The U.S. Christian Right and the Attack on Gays in Africa

For two days in early March 2009, Ugandans flocked to the Kampala Triangle Hotel for the Family Life Network's "Seminar on Exposing the Homosexuals' Agenda."
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The Uganda Story

For two days in early March 2009, Ugandans flocked to the Kampala Triangle Hotel for the Family Life Network's "Seminar on Exposing the Homosexuals' Agenda." The seminar's very title revealed its claim: LGBT people and activists are engaged in a well thought-out plan to take over the world. The U.S. culture wars had come to Africa with a vengeance.

To put on the conference, the Uganda-based Family Life Network led by Stephen Langa with the goal of "restoring" traditional family values and morals in Uganda teamed with two U.S. hatemongers from the Christian Right, Holocaust revisionist Scott Lively and Dan Schmierer of the ex-gay group Exodus International.[1] Vocal opposition in international circles did not stop the country's high profile religious leaders, parliamentarians, police officers, teachers, and concerned parents from attending. Indeed, parliamentary action to wage war on gays was on the conference agenda. It was not enough that homosexuality is illegal in Uganda. As someone stated from the podium,

[The parliament] feels it is necessary to draft a new law that deals comprehensively with the issue of homosexuality and takes into account the international gay agenda.Right now there is a proposal that a new law be drafted.[2]

The unsuspecting audience heard Lively promote his book, The Pink Swastika, and his argument that not only are gays seeking to take over the world, but they also threaten society by causing higher rates of divorce, child abuse, and HIV/AIDS. Legalizing homosexuality is on par with accepting "molestation of children or having sex with animals," he said. As Lively puts it, LGBT issues cannot be considered human rights issues. "The people coming to Africa now and advancing the idea that human rights serves the homosexual interests are absolutely wrong," he said. "Many of them are outright liars and they are manipulating history; they are manipulating facts in order to push their political agenda." Lively even tarred abortion rights as "a product of the gay philosophy" meant to promote sexual promiscuity in order to "destroy the family." In sum, he warned, U.S. homosexuals are out to recruit young people into homosexual lifestyles so they must be stopped.

Lively had a receptive audience. Harry Mwebesa of Family Life Network told the crowd,

Dr. Scott told us about Brazil where 10 years ago, homosexuality was unheard of.Today it is the capital.There are people that have been against homosexuality that are having to leave because of the pressure and the threats that they are putting on them. That is how serious it is.

Another participant who called himself Elijah said,

The man of God [Scott Lively] told us about a movement behind the promotion of homosexuality and it is called gay movement. Me, I had never heard of that. But I got to know that there is a force behind homosexuality which we need to tackle with force. He also told us that these people who are behind this evil, they have all resources that they need to spread this evil. [In] Africa, Uganda in is more easy for the young generation to get attracted into the evil. Since that day, we need to stand firm to fight homosexuality.

If only Lively's influence ended there. But a few days later, he met with Ugandan lawmakers and government officials, some of whom would draft parliament's Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009 the next month. This act would ban LGBT organizing and give the death penalty for gays, though not heterosexuals, who have sex with someone underage or while infected with the HIV/AIDS virus.[3] Lively and the "traditional family values" language of U.S. antigay campaigners echoes through the first draft of the legislation dating to April:

Research indicates that the homosexuality has a variety of negative consequences including higher incidences of violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and use of drugs. The higher incidence of separation and break-up in homosexual relationships also creates a highly unstable environment for children raised by homosexuals through adoption or otherwise, and can have profound psychological consequences on those children. In addition, the promotion of homosexual behavior undermines our traditional family values.

Family Life Network's Langa pushed people at a follow up meeting to stand up for the tougher law against homosexuality for their children's sake, echoing Lively in charging that Ugandan gays and activists were being paid by U.S. gays to recruit schoolchildren into homosexuality.

