The Anti-Gay Highway

A Ugandan MP has proposed creating an offence of aggravated homosexuality to be punishable by death.
BBC News, 15 October

A new report released today details the role that US-based renewal church movements have played in mobilizing homophobic sentiment in at least three African countries. “Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches & Homophobia,” written by Rev. Kapya Kaoma for the progressive think tank Political Research Associates, was the result of a yearlong investigation into the relationship between conservative clergy on two continents, which has hastened divisions within denominations and has “restrict[ed] the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.”

Renewal groups and their neoconservative ally, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, have long sought to conservatize or split mainline American churches—frequently over gender or sexuality issues—and liberal scholars have traced many of the mainline schisms that have dominated headlines over the past several years to groundwork laid by the IRD and others.*

Increasingly, though, renewal movements have begun looking abroad for allies. Focusing on three mainline denominations under assault by these renewal movements (the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church USA) in three African countries (Uganda, Nigeria, and Kenya), Kaoma has documented a clear trend of the US Christian right exporting its battles over social and sexuality issues to Africa. There, churches have been pressured to sever ties with mainline funders in exchange for conservative support, and have become recipients of a more fiercely anti-gay message than the US Christian right delivers at home.

As a result, Kaoma reports, a culture of vicious repression of gay rights has emerged, shaped by US evangelicals ranging from more “respectable” figures like Rick Warren, to fringe activists like Holocaust revisionist Scott Lively (author of anti-gay book The Pink Swastika, which suggests that Nazism was a gay plot).

In Africa, Kaoma finds, both types are freer with anti-gay statements, and both are considered equally representative of US evangelicaldom. Additionally, conservative evangelicals have been immensely successful in depicting the movement for gay equality as the neocolonialist agenda of an arrogant, imperial West that seeks to undermine African values. According to this equation, advances for gay rights in the United States are proof of a mounting gay threat to African culture, resulting in increased repression in countries like Uganda and Kenya. The consequences of these teachings and appeals to African sensitivity to colonialism are painfully clear today, just weeks after Uganda proposed legislation making homosexuality a crime punishable by life imprisonment or death.

One of the report’s more surprising findings is the reciprocity of this influence. Kaoma links the growing conservatism of African evangelical leaders with their increased influence over domestic church politics in the United States. The involvement of African clergy in US church schisms over the ordination of gay or female clerics, or the recognition of gay marriage, has become an impediment to the progress of LGBT rights in progressive, mainline denominations.

The shift in Christianity’s center of gravity to the global South has rendered African religious leaders a heavyweight voting bloc in mainline matters; supporting and legitimizing the conservative position of renewal groups, which would otherwise be a minority in US denominations. Social issues like gay rights may just be fodder for renewal groups seeking allies in Africa, suggests Kaoma, but the manipulation of that issue is stalling progress on LGBT civil rights at home while working to deadly effect in Africa.

Kaoma, an Anglican priest and doctoral candidate at Boston University, spoke with RD today, upon the report’s release:

This report describes growing anti-gay movements in African churches as a “proxy war” for US culture battles. Can you explain?

Since the ’90s, we’ve seen this shift from the American conservatives who are going to Africa, and they started spreading this anti-gay rhetoric across sub-Saharan Africa. We started getting a lot of statements from US evangelicals that homosexuality is wrong and that there is this Western agenda among gays to take over world. So it is coming from the West. Why is it a proxy war? In America, these politics have been going on for a long time—since the ’80s they have been used as a political tool to gain support in American churches.

But we saw a shift in the [tactics] to allow that war to be fought outside American soil: They’ve allowed Africans to get involved and fight on behalf of conservatives. You see [US evangelicals] going to Africa and making statements and having political access to leadership there, asking them to criminalize same-sex orientation. And now, when they do that, the Africans are benefiting the religious conservatives, because they’re helping them fight in America. But American conservatives are also benefiting African leaders in terms of giving them not just an ideological framework—the anti-LGBT arguments that have been used in America—but also providing them with legitimacy.

