Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Stigma against people with HIV or AIDS has decreased substantially since the disease’s recognition in 1981, PRRI’s new Graphic of the Week confirms substantial changes in opinion about the disease over the last couple decades. The percentage of Americans who believe AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior has fallen dramatically over time. Fourteen percent of Americans agree with the idea that AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior, while 81 percent disagree. In 1992, more than twice as many Americans (36 percent) agreed that AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior, while fewer than 6-in-10 (57 percent) disagreed.
Although majorities of all religious groups disagree with the idea that AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior, there are notable differences between religious groups. Nearly one-quarter of white evangelical Protestants (24 percent) and Hispanic Protestants (24 percent) along with 1-in-5 (20 percent) black Protestants, believe that AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior. In contrast, about 1-in-10 white mainline Protestants (10 percent), Catholics (11 percent) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (8 percent) agree that AIDS might be a form of divine retribution. Hispanic Catholics are three times more likely to believe this than white Catholics (21 percent vs. 7 percent).
Despite these dramatic shifts, most Americans still believe that people who are infected in the U.S. are themselves to blame. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans say that people with HIV/AIDS in the United States became infected because of irresponsible personal behavior. In contrast, only 4-in-10 (41 percent) Americans believe that people who contracted HIV in the developing world did so because of irresponsible behavior, while nearly half (48 percent) say they contracted the disease through no fault of their own.
Most Americans also believe that Americans with HIV/AIDS face significant discrimination in society. A majority (53 percent) of Americans still believe that people with HIV or AIDS face a lot of discrimination in the United States.