Did the American government invent AIDS as a genocidal tool against African-Americans, as claimed by Jeremiah Wright, the controversial preacher best known as Sen. Barack Obama’s spiritual mentor?

“The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color,” the now retired pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ said at Howard University in January 2006. “We started the AIDS virus.”

Wright’s conspiratorial comments came a year after the Washington Post reported in January 2005 on a study by Rand Corporation and Oregon State University. The Post reported that “a significant portion of African-Americans embrace the theory that government scientists created the disease to control or wipe out their communities.”

Almost 27 percent of those surveyed said that AIDS was produced in a government laboratory, while over 15 percent said AIDS was a form of genocide against blacks and 12 percent said HIV was spread by the CIA. Forty-four percent said the government was treating citizens as guinea pigs with new treatments.

The article reported that African-Americans accounted for 13 percent of the nation’s population and 50 percent of the new HIV infections.

AIDS prevention requires straight talk, debunking myths and challenging those who, like Wright, prattle conspiratorially.

Others in the African-American community face the issue constructively. For example, The Balm in Gilead sponsors the black church week of prayer for the healing of AIDS. Its 2008 national spokespersons include William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA; Stephen Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America, and T. DeWitt Smith, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc.

A partnering organization in the New Baptist Covenant gathering, Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, offers a PDF on HIV/AIDS prevention strategies on the front page of its Web site. Writing in the spring 2007 issue of the organization’s newsletter about AIDS in Zimbabwe, David Goatley, Lott Carey’s executive director-treasurer, said the church needed “to commit more fully to a ministry of confrontation. There are cultural practices that contribute to the spread of this pandemic.”

The National Baptist Convention prioritized HIV/AIDS at its annual meeting in 2007. Oakland’s Allen Temple Baptist Church has an AIDS ministry, as does Cleveland’s Antioch Baptist Church, both illustrative of what some African-American Baptist churches are doing.

With these examples of AIDS ministries and educational initiatives within the African-American Christian community, what explains the belief among some that the American government is behind this disease? Could history provide a clue to the roots of such a conspiracy theory?

The answer may be perhaps. Some readers may remember the story about the Tuskegee experiment.

According to a National Public Radio account, in 1932 the Public Health Service began an experiment with the Tuskegee Institute to study some 400 poor African Americans in Alabama who had syphilis. The men were neither told what disease they carried, nor given penicillin to treat their disease when that treatment became available. The experiment continued for four decades, long after men had died and their wives and children were infected.

President Bill Clinton formally apologized in 1997 for the government’s immoral experiment: “To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish.”

“What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say, on behalf of the American people: what the United States government did was shameful,” said Clinton. “And I am sorry.”

Perhaps Wright’s conspiratorial AIDS theory has its roots in the Tuskegee experiment. That might explain his paranoia, but it doesn’t justify his perpetuating misinformation in a community vulnerable to such a destructive myths.

When I first came into the employment of the Southern Baptist Convention in the mid-1980s, the prevailing wacky belief was that AIDS was the judgment of God on gay people. I remember a board meeting of the SBC’s Christian Life Commission, now the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, when a Georgia trustee warned others that bedbugs transmitted AIDS and that girls who went to college would become lesbians. I also remember an early courageous sermon in a white Baptist church that addressed the issue, although the preacher mixed up the words contacting and contracting when describing transmission.

Ignorance about AIDS was widespread and paranoia about the disease was bigotry-fed in those days. Both complicated educational efforts to combat the disease and crippled church ministries to those suffering from it.

Churches have made great strides in addressing the issue constructively in the past 20 years. Still we have Christians on the right, who sees AIDS as divine judgment, and Christians on the left, who see a genocidal conspiracy. Both wings deserve swift rebuttals, not benign silence from Christian conservatives and liberals who know better.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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