The second aspect is very interesting in a sense, because in addition to the ideological framework, they’re getting the religious leaders in Africa involved by telling them to misrepresent the progressive or mainline churches as evil—part and parcel of a gay agenda to take over the world—so you cannot deal with them. They say they’re going to partner with [African leaders and churches], if they can disassociate from mainline churches [in the United States], which are part of the gay agenda. So [the African churches] cut the relationship, and then the American conservatives take over financially.

That’s how the war is being fought. Thus, when the Africans come [to the United States] they have nothing to do with mainline churches; instead they side with American conservatives against mainline churches. And the mainline church in Africa is bigger and stronger than in America. So the conservatives are relying on the numbers of African leaders; they start fighting mainline church leadership using Africans to win the American battle, and come across as though they care about Africa.

Do these renewal church conservatives in America actually care about Africa?

They have some explaining to do: here conservatives came to fame because one of the governments, in a broadcast program, accused mainline churches of supporting terrorists in South Africa—in the struggle in Zimbabwe against the white minority, and against the apartheid government of South Africa. The mainline churches supported the people trying to overthrow these immoral regimes. The IRD said that they were supporting terrorists in Africa, so they didn’t have an interest in Africa then. [The mainline churches] managed to help Africans get their independence, but now the Christian right appears to have taken an interest in Africa because they want Africans to fight their wars.

I am an evangelical myself, but [conservative evangelicals in the United States are] opposed to caring for the poor in their own backyard; now they want to care for the poor in Africa? There are people who need help here. So, do they care for Africa? Yes, but only if it works to their advantage—if they can use them to win their battle.

Can you describe the climate of growing homophobia in the African countries you investigated? Also, considering the way homosexuality is being framed as a Western imposition, can you describe the history of LGBT presence and rights in Africa?

LGBT issues and people have been in Africa since long before colonial time. In Uganda, for instance, the president is saying that homosexuality came from Europe and the West. But an old king of Uganda back in the 1880s was gay, a historical fact that no one disputes. We have that evidence to start with, but the first laws that we had against gays did come with the colonial government.

The moment that it took on a postcolonial face is when it became more aggressive. In Africa, we believe that a person is born to have kids and then die, and that’s the circle you go through. So if you’re born and don’t have a child, you are viewed as less of a human being. We have a variety of names for people who don’t have kids. So because gays and lesbians had families, there was a way for people to be hidden within marriages, and would appear to be normal, because we wanted to fulfill procreation.

But the growing homophobia started in the 1990s when we had strong evangelical interest in Africa from conservatives; evangelists were coming to Africa at a time when America was struggling with HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues. That language started to come in.

At the Lambeth Conference of 1998, African leaders were forced to confront issues of sexuality. When the Africans stood up, the climate was changed because then the [US] evangelicals, seeing an ally in African church leaders, were going to come to Africa.

Almost all those guys who went to Africa were so-called evangelicals and had access to African leaders. Rick Warren himself has access to political leaders in Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya. And not a simple kind of access but direct access. Remember that when Warren was in Africa, he got involved in mainline politics and he said that this church is wrong. That is when he made the statement that homosexuality is not a natural way of life and it’s not necessarily a human right. And he has access to the president of Uganda, to the religious leaders of Uganda. People respect him so much, and then the government sings his slogan that gay rights aren’t a human rights issue.

Then there’s Scott Lively, he’s important. When he goes to Uganda, he’s not known as Scott Lively, but as an American evangelical. When Warren goes to Kenya, he’s not Warren, but an American evangelical. As long as they have a church title and stand for conservative politics, they have influence. The Africans don’t always have the resources to follow their statements so they say: this man of God says this is going on in the world. Or Scott Lively goes to the Uganda Anti-gay Conference, and the media says that an American evangelical says there’s a gay agenda.

