Uganda's Anti-Gay Law and America's Right Hand

The White House just issued a statement about our imposing serious sanctions on the country of Uganda for a law, signed by President Yoweri Museveni in February, which criminalizes homosexuality. The U.S. has cut aid, imposed visa restrictions, and canceled a regional military exercise in response to the law which imposes jail terms of up to life for "aggravated homosexuality," including acts such as homosexual sex with a minor or while HIV-positive.

While the White House's relatively swift and strong action against the hate legislation is commendable, there is a rather ironic left-hand-not-knowing (or turning a blind eye) to-what-the-right-hand-is-doing twist. The right hand is that of U.S. faith-based organizations and their global practices which are fomenting hate and contributing to global conflict.

While missionizing is as old as Christianity, globalization has led to an exponential growth in faith-based organizations providing much needed humanitarian aid, including education, medicine, skills training, food, shelter, and emergency relief, to parts of the world where domestic governments may be unable or unwilling. Many of these faith-based organizations provide relief with no other agenda, but to serve those in need. But others -- specifically a vast number of American evangelical and far right wing institutions and churches -- actively engage in proselytization and exporting their culture wars alongside "relief work."

Introduced in the fall of 2009, the anti-homosexuality law was a direct outgrowth of a conference called, "Seminar on Exposing the Truth behind Homosexuality and the Homosexual Agenda." The event took place in the capital, Kampala, in March of that same year. While many would agree that Uganda and other African nations already foster a general climate of homophobia, U.S. Christian-right groups took full advantage of this baseline by sponsoring the conference host, Uganda-based Family Life Network. The Family Life Network, in turn, teamed up with two leading American anti-gay activists, Holocaust revisionist Scott Lively and Dan Schmierer of the ex-gay group Exodus International. A major fruit of this partnership -- the text of the bill's original preamble was drawn in part from the conference.

Even more "mainstream" evangelical leadership has been involved. In 2008, Rick Warren, head of the Saddleback "megachurch" in California and author of the bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life visited with political leaders in Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya, and declared, "Homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right." But after international outcry, Warren distanced himself from the law. Lively, however, continued to support it sans the death penalty language.

Reverend Dr. Kapya Kaoma, an ordained Anglican priest, citizen of Zambia, and researcher on religion and sexuality for the Political Research Associates has said that "the influence of U.S. evangelical culture warriors has been felt across sub-Saharan Africa. The Christian right has been involved in legislative or constitutional efforts to crack down on the LGBT populations of Kenya, Liberia, Namibia, Nigeria, Malawi, Rwanda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe as well. Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill has become a kind of template for other countries, including Nigeria and Liberia, where similar laws have been proposed."

Through our advocacy efforts at the Hindu American Foundation, we have long implored the U.S. State Department, foreign policy think tanks, and anyone on the Hill who's willing to listen to begin taking notice of how many U.S. faith-based organizations are contributing to global conflict. The standard response has been, "Well, it's their religious freedom." But what about the religious freedom and basic human rights of the LGBT community in Uganda? Or Rwanda? Or Kenya? What about our nation's credibility as a torchbearer of international human rights?

While every American has a right to free exercise, I believe two initiatives of the U.S. government, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the G.W. Bush administration's expansion of the Faith-Based Initiative, have perpetuated a very asymmetrical view of religious freedom. This view too often privileges the right of missionaries to proselytize at the expense of everyone else's right to practice their religion without intrusion, or in the case of many Ugandans, simply live and love whomever they choose, regardless of gender. This too is America's right hand.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom came into existence in 1998, catalyzed by H.Res.15 and S.Con.Res. 71, both of which "focused exclusively on 'the persecution of Christians world-wide" and sister legislation, the Wolf-Specter "Freedom from Religious Persecution Act," which also aligned with its earlier avatars' exclusive concern for Christians. It wasn't until legislators smartened up and removed the exclusive focus, that the Act creating USCIRF passed, but not without heavy lobbying by international missionary organizations.

The Bush administration's expanded Faith-Based initiative -- continued under the Obama administration -- initiated the flow of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars into the coffers of faith-based aid agencies to provide social services both at home and abroad with no external mechanism for oversight (self-reporting) and without any concern of fungibility of funds.

Reverend Kaoma's most telling observation is: "While promoting their religious values in Africa, U.S. evangelicals present themselves as defenders of African traditions -- and depict liberal religious groups as imposing alien ideas on the continent. But some alien ideas, like Western notions of 'family values,' come from the right. For Africans, 'family values' traditionally means upholding community responsibilities and each person's relationship to other members of the clan. They can be summed up by the Bantu word Ubuntu, which means, 'I am because we are.' The nuclear family that Western conservatives promote is foreign to Africans. Traditional African communities did not beat or abuse their LGBT members. Some even believed they had extraordinary powers."