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interview: franklin graham

[photo of Franklin Graham]

The son of legendary evangelist Billy Graham, Rev. Franklin Graham heads Samaritan's Purse, a nondenominational evangelical Christian charity dedicated to providing spiritual and material aid to victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease and famine. As he realized the devastation HIV/AIDS was causing around the world, Graham, in a February 2002 meeting with evangelicals -- and with Bush administration officials in the audience -- called on them to put a Christian stamp on the issue and make AIDS their new cause. Here, Graham talks about the need to provide biblically-based AIDS education and prevention efforts, and recounts how he advised former Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) to embrace people living with HIV/AIDS. "I said, 'I believe this is what Jesus would have us do." And he thanked me. He said, 'Well Franklin,' he said, 'I'm going to have to change some of the positions I've had in the past.'" He also talks about his alliance with Bono, the lead singer of U2, and how Bono also helped to convince Helms to provide funding for AIDS. "I think AIDS can be won," Graham tells FRONTLINE. "... But it means behavior change. We cannot continue living in sin and think we're going to be safe and we're going to be OK. We have got to be able to fight this and attack this by using God's standards." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 31, 2005.

... On a personal level, how do you picture the HIV virus?

I see this virus as destroying human life. Every life is precious to God. God created every one of us. He gave us a soul, and that soul will live as long as God lives. And every time the virus attacks a human body, it's destroying that body and is going to try to destroy that soul. Now God made us; he created us; and I believe as a Christian I should do everything I can to save life. Everything. Life is precious. ...

The numbers are huge. I heard President Clinton at an AIDS conference in New York two years ago where he said that ... there could be in the next 10 years possibly 100 million infections. So as a Christian, I just don't believe we can sit on the sideline and ignore this. We have to be on the forefront of this, warning people. And of course we know how to prevent it, but unfortunately there's a large segment of society that does not want to hear this. They want a pill, a vaccine that will inoculate them so that they can continue in high-risk behavior.

And your belief is the best way to fight the virus is what?

Well, of course I believe it's through education. People need to know how you get it. We all know, and scientists and everyone, the number one cause is through sexual transmission. Now, I know that where there's been blood transfusions, it's spread that way. There's speculation that it could be [spread] maybe in a few other ways. But we know that by touching a person with HIV/AIDS I'm not going to catch it. It's not like someone with the flu or someone with a cold. I can be around people that are HIV positive, and I can touch them and hug them and hold them, and I'm not going to get it.

But for the most part it's through sexual transmission, and people need to know that. I believe that God created one man and one woman. He gave sex to us, God did, and sex is to be enjoyed and is to be used within the bounds that God created. ... In sexual behavior outside the parameters that God created, we're at high risk, and we're seeing the evidence of this with HIV/AIDS. We're outside of these parameters, and we have a huge global problem now.

You wrote in your book about when you would travel to hospitals that your Samaritan's Purse would run, chiefly in Africa, and you would see the devastation and hear stories from your missionaries in the field about what they were encountering. ...

This was in Zaire in the early '80s. We helped a number of hospitals; we'd send doctors to these hospitals. We'd heard about HIV/AIDS, but we didn't see HIV/AIDS. And I asked the doctors, "Do we have anybody here that's HIV [positive]?" He said, "I think we have one person." I said, "Can I see them?"

There could be in the next 10 years possibly 100 million infections. So as a Christian, I just don't believe we can sit on the sideline and ignore this. We have to be on the forefront of this, warning people.

So we went back, and he was a person who was very skinny. Looked like they had malnourished, but that wasn't their problem. They called it in those days -- and in some parts of Africa they still do -- slim's disease. And here this person was HIV positive -- out of all the people in the hospital, just one. Went back a few years later, and about 10 percent were HIV positive; few years later, about 20 percent. So you could [see] this dramatic rise in the infection rate, just within a matter of a few short years, where there were no infections to where there was one, to now 20 percent-plus. So it's a frightening thing, frightening.

And did you ask yourself how Jesus would have done confronted this?

Oh, I've asked myself that many times. At first I think the reaction of many Christians was, well, this is a result of sin; this is the consequences of sin, and so therefore it doesn't concern us.

But as I studied the Scripture, Jesus Christ came to this earth for sinners. I'm a sinner. I'm no different, no better. I'm a sinner. Jesus Christ came for me, and he came for each person that is infected with HIV/AIDS. God loves that person. He doesn't hate them. They've made mistakes. We've all made mistakes. But God loves them, God cares for them, and Jesus Christ died for their sins.

