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If Uganda Executes Gays, Will American Christians be Complicit?

4 years ago
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A bill currently before the Ugandan Parliament sounds like an absurdist scenario from some liberal nightmare about a theocratic state: Under the proposed law -- which appears to have strong public support -- criminal penalties on homosexual acts in the East African nation would be made much harsher, and include the death penalty.

Killing homosexuals for having sex? Just as shocking, however, are the links between the proposal and American Christians who have at times been rousing cheerleaders for Uganda's draconian statutes.

A key episode in the trail of evidence was an event in March 2009 in the capital, Kampala, that drew three well-known conservative Christian activists from the United States who are prominent in the so-called ex-gay movement that seeks to "convert" homosexuals to make them straight.

The three men, Scott Lively of Abiding Truth Ministries, Don Schmierer of Exodus International and the International Healing Foundation, and Lee Brundidge, who often works with a group called Extreme Prophetic, were invited to the conference of the Family Life Network of Uganda to help organize what Lively called "an effective social and political force" to combat "anti-family Western agitators." Those agitators, he said, are led by gay activists in Europe and the United States who "plan to spread sexual anarchy throughout the world under the guise of 'human rights' and 'family planning.' "

If that message sounds over-the-top to American ears, it plays well in places like Uganda, where grass-roots sentiment against gays and anti-gay (and anti-Western) rhetoric from hardline Muslims can set the tone of the discourse.

In their talks to the conference of parents, politicians and educators, the trio provided a host of other anti-gay talking points as well. They said homosexuals are "out to destroy the country," according to reports from the scene, and they said that legalizing homosexuality is akin to legalizing "the molestation of children or having sex with animals." Lively, who has gained notoriety for arguing that homosexuals were the real force behind the rise of Nazism, was also invited to address the Ugandan Parliament. By his own account, his hosts "were very pleased."

Soon after the conference, the Family Life Network and its political allies got to work and on Oct. 15 introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, which aims to "protect the traditional family by prohibiting any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex."

Although some proponents argue that the proposed legislation is not that much worse than current laws in Uganda that criminalize gay sex, the current bill creates severe new penalties: For one thing, it would add a seven-year jail term for anyone who "attempts to commit the offense" of homosexuality or who "aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality." And anyone convicted of publishing information about homosexuality, or providing funds or premises for homosexual activity, would receive a seven-year jail sentence or a fine of $50,000. Authorities who fail to report homosexuals within 24 hours of discovering their behavior can be punished by up to three years in prison. Moreover, the bill defines homosexual sex (it's pretty explicit) as even attempting to touch another person of the same sex with the "intention" of having sex; this can even occur through clothing.

But it is the provision for capital punishment for "aggravated homosexuality" -- defined as having gay sex with disabled people or anyone under 18, or when the accused is HIV-positive -- that has raised alarms among human rights groups and some American Christians.

Ten days after the bill's introduction, Warren Throckmorton, a well-known evangelical speaker who is himself affiliated with gay-switching ministries, wrote an online column denouncing the actions of the Lively, Schmierer and Brundidge, and pointing the finger of responsibility at his fellow believers in America:

"Jailing or killing gays or those suspected of being gay cannot create a righteous people, and in fact may further a self-righteous people," Throckmorton wrote. "Christians in the U.S may have unwittingly contributed to the deteriorating state of freedom in Uganda. Now, we need to help right those wrongs by calling on our Ugandan brothers and sisters to back away from this bill."

American commenters on his piece ranged from those who applauded Throckmorton's courage to those who supported the criminalization of homosexuality.

Lively himself struck back in one of the comments: "I do not now and have never supported incarceration for homosexuals and was in Uganda to advocate for treatment of homosexuals as an alternative to incarceration, similar to what benefited me when arrested for drunk driving years ago in my pre-Christian days." He added that he does not support "the harsh law as currently proposed."

