Breaking news: Pastor Warren has released a video condemning the Ugandan anti-gay legislation. (The video was released December 10th, the day after I posted this piece, and after Reverend Kaoma’s press conference.) I’m very grateful that he’s made this statement, and hope that his unambiguous statement will be heard in Uganda, influencing policy on the ground. More on Warren’s statement here.
Could Rick Warren be the man to stop pending anti-gay legislation in Uganda?
That’s the hope of Rev. Kapya Kaoma, an Episcopalian Priest from Zambia, the author of a new report from Political Research Associates, which traces a wave of homophobia on the African continent to the efforts of conservative evangelical pastors in the US. In a conference call with members of the media today, Kaoma declared that, “The US culture wars are being exported to Africa. They’re having an impact not just in the US, but also amongst African Christians.”
The culture wars Kaoma refers to have been particularly intense within the Anglican communion, his (and, as it happens, my) church. After the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, to bishop of New Hampshire, a number of bishops moved to “realign” their congregations outside of mainstream Anglican authority. Two new, more conservative Anglican groups have emerged, and some African congregations have aligned with these new groups.
Kaoma argues that, in the mainline US churches, most congregants and pastors are leaning towards progressive Christianity. The more conservative individuals – in the minority – are aligning with the fast-growing churches in Africa. “Conservatives have gone to Africa because they’re going where the numbers are, and because they’re being legitimated by associating themselves with Christians outside the US.”
These conservative pastors, Kaoma argues, “need to demean the leadership of US mainline churches,” and present their views as the legitimate alternative. It’s become common to present the US mainline churches as imperialistic, and to argue that these mainline churches as trying to export non-African values. “Once you appeal to the post-colonial ethos, people are bound to overreact. The entire gay issue has been put into the post-colonial narrative.” Because the issue of gay rights has been turned into a battle about a purported recolonization of the African continent, Kaoma argues, a struggle for gay rights isn’t seen as a human rights issue, but as an attempt to export “un-African” ideas to the African continent.
Uganda has been a particular battleground for this exported culture war. The wife of President Yoweri Museveni, herself an influential MP, is a born-again Christian, and has been instrumental in bringing abstinence-focused anti-AIDS funding to the country. (Helen Epstein’s “God and the Fight Against AIDS” in the New York Review of Books is an excellent introduction to the spread and politicization of evangelical Christianity in Uganda.) And Uganda, bordering on majority Muslim countries, has become a popular venue for evangelical outreach.
Kaoma argues that conservative pastors from the US are coming to Uganda to campaign against sexual equality using tremendously deceptive materials. His key example is a set of talks given by Scott Lively, who a PRA colleague describes as a “holocaust revisionist”, based on his authorship of a book titled “The Pink Swastika“, which argues that the Nazis were closet homosexuals, that they didn’t exterminate gay people, but secretly plotted a gay takeover of the world. (Southern Poverty Law Center’s quick, but thorough, refutation of the work is a worthwhile read.) Reverend Kaoma reports that Lively came to Uganda in March 2009, spoke at a conference organized by the Family Life Network, met with Ugandan parliamentarians as well as church leaders, and warned them that homosexuality is an international, western agenda, being perpetrated by the UN and by human rights defenders as part of a gay plot to take over the world.
Kaoma has some compelling footage that demonstrates the influence Lively’s ideas are having in Uganda. In the video above, Stephen Langa, the director of the Family Life Network, offers a history of the homosexual agenda, as outlined by Lively. David Roberts, of Ex-Gay Watch, unpacks the video, pointing out that Langa quotes at length from a satirical essay, apparently unaware the essay was satire. The history offered is paranoid, false and designed to inspire a hateful counterreaction.
That part of the plan has evidently been quite successful. Kaoma draws a direct line between Lively’s appearance at the FLN conference and the proposed legislation that would sentence gay and lesbian people who’ve committed the crime of having gay sex to, at minimum, life in prison, and could subject gay people who test positive for HIV to execution. Kaoma tells us that the Christian right groups presenting this fantasy of a gay takeover to the Ugandans expressed their hope that Uganda would fight this agenda and take up the war – evidently, that message was well received. (Possibly too well – Kaoma reports that Lively now says the proposed Ugandan legislation goes to far. When a homophobic holocaust denier says your legislation goes to far, you might want to reconsider your plan…)
So how does Rick Warren fit into all this?
Well, Pastor Warren has a long history in Uganda. He’s worked closely with Pastor Martin Ssempa, a Ugandan activist who is focused on pro-abstinence approaches to AIDS treatment and on marginalizing and criminalizing homosexuality. Ssempa has led workshops at Warren’s Saddleback Church, and Warren has visited Uganda at Ssepma’s invitation, meeting with senior Ugandan officials, including the president. Ssempa is evidently one of the major figures in proposing the anti-gay legislation. And he’s willing to use virtually any tactic in fighting what he sees as a homosexual movement – in 2006, a Ugandan paper printed the names and addresses of 45 people Ssempa identified as gay, leading to threats and harrasment.
