After weeks of growing pressure to speak out against a draconian bill against homosexuals in Uganda that is backed by many of his Christian allies in the U.S. and the East African nation, Pastor Rick Warren on Thursday released a video and statement defending his earlier silence but also vigorously condemning the bill.
Warren is a megachurch pastor in Southern California whose bestselling books and close ties to politicians and world leaders has made him the most prominent American preacher since Billy Graham. He began his video statement
by explaining that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 is "a law that I had nothing to do with, completely oppose and vigorously condemn."
"But because I didn't rush to make a public statement," Warren continued, "some erroneously concluded that I supported this terrible bill, and some even claimed I was a sponsor of the bill. You in Uganda know that is untrue."
He also said he had not spoken out earlier because "it is not my role to interfere with the politics of other nations." But he added that because this is a moral issue and because he is a mentor to pastors in Uganda "who look to me for guidance," he decided to release a statement.
The bill, which is currently before the Ugandan parliament and has been expected to pass, would require a seven-year jail term for homosexual acts and three years for anyone who fails to report evidence of homosexuality within 24 hours of learning of such acts. It would also call for the execution of anyone who has gay sex with disabled people or anyone under 18, or when the accused is HIV positive. While many countries -- especially conservative Muslim nations -- criminalize homosexuality, the Ugandan law would be among the harshest. And it is one whose origins can be traced to Christian leaders in the United States and Uganda, as we reported
The bill has drawn growing interest in the media and has sparked sharp protests from human rights and gay rights groups. Some progressive Christians (as reported here
) have called for American Christian leaders to condemn the law.
A clear target of the protests has been Warren. In March 2008, for example, Warren told Ugandan media
that he opposes homosexuality, saying it is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right, adding, "We shall not tolerate this aspect at all." He also backed Anglicans in Africa (Warren is a Southern Baptist) in their efforts to condemn homosexuality. Last month, however, Warren said he had cut ties with his longtime point man in Uganda, Martin Ssempa, a pastor who is a strong backer of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. But he declined to condemn the legislation, telling Newsweek
on Nov. 29 that "it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations."
In his statement Thursday, Warren said he was now speaking out because he wanted to "correct these untruths" about his position and to urge his Ugandan allies to oppose the bill:
"Of course, there are thousands of evil laws enacted around the world and I cannot speak to pastors about every one of them, but I am taking the extraordinary step of speaking to you – the pastors of Uganda and spiritual leaders of your nation – for five reasons:"
"First, the potential law is unjust, extreme and un-Christian toward homosexuals, requiring the death penalty in some cases. If I am reading the proposed bill correctly, this law would also imprison anyone convicted of homosexual practice."
"Second, the law would force pastors to report their pastoral conversations with homosexuals to authorities."
"Third, it would have a chilling effect on your ministry to the hurting. As you know, in Africa, it is the churches that are bearing the primary burden of providing care for people infected with HIV/AIDS. If this bill passed, homosexuals who are HIV positive will be reluctant to seek or receive care, comfort and compassion from our churches out of fear of being reported. You and I know that the churches of Uganda are the truly caring communities where people receive hope and help, not condemnation."
"Fourth, ALL life, no matter how humble or broken, whether unborn or dying, is precious to God. My wife, Kay, and I have devoted our lives and our ministry to saving the lives of people, including homosexuals, who are HIV positive. It would be inconsistent to save some lives and wish death on others. We're not just pro-life. We are whole life."
"Finally, the freedom to make moral choices and our right to free expression are gifts endowed by God. Uganda is a democratic country with remarkable and wise people, and in a democracy everyone has a right to speak up. For these reasons, I urge you, the pastors of Uganda, to speak out against the proposed law."
Warren's description of his statement as an "encyclical video"-- an encyclical is a document normally associated with statements from popes or the early apostles -- demonstrates the kind of influence he has not only in the United States but across the globe, where he has been increasingly active in countries in Africa and Asia. In fact, it was Warren's close alliance with conservative Christians in Uganda -- early on he called the country a "Purpose-Driven Nation"-- that led to calls for him to condemn the bill and dissociate himself from some of the bill's Christian backers.
A number of prominent U.S. politicians are also associated with the conservative Christian movement in Uganda. Author Jeff Sharlet has revealed close ties between The Family -- the secretive network of conservative American Christians that includes leading GOP Sens. James Inhofe, Sam Brownback, Tom Coburn and Mike Enzi -- and the Ugandan legislator, David Bahati, who introduced the tough new anti-gay bill.
Protests against the bill may be having an effect. Box Turtle Bulletin, a clearinghouse for gay-related news that has been tracking the Ugandan legislation, reported Thursday
that it appeared the government was trying to modify the bill or perhaps find a way to drop it altogether.
Rick Warren's video encyclical could be the nail in the bill's coffin, or it could at least pave the way for others to raise their voices.
According to GOProud
, an organization of gay conservatives, Sen. Coburn on Thursday also came out against the Ugandan legislation:
"Over the past two decades, political, religious, and community leaders in Uganda have united to promote a rare, winning strategy against HIV that addresses the unique and common risks of every segment of society," Coburn says. "Sadly, some who oppose Uganda's common sense ABC strategy are using an absurd proposal to execute gays to undermine this coalition and winning strategy. Officials in Uganda should come to their senses and take whatever steps are necessary to withdraw this proposal that will do nothing but harm a winning strategy that is saving lives."
Now attention may turn to President Obama, who has not addressed the issue, as well as Pope Benedict XVI. Catholics make up more than a third of Uganda's population, and a word from the pontiff could go along way toward killing the bill.