What Warren did when he was in Kenya, he met with members of parliament. The same thing would happen with Lively in Uganda: he gets to meet with Ugandan parliamentarians. In four hours, he teaches them about the gay agenda [that’s seeking] to take over the world. When he leaves, at the follow-up meeting, parliament makes a statement saying thank you for this information, and now we know that there is a group of gays trying to take over the world, and it’s up to Uganda to fight. People are saying they’re going to go door to door to look for gays and root them out. They’ve heard that they’re being funded by US and European groups. In truth, my research shows that 90-95% of LGBT persons in Africa are extremely poor because they are discriminated against. But they are represented as people with lots of money, who are recruiting in schools, etc.

It’s important to know this context in Africa. Lively went to Africa in March [for the “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexual Agenda,” an anti-gay conference sponsored by the US-supported Ugandan group the Family Life Network], and on April 20, a new bill was drafted. It’s important to know the timing there. Members of parliament talked about the need for a new bill, and we knew that the new bill was being drafted, although it took a long time to come out—October. A lot of it had to do with Lively. If you read the text of the proceedings, some of the things in that bill are direct reflections of what Lively was saying in Uganda: that there is no scientific evidence, that this group is trying to take over world and destroy family values. There’s a lot of traditional family language, and it’s language that Lively brought to Uganda.

In the report, you provide examples of US conservatives “ghostwriting” or altering statements made by African leaders to make them appear more in line with US conservative criticism of mainline churches. Is there any response from the African leaders who have had their messages altered or reshaped in this way?

I don’t see the religious leaders even seeing that as a problem, because they want the support of American conservatives. We have two cases: the case of [Rev. Jerry] Kulah, [district superintendent of Monrovia, Liberia for the United Methodist Church]. The work he presented in 2007 and what the IRD came up with and sent out as a message from Africa are two different topics. Kulah wasn’t necessarily taking the language of attacking mainline churches, and they had to put that in. They used Kulah to say things that only an American would be concerned with. But Kulah thought they were promoting his document.

The other thing, regarding President Obama: do you remember when Gene Robinson was invited to be part of his [inauguration], there was a lot of outcry from the American conservatives? One thing that was interesting was that [Rev. David Runnion-Bareford] the leader of the Association for Church Renewal, wrote a letter to Obama saying this will be seen as an insult to Africa. Is he African? No. But does he speak for Africa? Yes. He’s an American writing and claiming this is what is happening. Did African leadership oppose that? No, because it gives them power. They want power. It’s like being promoted.

The moment you play to the politics of colonialism, you win, because Africans are very sensitive to that. That’s the [effective] thing about conservatives pointing to mainline churches as colonists. I still want them to explain why they supported the white regimes of South Africa and Zimbabwe, and supported wars that killed so many people. As long as they don’t do that, I still think for me as an African, it’s a big insult. To claim to love Africa, and support that—it’s a big insult to me.

Tell me about the spectrum of US conservatives involved in these issues in Africa. From so-called moderates like Rick Warren, to fringe figures like Scott Lively.

This is a problem. They know what to say in America. In America Warren says “I love gays.” In Africa, he says it’s not a natural way of life. Lively has said, “I can’t say this in America, but I can say it in Africa.” In America, people will hold him responsible, and in Africa, nobody will.**

The other thing I have concerns about, is when they meet with political leaders what do they talk about? What ideas are they promoting? The fact is, the American media is not there to report on what they say.

Kenneth Starr, he goes to Uganda, he’s going to have access to political leaders. That tells you that any people who hold these conservative ideologies have access to religious and political leaders and have avenues to advance their ideologies. [Warren and Lively] are different, and in America, I see them as different. When I saw [Lively] in Uganda, I thought, this guy is crazy, why is anyone listening to him? But in Africa, he is seen as a man of God, and an authority on this issue. In Africa, they are all part and parcel of US evangelicals.

Describe the reverse influence African churches are having on US church policy.