Warren has severed ties with Ssempa, but has not yet condemned the proposed Ugandan legislation. Kaoma worries that a statement Warren made in Uganda in 2008 – stating that homosexuality is not a human right – is being quoted and used to justify the current proposed legislation. “Here’s the problem I have with pastor Warren – he’s a friend of Kagame, of Museveni,” says Kaoma. “He knows the politics of Uganda, and he’s respected by the MPs
He’s the one who can influence politicians in Uganda.” While Warren has dissociated himself from one extreme Ugandan pastor, he hasn’t dissociated himself with other anti-gay activists in Rwanda and Nigeria. Kaoma hopes that Warren will realize the potential power and influence his words would have in Uganda and clearly denounce this sort of legislation. “Unless Warren tells fundamentalist groups that gays have rights, which need to be protected, theres no respected religious voice saying this. He needs to complement the voice of human rights activists on the ground.”
While I strongly agree with Reverend Kaoma, and believe the proposed legislation is abominable, I thought he was putting too much weight on international activists and not enough responsibility on people in Uganda. I asked whether it was fair to offer his interpretation, given that the majority of Sub-Saharan African countries have laws against homosexual activities – was it possible that the law in Uganda was simply a manifestation of public will and mood?
Reverend Kaoma explained that a framing of homosexuality as an attack on the family has worked extremely well in bringing activist anger to the forefront. The combination of a neo-imperial narrative, an international conspiracy and classic “the gays are out to get your children” are collectively changing attitudes on the ground in countries like Uganda, he argues. He points out that, in most countries where homosexual behavior is banned by law, very few people are arrested and prosecuted for violating those laws. He also referenced King Mwanda, a ruler of the Buganda in the 1880s, who many historians believe was gay. “Even Pastor Ssempa himself accepts this part of Ugandan homosexual history,” says Kaoma. “Gays are part and parcel of African life. What’s strange now is using the Christian religion as a foundation for persecution around homosexuality.”
While Kaoma believes that Ugandans are more liberal about homosexuality than the current bill would lead one to believe, he acknowledges that the masses are not speaking out or supporting the bill. “There’s been a call to go door to door and tell people that ‘if you love your child, then fight homosexuality’. There is a petition going around Uganda in rural areas, saying that homosexuals are recruiting young children in the schools, using money from America. The petition says that if the Americans get just get two kids per school, Uganda as we know it is gone.”
Kaoma argues that the authoritarian nature of Ugandan politics is also making it easier to carry out this sort of crusade. In his native Zambia, the Vice President urged the arrest of gays, but there were no arrests. In Ghana and Kenya, church leaders have advocated cutting ties with the Anglican communion over gay issues, but many churches have refused to comply. But in less representative societies, these crusades – with the support of political authority – have a much higher chance of success.
There are brave Ugandans standing up for gay rights. Frank Mugisha, the leader of Sexual Minorities Uganda (which uses the wonderful acronym SMUG), has been a visible opponent of the legislation, despite the fact that he will likely need to leave the country or face arrest if the bill passes. The Dean of the prestigious Makerere University has publicly opposed the legislation. Such support entails serious risks – Kaoma tells us about meeting with SMUG at a hotel in Kampala – a woman attending the meeting, who is lesbian, stepped out of the hotel as was immediately arrested, beaten and had her money stolen by the police. “And there was nothing we could do,” says Kaoma.
Reverend Kaoma spoke about this story in a sad but calm fashion. But he got quite agitated when I asked him about the possibility that the Anglican church – hugely influential in Uganda – would condemn the legislation. “The Archbishop doesn’t want to be seen as interfering. After the bill passes and people are getting killed, then we’ll hear his voice? Our friends are being rounded up because people think the bill has already been passed.”
If the Archbishop of Canterbury and Rick Warren won’t step up, are there other paths to leverage the Ugandan goverment? Sure – there’s always money. Up to 40% of the Uganda government budget comes from aid dollars. Kaoma tells us that Sweden has declared that if Uganda passes this bill, Sweden will sever all ties. It’s unlikely that the US would take nearly such a dramatic step. But Kaoma leaves us with a challenge: “Don’t just condemn Uganda – accept responsibility for helping start this on American soil.”
That’s tricky, of course. Gay rights groups in the US condemning the legislation simply add fuel to the fire for those who argue that homosexuality is a western plot. And that’s why the voice of someone like Pastor Warren could be so powerful in affirming the human rights of GLBT people and condeming this dangerous legislation.
It’s interesting to note that Reverend Kaoma isn’t the only one linking US conservatives with anti-gay legislation in Uganda. Jeff Sharlet links The Family, a group of politically influential conservative Christians to the proposed Ugandan legislation. I found it interesting that the figures mentioned by Sharlet didn’t come up in Kaoma’s discussion today, or in his report. Kaoma’s report focuses primarily on the Institute on Religion & Democracy. Had I the time to do some original reporting, I’d be very interested in seeing what links exist between these organizations.
Kathryn Joyce of Religion Dispatches has an excellent interview with Reverent Kaoma – very much worth reading if you’re interested in his arguments.