In 1992, Mike Huckabee was running for a seat in the United States Senate. As part of that process, he filled out the questionnaire sent to candidates by the Associated Press, which they use to develop background knowledge for reporting on the candidates. These statements were recently reprinted by the New York Times.
When asked about government policy on HIV/AIDS, Huckabee said some remarkable and disturbing things. Perhaps most disturbing were these two statements:
“If the federal government is truly serious about doing something with the AIDS virus we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague.”
“It is difficult to understand the public policy toward AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population.”
These ideas are troubling on more levels than it is possible to describe, but I will address a few from bad to worse.
1.) The attempt to use historical precedent here is dishonest. Nobody could know or prove that this is a “first” in the “history of civilization.” In fact, we can easily name many instances when isolation was not used. Not every society isolated its sick during the influenza pandemic of 1918. There was, for example no government policy of isolation in the United States during this epidemic. Such a statement can only be aimed at an uneducated audience that will not bother to question such an outlandish claim.
2.) In 1992 science had firmly established that HIV/AIDS is not transmitted by casual contact. Knowing this, why would anyone propose a policy of isolation?
3.) The only precise scientific meaning of “plague” is a reference to disease caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. In popular use the word has only a broad, imprecise meaning. What meaning does Huckabee intend and why did he choose this particular word in these statements? Because of his tendency to emphasize his past as a Baptist preacher and the role the Bible plays in his life, it is difficult to imagine that he is not using this word in its biblical sense. In every case that the word “plague” appears in the Bible it carries a connotation of divine punishment. Does Huckabee believe that HIV/AIDS is divine punishment? If he believes it is divine punishment, then why would he want to enact a policy that would attempt to thwart divine will by stopping the spread of the disease?
4.) How does Huckabee imagine such a policy of isolation working? CDC estimates indicate that more than a million people are living with HIV/AIDS in the United States. For a policy of isolation to work, these people would have to be identified. This would require not only the invasion of private medical records, but mandatory testing of every citizen. Once the infected people were identified, they would have to be detained against their will. How would Huckabee deal with the apparent constitutional problems such a policy would raise? How would facilities for this kind of quarantine of one million people be developed? These people would not be able to work to provide for themselves, so their support would have to be provided completely by the government. How would we pay for this kind of program?
One response might be that Huckabee had not considered all of these issues when he made his statement. This is probably true, and this is precisely the problem. The practice of proposing public policy without thinking through even the most obvious of implications is not kind of behavior that makes a person worthy of high political office.
Since the republication of his statements, Huckabee has waffled in attempts to explain them, both saying he “stands by” his statements and that he would “say them differently now.” Those interviewing him have not asked the obvious question, “How would you say it now?” He has tried to claim that he was not promoting a policy of quarantining AIDS patients, but he has not explained what else “we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague” could possibly mean.
Given all of these problems with his statements, and Huckabee’s own emphasis on his background and beliefs, it appears that his thinking about AIDS is shaped by attitudes toward disease in the Bible. When he talks about AIDS, it sounds as if he is assuming the attitudes and actions related to “leprosy” in the Bible.
Of course it is the attitudes of the societies reflected in the Bible that he is adopting and not the attitude of Jesus who seems to defy practices of isolation by having direct contact with persons labeled “lepers.” It is fashionable in some circles these days to talk about having a “biblical worldview.” Would Huckabee make this claim about himself?
There are two major problems with such a claim. First, the Bible was produced over a period of 1,000-1,500 years, and more than one set of assumptions that we call “worldviews” can be identified within it. Which biblical worldview would he choose, ancient Israelite or first-century Palestinian? Second, do we really want to operate with a biblical worldview about everything? If Mike Huckabee, as president, would intend to develop public health policy based on first-century understandings of disease, then he needs to state this plainly to the American electorate.
Mark McEntire is associate professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.