I just believe as a Christian, we are to show love; we are to show compassion to people, not to point the finger, not to do this, but to do this -- to love them, to welcome them, to embrace them. Not to embrace the mistakes they've made and not to do that, but to love them and care for them, and then for those that aren't infected to warn them and to do everything we can to preserve life. ... I see each person with HIV/AIDS as a life that is snuffed out early, and we need to do everything we can to save that life if we can.

president bush and bono

Part Two: Chapter Five Financing the Battle

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Do you remember when you first discussed HIV/AIDS with the president?

With the president? It would have been shortly after his inauguration. I've worked with Sen. [Bill] Frist [of Tennessee]. We have doctors here at Samaritan's Purse that are very involved in this, and we began to work with Sen. Frist. And of course this was one of the first things on the president's agenda when he took office. During the Clinton administration there were some things done, but President Bush, when he took office, made this a major national priority.

Why did he do that?

Why did he do it? Because I think he believes in his heart that this is the right thing to do. The president is motivated by -- and I cannot speak for him, but from just my observance, my opinion -- what's right and wrong. He doesn't go by the political winds of the moment, to go with what's popular for the moment. He does what he feels is right, and not right for the moment but right for tomorrow and right for the next generation that's coming down the road 10, 15, 20 years from now.

I believe he sees that the war against HIV/AIDS has to be up on the forefront of the American conscience and agenda. He wanted to step up to the plate and do something more than anybody else has ever done and I think hope to begin to draw world attention and get other nations involved at a much higher level than they had been doing up to this point.

Did you describe to him some of the experiences that you'd seen personally in Africa ... about the horrors of this disease?

Briefly. But, you know, he gets these statistics. When he sits in that Oval Office, he's got everybody coming to him, so I'm not trying to repeat the same things that he's heard.

I tried to encourage, first of all, the church of Jesus Christ worldwide. In every country around the world you have the church. In most of Africa, not only do you have the church, but there are church-related hospitals that can dispense medicines, that can provide testing, that can provide treatment. We need to enlist these hospitals. We need to enlist these churches in this fight against HIV/AIDS.

We don't need to be pouring this money into some of these governments who are going to squander the money. A lot of these African countries have built brand-new clinics and testing facilities, and they have spent millions of dollars on infrastructure when the infrastructure was already there in church-related hospitals and clinics.

Many people in rural areas are not going to drive to the capital city to go to some million-dollar, multimillion-dollar complex to be tested. They're afraid. But if they can be tested in their local community where they can go and do it quietly, they would do that. But there's a great stigma in the world, in this country, in Africa, anywhere you go -- the stigma [that] if you're HIV positive, all of a sudden this happens.

... Have you ever encountered this sort of attitude, that these big hospitals that might be built in the capital cities are more for show, and there's not a real seriousness on the part of some countries to deal with the issue?

I think that seriousness is coming. I think President [Yoweri] Museveni [of Uganda] has demonstrated that Africans can be very serious. … Museveni realized that it wasn't going to be America or the World Bank or CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or somebody coming and saving Uganda; that if Uganda was going to be saved, they were going to have to do it themselves.

He adopted an education program [that's] really biblically based and mandated that it be taught -- did not give teachers the option of using it. They were mandated that they will take this curriculum, and it will be taught every day.

That was the first African country to reverse the infection rate, and it's continuing. I think it's somewhere under 8 percent or 6 percent right now.

Do you think that for other African countries and elsewhere that the biblical-based approach that you just described is the best way to try to treat and particularly to prevent [the spread of HIV/AIDS]?

It's the only way. I mean, you can't improve on God's standards for sexual behavior. God gave sex. He wants sex to be used. He's not some old fogey. He wants you to enjoy sex, but it has to be between a man and a woman in marriage. ... So if we go through life and we have a partner and we're faithful to [that partner] in life, you're not going to have to worry about getting infected with AIDS. You're not going to have to worry about using condoms to prevent disease if you have that relationship the way God intended it.

But what's happened, society says we don't want God. Then there will be those [who say]: "We don't believe in God, and we don't care what God says. ... We're going to do what we want to do." But when you do that, there are consequences. And it's not just HIV/AIDS. Take that off the table. Then look at the 100-plus STDs, sexually transmitted diseases, that are out there today that aren't going to be cured. There aren't antibiotics that will touch it.

It will destroy your health; it will destroy your life. The Bible -- and this is an important point about sin: We're all sinners, but sexual sin is the only sin in the Bible where it says it's a sin against your own body. If I lie to you, if I steal from you, then I have sinned against you. That sin is outside my body. But if I sin sexually, the Bible says, then I have sinned against my own body. So it's the only sin in the Scripture that says it's a sin against your own body.

You wrote in your book that up until the early 2000s, the issues of AIDS had been dominated by the U.N. and the homosexual community.

