Aspen Institute

February 29, 2016

U.S. Capitol

Aspen Institute

The Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington DC, holds a monthly speakers luncheon for Congressional staff interested in the various topics related to foreign assistance. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.

I was recently asked to speak on the role of the faith community in international assistance. With a new course at Vanderbilt Divinity School for May, 2016 - Religion and Global Health - I offered a synopsis of the upcoming course for these staffers eager to learn more about the intersection of faith and foreign affairs, in this case, global health.

For the staff, I offered a brief overview of the history of medical missions dating back to the early 1800s, intertwining the complexity with imperialism and colonialism at the same time. Yet this holistic approach offered a new perspective in global health: the focus on the individual, not the population. With leaders like Albert Schweitzer and others, these medical missionaries were concerned with the body and the soul of each person.

Toward the middle of the twentieth century, faith based organizations (FBOs) such as Catholic Relief Services and World Vision began to emerge to address health and development issues worldwide. It is estimated that 30-70% of the health infrastructure in Africa was launched by FBOs. Religion is a thread that weaves through the most secular of organizations, inspiring leaders across the landscape of global health.

Religion can provide an impetus, an impulse, and a sustaining moral fortitude for individuals and organizations to stay the course, finish the race, and go that last mile for the most vulnerable of populations. From evangelical theological perspective to liberation theology, all are about uplifting the poor.

But the faith community, beyond the mission field, also provides a critical voice in terms of advocacy for global health and development. We saw the power of this community with the rise of evangelical leaders, such as Franklin Graham, Rick Warren, and Bill Hybels, around the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa, pushing for legislation to increase funding for infectious disease to stop the spread of the HIV virus, hollowing out communities across Africa. And, we see it now, with the growing momentum to support the Faith-based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide for maternal and child health issues, including the healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies.

From medical missions to service provider organizations to advocacy, the faith community has a deep and influential role in affecting change in global health in international affairs.