Amid the utter hysteria, any sense that homosexuality has been in Africa from time immemorial was lost. While hardly embraced, and indeed illegal in many countries, at least LGBT people were not hounded by churches and police alike until American culture warriors came to Africa. Bishop Christopher Ssenjonyo, one of the most progressive voices on LGBT issues in Uganda, expressed his own concerns about the Americans' role to me in March, "I am sure that these lies will incite public hatred against gays."

How Did We Get Here?

How did we get to this point? Scott Lively and Don Schmierer are just two among a parade of right-leaning American Christians who have brought the U.S. culture wars to Africa. But unlike the United States, in Africa sexual minorities are only thinly organized and have few allies who will stand up with them. Those who do are tarred as neocolonialist and racist, because of the effectiveness of U.S. Right organizing in Africa. The result is tragedy.

Thankfully, because of Kenya's democratic past and stronger civil society, citizens managed to challenge and slow down efforts for broad criminalization of homosexuality. But in more authoritarian countries, like Uganda and Nigeria, where some counties punish homosexuality with death, U.S. religious conservatives are better able to promote their anti-LGBT agenda, building on decades of missionary work.

U.S. evangelicals like California's Rick Warren have turned their attention to Africa as its role in global Christianity has grown. As Warren recently told Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, "If you want to know the future of evangelicalism, it is in [Africa, Asia and Latin America.] To give you an example, in 1900 there were only 10 million Christians in all of Africa -- 10% of the population. Today there are 360 million Christians in Africa, over half the population."[4] Warren's numbers are wrong and fewer than half of Africans are Christian. Still, 30 million of the Anglican Communion's 77 million members live in Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.

Warren is especially influential on the continent, enjoying close ties to African religious and political leaders. They quote him to justify discrimination against LGBT people, and to support their challenge to U.S. mainline Protestants liberalizing their policies around gay ordination. "Homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right," Warren said during a March-April 2008 visit with African religious and political leaders in Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya. That quote has reverberated ever since.[5]

Warren's bestselling book, A Purpose Driven Life is studied across sub-Saharan Africa and his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California has close ties with leaders across Africa, including, until recently, Martin Ssempa of Uganda's Makerere Community Church. Ssempa is one of the key architects of the antigay bill and persecution of LGBT people in Uganda. He made global news when he published the names of LGBT people in the local press and destroyed condoms to promote abstinence-only programs in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Uganda. Ssempa was a regular visitor to Saddleback until Warren distanced himself from him in 2008.

Within Africa, Warren seems to be progressive when it comes to fighting poverty, illiteracy and HIV/AIDS. These efforts have painted him as a real partner in development. However, his antipoverty and education strategies also promote conservative institutional power and ideologies in Africa, including homophobia.

As Warren's "purpose-driven" projects in Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda have grown, so too have levels of active homophobia and proposed laws against LGBT people. And Warren's allies particularly Anglican Archbishops Henry Orombi of Uganda, Peter Akinola of Nigeria, Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda and Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya are in the forefront of advocating for stiffer laws against LGBT persons in their countries.[6]

Archbishop Orombi argues that U.S. homosexuals should be kept out of Uganda because they are "taking advantage of the abject poverty in Africa to lure people into their club [homosexuality]."[7] In neighboring Nigeria, Archbishop Akinola wrote, "We are especially concerned about those who are using large sums of money to lure our youth to see homosexuality and lesbianism as normative. We must consistently and faithfully teach about God's commands on this ungodly practice and help those with such orientation to seek deliverance and pastoral counsel."[8]

History of U.S. Conservatives in AfricaIf they had faced strong opposition, U.S. conservatives might not have been so successful in promoting their homophobic politics. Traditionally, evangelical African churches have been biblically and doctrinally orthodox but socially progressive on such issues as national liberation and poverty, making them natural partners of the politically liberal western churches. But their religious orthodoxy also provides the U.S. Right with an opportunity. Africans resonate with the denunciation of homosexuality as a postcolonial plot; their homophobia is as much an expression of resistance to the West as it is a statement about human sexuality. Similarly campaigns for "family values" in Africa rest on rich indigenous notions of the importance of family and procreation. In Africa, "family" expresses the idea that to be human is to be embedded in community, a concept called ubuntu. African traditional values also value procreation, making those hindering this virtue an enemy of life (see box 2).

