is when mission trips – by any other name – are funded by US taxpayer money that we must put a stop to it.
George W Bush ushered in an era of unprecedented funding to faith-based (read: Christian) organisations.
The US has always funded religion in one way or another – think of tax-exempt status for churches and all houses of worship no matter the religion and multi-million dollar support of Catholic hospitals.
But Bush’s vision was special. Billions in US taxpayer money was doled out to the Evangelicals who got him elected, a de facto payoff. The funds came through virtually every department under executive branch oversight, including the Department of Defense, Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Domestically, the grants had names like “Healthy Marriage”, “Compassion Capital” and “Abstinence-Only” programmes among others. But arguably, one of the largest payouts to these religious groups came via PEPFAR – President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
So what’s the big deal – that was George W Bush? He is history and we have moved on, right?
The answer to that is kinda.
How taxpayer money is ‘wasted’
President Obama has done precious little to end PEPFAR funding to anti-gay, anti-condom, “abstinence-only” organisations operating in Africa (and indeed other parts of the world).
Failed and damaging abstinence programmes are being implemented throughout Sub-Saharan Africa – they did not go away when George W Bush left the White House.
For example, Samaritan’s Purse (SP) was the most rewarded faith-based organisation under President George W Bush. Between 1999 and 2002, it received over $6.5m in federal grants, accounting for 17 percent of total funding to “Evangelical” organisations, according to the National Committee on Responsible Philanthropy (NCRP).
SP is led by Franklin Graham who is not shy about his anti-Muslim and anti-condom beliefs. His organisation exists for one reason: to implement a Christian worldview via public/private partnerships around the globe.
The organisation brags about converting Muslims to Christianity through the distribution of “hygiene kits” and clean water projects in Niger. They have been found to be evangelising Haitians as part of their relief efforts.
But despite being censured previously for proselytising with federal money, Graham’s group still gets millions.
According to SP’s 990 tax returns for 2011, the organisation received over $7m in federal grants in that year alone.
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But, it is impossible from these tax documents alone to determine from which US operating division the money came and how it was spent. Or, that the government funding was kept separate from religious activities, which is required to award the grant, or from funding the production of Swahili Bibles distributed throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, including Kenya.
Most recently SP was awarded $1.3m in grants to implement “Abstinence-Only-Until- Marriage” programmes in Mozambique. Mozambique is the last country in a multi-country plan that also included Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.
The latest installment to SP was over $85,000, made last fall. This amount appears innocuous at first blush. However, this is just one PEPFAR quarterly payout of one award to one organisation, through one operating division of the US government.
While in Uganda, last year, I tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to visit SP. Even my intrepid in-country fixer could not get them to speak with us. But then again, neither would in-country representatives from USAID or the US Embassy.
These organisations and the Obama administration must be held to account for the millions of US taxpayer dollars still wasted on abstinence-only “preventative” programmes handed over year after year to Evangelical groups like SP, who have little interest in preventing the spread of HIV.
Problems with funding religious groups
SP and all other Christian organisations like it take our money for one purpose: to give them the ultimate reward, the opportunity to witness – to the savages – for Christ. History repeats itself; Christians “saving” the “savages” be it during the colonial era or today. It just happens that today the US taxpayer is footing some of the bill.
According to my sources close to the PEPFAR implementation programme, “abstinence-only” is shifting literally from “abstinence-only-until-marriage” to more inclusive message to target populations who still practice polygamy.
They also tell me that they recognise the problems with funding these groups, and that the administration has reduced funding them and such programmes.
But, “abstinence-only” is abstinence only and “decreased funding” is still funding.
When implemented by a religious organisation, the programmes seem to have less to do with HIV/AIDS and STD prevention and have more to do with the promotion of Christianity, degrading of homosexuals and providing opportunities for conversion.
Of course, there are faith-based groups doing good work: running hospitals, providing ARV treatment and caring for the sick and suffering. And there are interfaith groups in the US pushing hard to end this kind of funding.
In order to serve America’s dedication to inclusivity and true religious freedom (through PEPFAR or any other programme) inside and abroad, those programmes proselytising and/or peddling in false sexual health information must be defunded.
To be defunded, Americans must be made aware of the continuation of these federally funded programmes, then the organisations have to be routed out. This can only be achieved through greater access to the public information – on how our money is being used.
The state of transparency has improved under President Obama – at least regarding tracking the kind of grants I am writing about.
Pressure has been put on government departments and agencies to not drag their heels on fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests and to modernise with searchable databases on websites. Again, there have been some improvements.
But, when it comes to faith-based funding, the information is far harder to come by. Part of that may be a hangover from the Bush era, but possibly another part is that the Obama administration does not want to be held accountable for these bad habits that are yet to die.
Andy Kopsa is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work focuses on religion in policy making as well as the ongoing effects of government funding to faith based groups here and abroad. She is a frequent guest on the radio programme State of Belief, a project of the Interfaith Alliance and is a 2012 recipient of USC Annenberg Foundation Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and Public Life.
Follow her on Twitter: @andykopsa