In After the Wrath of God, Anthony Petro writes about the role American Christianity has played in shaping the religious, political, and moral discourses on the AIDS epidemic. Christian responses to the epidemic were diverse and Petro goes beyond those which describe it as the wrath of God. These responses were focused on evangelizing for a particular vision of sexual ethics: abstinence and monogamous marriage. American Christians, specifically conservative evangelicals and Catholic leaders, believed that AIDS could not be solved by medicine alone; it required a moral stance on sexuality. In this way, moralizing the AIDS epidemic allowed the religious (and influenced politicians and public opinion) to formulate a new sexual ethics.
Petro divides his book into four chapters, each focused on specific events, places, and people he considers key to American religious discourses on AIDS in the 80s and early 90s. In chapter 1, Petro writes about conservative evangelical responses to AIDS. He focuses on several evangelical Christian leaders who formed AIDS ministries such as Southern Baptists Rick and Kay Warren’s Saddleback Church HIV/AIDS Initiative. The Warrens and others preached moral education over safe sex education, essentially expecting gays and lesbians to “become sexually born again” by practicing abstinence and monogamous heterosexual marriage (p. 52). In chapter 2, he shifts into more explicitly political discourses, writing about Charles Everett Koop, the evangelical Christian doctor who was Surgeon General (1982-1989) under Reagan and lead a campaign against AIDS. His calls for public education about safe sex and informing the public about the transmission of HIV won him praise from both conservative Christians and AIDS activists, as well as criticism from both sides. In chapter 3, Petro discusses the Catholic Church’s role in the politics of AIDS and sexuality, focusing on Cardinal John O’Connor who was Archbishop of New York (1984-2000). The last chapter draws attention to a particular event, the Stop the Church protest at O’Connor’s home base, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, organized by ACT UP. He explains how, despite the blurred lines between religious and secular, political and religious, church vs. gay activists, the media and the broader American public saw the protest as a violation of the freedom of religion.
Petro’s book offers nuance to religious responses to HIV/AIDS. Contrary to popular narratives, the line dividing religious and secular responses to the epidemic are blurry. In addition, medical and political discourses cannot be separated from American religious or moral rhetoric, even when preachers and priests claim they are not speaking politically or when doctors and policy makers assume their talk is categorically a-religious and/or morally neutral. Reagan’s Attorney General, C. Koop is a key example. His moral positioning on sexuality, influenced by his evangelical faith, shaped his biomedical response. Petro argues that Koop preached “the gospel of abstinence and monogamy” through the language of public health (p. 88). While he accepted condoms as part of a pragmatic approach to the issue of AIDS, abstinence remained the surest preventative measure and monogamy the only kind of sex that could honestly be called safe. In other words, what was moral (abstinence and monogamy) was also healthy. The example of Koop reminds us that medicine is not necessarily morally neutral.
Similarly, the discourse of queer AIDS activists was not completely secular. ACT UP posters were revealing in this regard: two images of Jesus saying “let me demonstrate!” In one poster, Jesus is driving a stake into O’Connor’s neck and in the other he holds a condom (pp. 182-83). If one understands a protest such as Stop the Church as a conflict between the secular and the religious, one misses an important part of the picture. The debate between Church leaders and AIDS activists was “also a struggle over competing claims to the true message of Jesus Christ… two different religious and moral visions coming into conflict” (p. 181). Petro uses the word “sacrilege” to make his point. Rather than see the act of a protestor crumbling the communion wafer at St. Patrick’s as an act of desecration, it might be better understood as an act of sacrilege, i.e. an act of theft, “a denial of ownership” over “the true site of Christ’s presence” (p. 181).
Petro ends his book by asking why the gay marriage movement has become obsessed with presenting romantic sexual monogamy as the moral model for queer life and the ultimate solution to HIV/AIDS (196-97). Having already argued a more nuanced take on the culture wars around AIDS and gay rights, it is not surprising that mainstream LGBTQ activism has adopted a conservative rhetoric around sex. After all, Petro previously demonstrates how conservative discourse has greatly influenced contemporary mainstream public and political approaches to HIV/AIDS. It is revealing that Obama, in 2006, stated that the fight against AIDS required both moral and spiritual healing (pp. 20-21). Petro’s book explains why Obama sounded like an evangelical. It also explains why the mainstream gay rights movement sounds evangelical, and in some cases, even Catholic. In his conclusion, Petro points out the 2014 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, CA in which a gay couple wedded during the parade rode on a wedding cake float with the words “Love is the Best Protection” (p. 193). The fight against AIDS was connected to the fight for same-sex marriage precisely because the religious rhetoric on marriage and monogamy has become a part of gay rights activism.
Petro’s thesis that American Christian rhetoric on AIDS has helped formulate normative opinions on sexuality today is helpful. It reminds me that secular, queer, and political discourses on AIDS, medicine, and LGBTQ rights are not innocent of moral positioning. As Petro states elsewhere,
“it would be an interpretative and historical mistake to associate morality only with conservative religious positions, thereby opposing it to an assumed secular liberal position unmarked by normative assumptions and ethical projects of its own. Morality, religion, and secular liberalism are far more complicated, especially in regard to sexuality” (p. 79).
It is not inherently bad for a movement to be guilty of harboring an ethical project. Coopting the image of Jesus, as ACT UP protestors did in 1989 at St. Patrick’s, reveals how such moral positioning challenged Church hierarchy and authority. But moral agendas become problematic when they mark who is and is not a moral citizen. And conservative religious rhetoric is not the only kind of rhetoric that marginalizes.