Although Rick Warren's involvement in Africa is the most celebrated, and Lively's perhaps the most notorious, they are not the first U.S. conservative evangelicals to influence African policies. Pat Robertson's television show The 700 Club is watched across sub-Saharan Africa. Yet most Africans are not aware that Robertson supported the civil war in Angola and the oppressive White governments of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. He was one of many U.S. conservative evangelicals, some of whom came to Africa as missionaries in the 1980s, who sided with those White minority governments in their effort to stop the spread of liberation theology. Allied with them was and is the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a U.S. neoconservative group that also supported the White regimes and challenged the National Council of Churches as a group of dangerous Marxists supporting subversion. The group formed in 1981 with the goal of weakening and splitting U.S. mainline denominations in order to block their powerful progressive social witness promoting social and economic justice.[9]

During this same period, the U.S. mainline churches sided with oppressed Africans living in White regimes. Along with exposing the crimes committed in the name of fighting communism, these churches provided financial and social support to displaced families in Africa, Asia, and South America.

But today the mainline churches are labeled as neocolonialists and this history is forgotten. You can still hear snippets of the old right-wing scripts in today's attacks on the mainline churches. James V. Heidinger II, the president of Good News, the United Methodist Church's renewal movement which opposes gay ordination and supports conservative theology, tarred official Methodist churches as lacking "a theology of mission but has bought into liberation theology. Mission for them involves bringing about social and political change in third world countries. They favor social ministry at the expense of evangelism."[10]

Similarly, IRD's executive director, Mark Tooley, recently sought an apology from the NCC and World Council of Churches for supporting "Marxist" revolutionaries in Africa. His organization is a lead force in mobilizing renewal movements like Heidinger's to use African leaders and the debate about gay ordination and marriage as a wedge in U.S. mainline conflicts IRD's latest but perhaps most effective tactic in diminishing the social witness of its mainline church opponents (for more on the U.S. conflict, see box 3 and my recent report, Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia).[11]

The torrential flow of conservative Christian resources to Africa helps wash away the memory of their alliances with White regimes. Through their extensive communication networks in Africa, social welfare projects, Bible schools, and educational materials, U.S. religious conservatives warn of the dangers of homosexuals and present themselves as the true representatives of U.S. evangelicalism, effectively marginalizing mainline U.S. churches that once had strong relationships on the continent. Right-wing groups have enticed African religious leaders to reject funding from mainline denominations which require documentation of how the money is spent and instead to accept funds from conservatives, further empowering the U.S. evangelical viewpoint while giving local bishops the opportunity to line their pockets.

To reach Africans, U.S. evangelicals now broadcast their Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Although generally disinterested in helping poor Blacks in their own backyard, in Africa U.S. White conservatives driven to convert the continent dominate social services, run orphanages, schools and universities, and provide loans.[12] These conservatives and evangelical charities like World Vision, Solar Light for Africa, and the IRD-founded Five Talents use their presence in Africa to address the question of homosexuality from a conservative albeit misleading position. In this way, almost all U.S. conservative Christians working in Africa are responsible for exporting homophobia to Africa.

