A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side. – Aristotle
From the earliest days of patriarchal civilization, religion has been a tool of government; in the earliest days kings were considered gods, and later they were believed to rule by divine right (in other words they were appointed by gods). Rulers also employed religion more directly, as a tool of enforcing conformity and instilling desired characteristics like obedience and humility into the populace; the child who is taught not to question his religion or his elders usually grows into an adult who rarely questions any pronouncement of an appropriately-sanctified authority figure. Furthermore, as Aristotle pointed out, rulers who pretend to piety inspire trust in the hoi-polloi, who foolishly believe that religious principles will guide the rulers’ behavior.
But sometimes religion was not merely used to keep an already-subject population docile, but to subjugate a conquered one. Islam is particularly notorious for forcing itself upon conquered peoples, but though Christianity was less aggressive in conversion its treatment of apostates was often nothing short of horrifying (such as the massacre of many thousands of French Cathars in the 13th century). The most infamous Western example was the Spanish Inquisition, established by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1480 to pressure Muslims and Jews into converting to Roman Catholicism, then terrorizing those suspected of false conversion. Despite its religious trappings and justification, the Inquisition was largely a political institution; it answered to the monarchy rather than the Papacy as the earlier Medieval Inquisition did, its primary purpose was to harass minorities suspected of disloyalty to the crown, and its victims (like those of modern police departments) were often targeted so the authorities could confiscate their wealth.
Forced conversion has become less popular in recent centuries, but rulers are still fond of extracting insincere oaths from subject peoples upon pain of serious consequences should they be discovered to have violated those oaths. After the Second World War American governments offered money to smaller countries willing to dance to whatever tune Washington cared to call, including participation in the barbaric Crusade Against Drugs (whose body count already exceeds that of the Albigensian Crusade by several orders of magnitude). But today I’d like to focus on just one example of this: the “Anti-Prostitution Pledge” organizations must sign in order to receive funds from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). This organization purports to be dedicated to wiping out HIV worldwide, yet it requires any agency working with it to refuse aid to prostitutes (an important vector of HIV infection in Africa and less-developed parts of East Asia). Furthermore, PEPFAR refuses to fund needle exchanges (a proven method of slowing HIV transmission) and requires one-third of all granted funds to go to programs promoting sexual abstinence.
Though a lawsuit overturned the “anti-prostitution pledge” requirement for domestic organizations last July, the court left it in place for foreign groups despite universal criticism of the policy by health officials both in the United States and worldwide (most recently in the Report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law). The International AIDS Conference (IAC) is being held in Washington, DC this week, and true to form the US has denied admission to anyone who has done sex work any time in the past ten years, despite the fact that the participation of sex worker organizations is vital in the fight against the disease. A parallel “Sex Worker Freedom Festival” is therefore underway in Kolkata, India, and is linked via internet with the main conference; tomorrow (July 24th) a group called We Can End AIDS will hold a march at the conference and will present “A Call to Action on Sex Work and HIV”, which you can still sign if you do so today.
If you’d like more information on the history of the oath, here’s a thirteen-minute video called “Just Sign on The Dotted Line”, and links to several more videos and other resources.