LAKE FOREST, Calif. -- U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois told more than 2,000 evangelicals yesterday that he "respectfully but unequivocally" disagrees with those who oppose condom distribution to fight the AIDS pandemic. But he said a solution to the global spread of AIDS will also come from churches that guide people to make moral decisions.
Obama, a Democrat weighing a run for the presidency, made his remarks at an evangelical AIDS conference sponsored by Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. His appearance there had drawn a fusillade of criticism from evangelicals who objected to church co-founder Rick Warren's giving the forum to Obama, who favors abortion rights.
The senator did not shy away from remarks that might have discomfited his audience. In measured words, he dismissed the notion that AIDS could be stemmed simply by insisting on sexual fidelity:
"We can't ignore the fact that abstinence and fidelity, although the ideal, may not always be the reality - that we're dealing with flesh and blood men and women and not abstractions - and that if condoms and potentially things like microbicides can prevent millions of deaths, then they should be made more widely available."
But he also pointed out the power of faith to significantly affect the epidemic. Churches, he said, must offer "a moral framework with a faith basis to make better choices."
"Let me say this loud and clear - I don't think that we can deny that there is a moral and spiritual component to prevention - that in too many places all over the world where HIV/AIDS is prevalent - including, by the way, right here in the United States - the relationship between men and women, between sexuality and spirituality, has broken down and needs to be repaired," he said.
He recalled traveling last summer in Kenya and South Africa, where he said he heard repeatedly "stories of men and women contracting HIV because sex was no longer part of a sacred covenant, but a mechanical physical act; because men had visited prostitutes and then brought the disease home to their wives; or young girls had been subjected to rape and abuse. These are issues of prevention we can't walk away from."
Obama called for stronger efforts by the pharmaceutical industry to provide AIDS medications to impoverished people around the world.
"We know the medicine is out there. We know that wealthy countries can afford to do more," he said. At the same time, he applauded the Bush administration for spending billions on AIDS programs abroad.
"I don't do that that often," he said, to laughter, "and sometimes unfairly so, because this is an area where I think the Bush administration has not gotten enough credit. The administration and this Congress have been serious about putting resources in contributing to the fight against HIV and AIDS."
Obama and other speakers appeared before church pastors and other evangelicals from 39 states and 18 countries, gathered in the cavernous Saddleback worship center in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, headquarters of the 20,000-strong evangelical church founded by Warren.
Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, told the crowd that Democrats and Republicans need to "reach across the aisle" to combat AIDS.
Michael Finnegan writes for the Los Angeles Times.