Indeed, Africans do not distinguish between moderate evangelicals in World Vision and Hard Right figures like Scott Lively. For them, the term "evangelical" conveys the notion of Protestant Christianity as a whole, without the substantive distinctions made by U.S. religious groups. And U.S. conservative evangelicals support diverse Anglican, Presbyterian and Pentecostal church leadership in Africa with which they share no denominational tie. For instance, the Providence Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan is not an Episcopal congregation yet it provides funding to the Anglican Church of Uganda.[13] Some U.S. support goes directly to salaries, and has since 1998, as Reverend Aaron Mwesigyi of the Ugandan archibishop's office explained.[14]

Opposing Mainline Witness

While U.S. evangelicals are actively disseminating their antigay views through their mission work, American mainline renewal movements reach out to African churches for support in fights against gay ordination and marriage, helping to further crystallize this as an African issue. At their behest, Anglican churches in Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria rejected funding from The Episcopal Church USA in 2004 over disagreements about gay ordination and other culture war issues. While these attacks have resulted in schisms within the Episcopal Church USA and the Presbyterian Church USA and continue to threaten the unity of the United Methodist Church, they offer African churches financial and ideological benefits, including a voice in international circles. As Kenya's Rosemary Mbongo told me, "Africans, Asians, and Latin American evangelical Christians have the voice today; they owe it to American conservatives."

Although conservative circles celebrate this rejection of aid as a sign of Africans' moral purity, Africans simply responded to U.S. conservatives' demands. A Kenyan professor noted, "American conservatives have been in my office several times requesting that we cut ties with The Episcopal Church USA and other progressive funders in exchange for their funds. They have succeeded in getting small colleges into their camp but we have refused."[15]

The apparent plan is to encourage African church leaders to swap their relationships with mainline churches for U.S. conservative organizations and individuals.

While it is largely U.S. evangelical money displacing mainline funds supporting African churches, renewal movements within mainline U.S. churches reap the rewards by securing the alliance of Africans in fighting their battles over gay ordination and other issues at home and in international venues. This effort started as early as 1999, when members of the IRD-affiliated renewal movement in The Episcopal Church USA went to Africa to ask African bishops to support suspending the American church from the worldwide Anglican Communion for being too gay friendly and socially liberal.

More recently, IRD and United Methodist Church renewal groups organized African delegates to prevent the United Methodist Church from lifting its ban on the ordination of LGBT clergy during its global General Conference in 2008. Jerald Walz of IRD put it this way, "Wherever there is theological agreement, Americans are making ways of helping their brothers and sisters both financially and theologically. In the UMC, Americans reached out to the African delegates by helping them navigate the system... Americans are also reaching out to their African friends by giving them a voice at international gatherings."[16]

Africa's attacks on U.S. mainline churches intensified when The Episcopal Church USA consecrated an openly gay person, Gene Robinson, as a bishop in 2004. On the surface, Bishop Robinson's consecration was an Episcopal issue. However, renewal movements in the Episcopal, United Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, and other U.S. conservatives used it as an organizing tool to preach hatred against LGBT people. In addition to citing Robinson as an example of Western corruption, they partnered with African religious leaders to demand that the Episcopal Church USA be excommunicated from the worldwide Anglican Communion and replaced with conservative leadership.

The churches then used their "principled" rejection of mainline money as a fundraising opportunity. In appeals to U.S. conservatives, Canon Allison Barfoot said the Anglican church of Uganda in Kampala lacked working phones because it had rejected money from the Episcopal Church USA.[17] Two years after the Anglican Church of Kenya cut ties with the Episcopal Church USA in 2004, the Reverend Canon Rosemary Mbogo, its Provincial Mission coordinator, appealed for tithing from U.S. evangelical churches "to help the Kenyan province."[18] Their requests to U.S. conservatives appear to have been answered, since both churches confirmed that U.S. conservatives provide regular funding to churches in both countries.

U.S. evangelical money is attractive because it does not come with the demands for strict accountability made by mainline churches.[19] Bishops can spend it as they like. Ironically, U.S. conservatives have always campaigned against "unrestricted" giving in U.S. mainline churches. But in Africa, they prefer unrestricted giving as another way of undermining progressives.