That's right.

You really sort of were up [at] the forefront with others of trying to put a real Christian stamp on the issue. ... Talk about why you decided to make it such an issue and the political impact that it then had.

Well, first off, I believe that the program that the United States government had adopted under the Clinton administration, what [Secretary-General] Kofi Annan had adopted at the U.N., was condoms. Let's just cover the world with condoms. I'm not blaming President Clinton; it was our State Department, people at USAID [United States Agency for International Development] and others at that time that I think were pushing this. But it happened under his watch. Let's just produce enough condoms, and if we make condoms readily available to everybody at any time, day or night, the condoms are just going to be available.

With this approach, the HIV infection rate escalated during this time. It didn't slow it down; it didn't slow it. Now, condoms properly used give a level of protection, but they're not failsafe. But there is no question [they provide] a level of protection, but so much of the world uses them improperly. They use them sometimes, part of the time, but not all of the time. All you have to do is have a failure one time, and then that's it.

So I think the U.N. approach, and the approach also by the gay community in this country who had politicized this -- and they were the only ones at the table. ... We need to all be working together. We don't need to be at war with each other. Just because the gays don't like the fact that I believe in God, or maybe they don't like the fact that I believe in God's standards -- I don't like their lifestyle, I don't agree with it, but I'm not going to fight with them when it comes to HIV/AIDS. We need to hold hands, work together to try to save life. ...

Did you talk to Sen. [Jesse] Helms [of North Carolina] about HIV?

Oh yes. He called me on several occasions, but one specific phone call he wanted to know my position on it, and I just said: "Senator, I believe that life is precious, and as a Christian we need to do everything we can to save life. God created life regardless of how one has destroyed their health."

I said, "There are people out there who are alcoholics that have destroyed their livers, and they have destroyed their health, but we still should love them and care for them and do everything we can to treat them and to save them and to give them hope." I said: "There are people out there who eat too much, who have destroyed their health through obesity. Do we just throw them out, or do we try to love them and try to get help to them?"

And I said: "People with HIV/AIDS -- many of them have made mistakes that they regret. If they could go back and turn the clock back, they would take a different path in life." I said, "But are we to throw these people out and abandon them and say, 'You got what you deserved -- shame, shame on you'? Or do we try to reach out and love them and to save a life and then try to prevent others from making the same mistakes?"

I said, "I believe this is what Jesus would have us to do." And he thanked me. He said, "Well, Franklin," he said, "I'm going to have to change some of the positions I've had in the past." And when he came to our conference, he had -- and you can get a copy of his speech -- but he had notes, and he didn't even look at them. He just spoke to the people and basically gave not so much an apology, but he just said, "I was wrong, and I'm going to take the latter days of my time in this Senate to do everything I can to help push this." I think Sen. Helms, if anything, probably had the biggest influence maybe on the president at that time.

How so?

Because here was the most strongly conservative, anti-gay senator, who had -- you know, they call him "Senator No" because he was no this and no that, and all of a sudden for him to change from doing this to saying, "Come."

He talked to [lead singer for the Irish band U2] Bono about it. You know, he doesn't like rock music -- I can tell you that now -- and he hasn't got a lot of respect for rock stars, but he respected what Bono was telling him, and he was willing to listen to a rock star. And Sen. Helms changed his position. [From] opposing funding for HIV/AIDS, he became an advocate for funding.

Did you talk to Bono about HIV/AIDS?

Oh yeah. No, we've talked many times.

Does he use, when he talked with you and with Sen. Helms, Christian language to describe -- did he see it sort of as a moral issue?

He does, yes. Bono has a pretty significant level of biblical understanding. He's read the Bible, not once, but I think he's read it many times, and he has no question an understanding of right and wrong. ...

Sen. Helms' proposal I think was for mother-to-child transmissions … and then that got, within a very short period of time, politically -- especially in Washington -- got turned into a $15 billion program by President Bush. ... How did that transformation happen?

I think you would have to ask senators, because that was no question -- that was I think Sen. Frist and others that helped this. But I think the president had those numbers in mind to begin with, because it is a huge, huge need, and a billion dollars or half a billion dollars, $2 billion, that's just a drop in the ocean when you compare it to the need.

If we don't do something, you're going to lose -- already in Africa you've lost a generation. There are your 30- and 40- and 50-year-olds who no longer exist. You have just adults, like grandparents, and real young children in some communities, and it just breaks your heart when you see it.

I'm sure you're familiar with the [criticism of] PEPFAR [the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief], the Bush administration program, that it relies too heavily on faith-based organizations to deliver treatment and prevention. What's your response to that?