Lively's approach would maintain the criminalization of homosexuality, however. And writing in June about his Uganda trip, Lively boasted that he encouraged Ugandans to maintain a "sufficient legal deterrent to prevent the international 'gay' juggernaut from homosexualizing the society." In a Nov. 27 interview with LifeSiteNews, a conservative Catholic Web site, Lively again blamed gay men in the West for prompting the new law. He repeated that he thought the current bill too "harsh" but he defended the criminalization of homosexuality.

Yet much more is in play here than the actions and arguments of a handful of Christian activists from America.
Many leading U.S. Christians have longstanding ties to churches in Uganda, and may, some argue, have had a hand in promoting the policies that culminated in the new anti-homosexuality bill.

Many top U.S. politicians are also invested in Uganda. The Bush administration liked to present the country as a model of pro-abstinence, anti-condom AIDS prevention policies (a claim that some dispute), and author Jeff Sharlet recently revealed close ties between The Family -- the secretive network of conservative American Christians that includes leading Sens. James Inhofe, Sam Brownback, Tom Coburn and Mike Enzi -- and the Ugandan legislator, David Bahati, who introduced the tough new anti-gay bill.

These American and African Christians have many things in common, but a frequent tie is a shared dislike -- bordering on detestation -- of homosexuality and homosexuals. Ugandan Christianity, like the faith in much of Africa and the Southern Hemisphere, is booming and orthodox on matters of sex, and is seen by Americans evangelicals in particular as fertile territory for mission work. It is also seen as a bulwark against an even more traditionalist Islam, as well as a breeding ground for Christian allies in the culture wars being fought in the West.

Rick Warren, perhaps America's most prominent megachurch evangelical and author of the mega-selling "Purpose-Driven Life," has particularly strong ties to Uganda, which he has declared a "Purpose-Driven Nation." Warren's point man in Uganda was Martin Ssempa, a pastor who is a strong backer of the Anti-Homosexuality bill. Ssempa has appeared at Warren's Saddleback Church, although Warren distanced himself from Ssempa's views in October and said he had cut ties with him in 2007.

But in a statement to Newsweek on Sunday, Warren also declined to condemn the pending legislation that Ssempa and others back:
"The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator," Warren said. "However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations."
Yet as Throckmorton has said, American Christians who have been cultivating ties and sharing views with Ugandan Christians are past the point of taking such a hands-off approach. In March 2008, Warren told Ugandan media that he supported a boycott of the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion by Uganda's bishops over the issue of homosexuality -- even though Warren is a Southern Baptist. Warren also said homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right and added, "We shall not tolerate this aspect at all."

At the very least, such rhetoric is like throwing a lighted match into a tinderbox. Homosexuality is a taboo in many African societies to a far greater extent than it is in the United States, and in Uganda it can be a weapon against adversaries; politicians will, for example, leak the names of opponents they say are gay, and accommodating tabloids will print the names, which can end a career or result in jail time.

American Christians who help sow such sentiments may be held liable -- at least morally -- for the results. A Nov. 18 report, "Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia," from the liberal think tank Political Research Associates (PRA), documents how extensive -- and influential -- those contacts are.
"Just as the United States and other northern societies routinely dump our outlawed or expired chemicals, pharmaceuticals, machinery, and cultural detritus on African and other Third World countries, we now export a political discourse and public policies our own society has discarded as outdated and dangerous," Tarso Luís Ramos, head of the PRA, says in the foreword to the report. "Africa's anti-gay campaigns are to a substantial degree made in the U.S.A."
Whether those campaigns will succeed is still an open question. Despite wide support for the bill in parliament, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni may seek to stall the legislation for fear of losing international support.

But many Ugandan church leaders have also signaled their support for the broader bill if the death-penalty provision is removed. "I think the death penalty is not acceptable," Anglican Bishop Stanley Ntagali of Masindi-Kitara diocese has said. "I think taking someone to jail for a period of time would be sufficient."

With an estimated 500,000 gays and lesbians among Uganda's 31 million residents, they better start building prisons fast.

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