Local fears that this lack of accountability breeds corruption appear well grounded. Canon Alison Barfoot, an American conservative, administers American funding at the Anglican Church of Uganda headquarters without giving African accountants any access to U.S.-related financial information or books, we learned.[20] Furthermore, dissident U.S. Episcopal Bishop John Guernsey of Woodbridge, Virginia, vets all U.S. donations and mission partnerships with Uganda to ensure they come from "friendly" churches, and other U.S. conservatives play that role for other countries, bypassing usual safeguards.[21] Their safeguards are loose enough that Bishop Samuel Sekadde, the retired Bishop of Namirembe, is under suspicion for alleged misuse of church funds.[22] The independent Uganda Monitor observed that the bishop's estates and private home suggest that "the good bishop was either living beyond his means or helping himself to church property."[23]

Neocolonial relationshipDespite historical evidence of homosexuality in Africa long before the Europeans arrived, most conservative African religious and political leaders now view homosexuality as a Western export, and a form of imperialism and neocolonialism. And of course, U.S. conservatives exploit and encourage this belief.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose wife is a close ally of Rick Warren, warned, "It is a danger not only to the believers but to the whole of Africa. It is bad if our children become complacent and think that people who are not in order are alright. These foreigners should go and practice their nonsense elsewhere."[24]

Because Africans are sensitive to neocolonialism, the conservative claim that homosexuality is part of a "Western agenda" gives African church leaders ammunition to demand greater influence and power in the affairs of the church.[25] Denouncing homosexuality is Africa's way of claiming power over the western world. In this regard, when Africans claim that homosexuality is un-African, they are pointing to a politics of postcolonial identity.[26]

This history gives the struggle greater depth and tenacity, and for that reason, African involvement in U.S. church issues will continue. Moreover, rejecting what is claimed to be an imposition from the West gives them power both within the African context and with American conservatives of all persuasions.

Ironically enough, although American conservatives repeatedly accuse progressives of being imperialist, it is their dealings with Africa that are extremely imperialistic. Their flow of funds creates a form of clientelism, with the expectation that the recipients toe an ideological line. They put words into the mouths of their African church allies, even writing or rewriting their anticolonial statements to reflect U.S. conservative concerns. In one of many examples, IRD reworked a statement Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia wrote in preparation for a 2008 Methodist conference to use as a general African statement, adding in its anti-Islamic politics,

Cognizant of the massive silent invasion of Islam upon global community with its excessively and liberal use of Arab-oil funds to propagate its faith, we are afraid that the current unrestricted embrace of liberalism within the United Methodist Church is endangering the chances of our children of not considering Christianity as a possibility. It creates a breeding ground for the rapid expansion of Islam among our future posterity." [italics indicate IRD changes][27]

In contrast, U.S. mainline churches repeatedly demonstrate their opposition to neocolonialism of all sorts, not least by supporting the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to fight poverty in postcolonial Africa. Yet American conservatives succeed in dismissing such efforts as neocolonial attempts to bribe Africans into accepting homosexuality, which they characterize as a purely Western phenomenon.

Sadly, the sensitivity of mainline church leaders in the United States to charges of colonialism can silence them from speaking out on LGBT issues. The African attacks create a dilemma for them: How can they be relevant to their own global North context, while remaining connected to global mainline Christianity? Unfortunately, the fear of isolation leads many social and theological progressives in the church to ignore social justice issues in their daily proclamations. While Episcopalians risked schism to support gay bishops, U.S. Presbyterian and Methodist churches do not openly ordain LGBT clergy. African clergy directly threatened to cut links with Presbyterians in 2004 if they did. Despite the active role American progressives played and continue to play in Africa, they were out-organized.