Before the United Methodist Church’s [UMC] general convention, the IRD and the Confessing Movement in the UMC went to Africa for what they called training Africans about the general convention; they gave them materials about the church in America, and how bad it has become. Those materials also told them that when you come to America, you need to vote for A, B, C, and D. And when the conference came, the Africans found that they had been given these lovely cell phones, and there was no charge, and the reason why was because they wanted them to vote a certain way. The Africans have become a powerhouse to change the direction of the American churches. They have to depend on Africa to bring change at home.

You will have a situation where an American might not say something, but Archbishop Akinola is free to say whatever he wants to say against LGBT persons in America, so he becomes a spokesperson. [US conservatives] say it’s not me saying it, it’s him. This is the same thing as Rick Warren’s strategy. He says I didn’t say that, my friends did. We say distance yourself from these friends, and he says I can’t do that.

As a result, as the mainline churches are moving forward on LGBT issues, the leadership is afraid of what Africa will say. But they should really be afraid of the renewal movement. They’ve stopped progress in the Protestant church because of Africa. But in Africa, America is also being used as an example of how the gays can take over the world. The criminalization of homosexuality, like the [proposed] law in Uganda, has taken hold because of what has been happening in America.

You quote a Methodist renewal leader encouraging conservatives to join mainline churches and “wait ten years” before reaping the benefits of their infiltration through strategic targeting of leadership roles. How long have conservative groups been sowing the field in Africa?

Oh, God. I think honestly, they put in a lot of infrastructure, like TV and radio, schools, Bible schools, and from the Reagan era there were missionaries going to Africa, primarily to stop the advance of Liberation Theology. And now we have a new wave of evangelicals who are part of that cause. I never took Liberation Theology because I went to evangelical school. They planted the seeds early. Unfortunately, they did it nicely. They built relationships from the late ’80s through to the ’90s, and by the time they said what their agenda was, they already had lots of bishops. It worked well in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda. And most of the bishops there were trained in evangelical schools. (They didn’t have such good infrastructure in Central Africa though.) They implanted that over time, it’s been going on for a long time, and now they’re reaping the benefits.

In your recommendations, you say that progressive religious communities must likewise take a longterm approach to gaining new allies in Africa. How can progressives make these alliances and define these conservative groups in a way that will expose them in Africa and at home?

In a conference of 100 people, I asked a question: can someone here tell me about a liberal Christian in America? What do they believe? The entire conference told me, we know about that. But when I asked what they know about Christian Right, they said they don’t know about the Christian Right at all. They don’t know, they think the right means the Bible, and the right thing to do.

What is needed is for us to explain what the right stands for. And when people are arguing for greater health care and help for people, the people who are opposed to that are on the right. The people who are opposed to working on global warming, and who support war—they are on the right. Africa isn’t like that. In Uganda, when Saddam Hussein was executed, the Pentecostals in Uganda stood up against that. They are opposed to capital punishment. But because they don’t know who’s standing for what, they think the Christian Right is their brother. As an evangelical, I can’t be associated with people like that. When we explain to people what the right stands for, many African evangelicals will say we can’t have anything to do with that.

The values of Africans and the Christian Right are different, but we share words, the words are similar. That’s where the right wins. When we talk about values and family, that appeals to an African. When we talk about evangelicals, it appeals to an African, but what they mean is totally different. So the progressives must start defining those on the right for Africa to understand.

The funding that goes to Africa is much more personal. For evangelicals, this money goes to bishops with personal contacts. And in Uganda, the person responsible for distributing that money is an American conservative. Do they really have an interest in Africa?

That’s how they want to be represented: as people who care about Africa. But what they’re really interested in is culture war, and they want to win that war. That’s their interest, and they’ll use Africans as well as they can. As an African, it’s insulting that people can use us as much as they want. They should be ashamed of themselves.

*IRD was initially labeled “a renewal group.” 

**This statement was originally attributed to Rick Warren.

RD regrets these errors.