Well, the other direction, condoms, was a failure, but they won't admit it. Still don't want to admit it. But condoms alone isn't going to solve this. …

The criticism that it relies too heavily on faith-based [organizations], that's nonsense, because it's just a small percentage of that $15 billion, very small, going to faith-based. The majority of this I think is going to be squandered through governments and siphoned off by wicked officials who are going to spend it on programs that will do nothing. Again, Museveni changed the direction of his nation without one penny of U.S. aid money, without any support from this administration. He just did this on his own, realizing that it wasn't going to be the West [to] come in to save Uganda.

To just be clear, you think that the majority of the $15 billion that the U.S. is going to be spending over the next five years is likely to be wasted?

Well, it can be. I think the president doesn't want it to be, and he's going to do everything he can to prevent it. But if you want your money spent wisely and safely, I believe the faith-based community will get more out of a tax dollar than anyone else, because they feel that they have an accountability to God, and so therefore they're going to be more careful [as to] how that money is spent. The churches are accountable to congregations, congregations are accountable to the bishops or to other people that are higher up, and so there's a level of accountability which you don't have in government circles. ...

It doesn't mean there can't be squandering or waste. There can be. But no question, I believe the faith-based will do a better job. If you work with the church worldwide and give the church the tools to let them begin to work in the communities, they will get more for the dollar than any other group, in my opinion.

[Tell me about your group's program in India.]

I think the church can and will ... set the example in the community of how to reach out and to begin to care for people with AIDS and then to get instruction not only in the churches, but try to get the churches to get it into the communities of how to prevent AIDS and of being faithful in a marriage relationship and do not use sex outside of marriage. For young people, do not get involved sexually. Wait till you're married, and then enjoy sex in that marriage relationship. Keep yourself pure, and then be faithful in that relationship. ...

I think AIDS can be won. I think we can win this fight. It is winnable. But it means behavior change. We cannot continue living in sin and think that we're going to be safe and we're going to be OK. We have got to be able to fight this and attack this by using God's standards, which, unfortunately, the United Nations and many governments do not want to do. They do not want to accept God's standards. They want to throw his laws off their backs. They don't want them.

... What do you do in the meantime with somebody who somehow cannot make that kind of commitment?

You can. It's they don't want to. And then we come up with all kinds of excuses. It's just as an alcoholic, the same thing: "Well, I tried, but I had stress, and so I went back to the bottle," or, "I got a letter in the mail, and it was bad news, and I went back into drugs." All of us make decisions, and we have to make choices in life. You can't point your finger to somebody else and say, "Well, they're responsible." I think we have to take responsibility for our own life and realize there are consequences to the decisions we make. There are consequences.

Why does a virus like this exist? I mean, it is so horrible. As a man of faith, how do you make sense of it?

You may think this is just kind of an easy answer. I believe there is good and evil in the world. I believe there is a devil. When God created this world, none of this existed. Common cold didn't exist. God didn't want us to experience these things. But sin came into the world, and sin is disobedience to God, disobedience to his standards. Sin came into the world, and it has infected now all of mankind.

HIV/AIDS and all of this is a result of sin in the world in which we live, and that's why the Bible says God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shouldn't perish but have everlasting life. I want people to know God; I want people to know his son who came to this earth and died for our sins. ...

Now, where did AIDS come from? I know science, they're just studying that. I don't know. But it's here; I do know that. And I do know that it will take your life, and it will suck every bit of strength you have, and it will end up killing you.

I want to warn people, just warn them. They have to make their own choices in life, but I want to warn them. I don't want to be prevented from warning them. I don't think I should be handicapped from warning them because my message isn't politically correct with some other group that wants another way to cure AIDS. They want condoms, or they want something else that's not proven. Behavior change, no question, is proven. It will work. It will work.

One day there may be a pill. One day there may be a vaccine. I pray. But until then, let's do everything we can to save life, and I should not be prevented because I believe that Jesus Christ is God's son, and I believe that if we are willing to accept his standards that we can prevent AIDS.

Putting aside how one gets it, the behavior, the virus itself is a little thing. Scientists won't say it's even alive. Is it evil? Why does something like that exist?

... I believe that the virus -- if we want to point the finger -- I believe this is Satan. I believe this is the devil. I believe this is the evil that's in this world, that's trying to take life, because life -- God gave life. He created life, and the devil wants to take it; he wants to destroy it. And me, I'm a minister. I want to save life all that I can. That's why I'll work with a rock star; I'll work with an AIDS activist that may come from a gay lifestyle. I don't agree -- I'll tell him that -- but I'm not going to fight him. I'm going to love them; I'm going to work with them so that we can save life. I'll do that, but I will not compromise my message of God's love is forgiveness. ...

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posted may 30, 2006

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