The Attack on IslamAnother U.S. conservative ploy is to suggest that mainline churches' acceptance of homosexuality puts African Christian witness at a competitive disadvantage with Islam in winning converts. Thus U.S. conservatives whip up concerns about Muslims and homosexuals simultaneously in their attacks on mainline churches' social witness. Alan Wisdom, the Director of Presbyterian renewal group Action for Faith and Freedom, observed that the U.S. mainline churches' "desire to dialogue with Islam ignores the plights of the Christian minorities in Islamic nations."[28]

In November 2008, Jim Tonkowich, then IRD president, announced that his group was "beginning a project to research how the actions of the Episcopal Church promoting homosexuality is negatively impacting Christians in Africa who live within and alongside Muslim cultures."[29] In a February 2009 telephone interview, Faith McDonnell, the Director of IRD's Religious Liberty Programs and of the Church Alliance for a New Sudan, explained,

Islam prohibits homosexuality Radical Muslims would use it as another reason for attacking Christians who would be viewed as infidels We are competing with Islam in Africa. Muslims are going to use the argument that Africans are part of the wider communion which accepts homosexuality.

It has happened in the Sudan where one Bishop has already formed the Reformed Episcopal Church by appealing to the argument that he is not part of the Church of homosexuals. Homosexuality hampers the witness of the Christian witness in Africa.

When asked whether IRD and its allied renewal movements had evidence for such claims, McDonnell replied, "We do not have any empirical evidence yet. This is solely what Christians are thinking and it is damaging the witness among Christians."

However, even African religious conservatives discount this idea and there is no evidence for it in Uganda, Kenya, or Nigeria. One senior clergyman in Kenya told me, "Such an argument does not make sense Islam has been part of the African heritage in Kenya. My grandfather was Muslim and on his death bed he was baptized by his son who was the Bishop." Similarly Paul Ssembiro, the Mission Coordinator in Archbishop Orombi's office observed, "Uganda's opposition to homosexuality has nothing to do with Islam. I don't think it is has anything to do with the Islamic faith." The Kenyan Anglican priest Michael Kimindu noted that this argument is intended to "elicit support from U.S. conservatives concerned about radical Islam."

Indeed, Archbishop Orombi has cooperated with Muslims in attacking LGBT people in Uganda. But in 2007 he told his American allies what they wanted to hear: Muslims are attempting to conquer "not so much by the sword but by the dollar. Muslims also are offering vocal opposition to laws that protect women's rights because these are not in the Koran.'"[30]


The relationship between U.S. conservatives and African religious leaders is inhibiting the right of LGBT people to live freely and without persecution both in the United States and Africa. In Africa, people's lives are threatened not only by vigilantism but by government action. If we agree that African churches should be allowed to map their own agenda in the global church, then the conservatives should let go of Africa. Unfortunately, they will not, at least not without a fight.

It is important that progressive activists in mainline churches are now taking the fight to conservatives and putting them on the defensive at home. In the United Methodist Church, progressives managed to expose IRD and renewal movements' attempt to influence African delegates to the 2008 international church gathering by giving out cellphones.

In the Episcopal Church, progressives exposed the presence of conservative lobbyists at international Anglican conferences. They are also making new inroads with African religious leaders. It is a positive sign that the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan and the Congo as well as bishops from West Africa traveled to the United States to attend the 2009 General Convention of Episcopal Church USA. Not only did American progressives represent their positions in their own words, the African leaders were able to explore the American church's intentions in Africa. Most of the African bishops pointed to poverty as one of the biggest challenges Africa faces and sought the church's support in antipoverty struggles even though the Episcopal Church lifted the moratorium on blessing of same sex marriages and ordination of gays and lesbians to the office of the bishop. Although not all agreed with the position taken by the Episcopal Church on LGBT issues, African bishops were generally sympathetic with their U.S. colleagues on the matter.

The campaign challenging Rick Warren to denounce the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda which he still has not done -- is another example of taking the fight to America. Because the U.S. Right is so skillful at twisting the mainline church statements in Africa as colonial interference, these challenges on conservatives' home territory provide vital support for LGBT Africans under attack. We must make sure that they are not collateral damage in the U.S. culture wars.

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