Monday, May 30, 2011

Exporting Hate: Lethal American Meddling in Uganda

Lou Engle’s gravelly voice catches and his face contorts. He looks perpetually as if he is about to be overcome with emotion. He is wearing a yellow, short-sleeve, button-down shirt. He is the definition of middle-aged with a bushy moustache and a receding hairline of sandy brown hair.

When he appears on the video, it is jarring. He looks very much out-of-place. Lou Engle stands on a stage in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, warning a sea of African faces about the dangers of the so-called “homosexual agenda.” With crocodile tears he tells the audience that gays are trying to hurt the nation of Uganda and hurt families.

Lou Engle appears in a documentary entitled Africa’s Last Taboo. The documentary takes you across the continent of Africa, exploring the rising tide of violent homophobia fueled by religious leaders and government officials. In church on Sunday, May 29, we showed a segment of this documentary dealing with homophobia in Uganda. (You can watch parts of this documentary on-line here.)

When he’s not stirring up hate in Uganda, Lou Engle spends his time spreading his Christian theocratic vision across the United States. Engle is the lead minister of the (unfortunately-named) International House of Prayer, located in the Kansas City suburb of Grandview, Missouri. He is also the organizer of an organization known as The Call, which hosts large prayer rallies espousing his politicized faith. Engle was heavily involved in helping California to pass Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that repealed same-sex marriage. Lou Engle is one of a large number of conservative religious leaders and politicians who have spent years working to try to transform Uganda into a Christian theocratic state.

In 2008 journalist Jeff Sharlet released the book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. The book deals with a secretive organization in Washington D.C. that operated a house on C Street – incorporated as a church so as to avoid taxation – that provided dormitory living to a large number of politicians and also served as a training ground for politicians, government officials, business leaders, and ministers with powerful ambitions. Current Kansas Governor and then-Senator Sam Brownback is featured prominently in Sharlet’s book. The Family overlaps with another organization called The Fellowship that has hosted a National Prayer Breakfast, a private religious event attended by every United States President since Eisenhower in 1953, that is every lobbyist’s dream and has also been a way to circumvent official United States diplomatic objectives.

Jeff Sharlet’s book exploded in 2009 as a pair of members of The Family, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Nevada Senator John Ensign, got caught in seedy sex scandals. Suddenly, Jeff Sharlet became a regular guest on television and radio news programs. Sharlet’s book contains numerous mentions of Uganda and Uganda’s dictator Yoweri Museveni. Sharlet alleges that The Family targeted Uganda, as well as Kenya, as a base for corporate and political influence in East Africa. Sharlet writes,
The actual fate of Ugandan citizens was never [the Family’s] concern. [Congressman Joe] Pitts, in the Family tradition, may have had geopolitics on the mind: with Ethiopia limping along following decades of civil war and dictatorship and Somalia veering toward a Taliban state, tiny, Anglophone Uganda has become an American wedge into Islamic Africa. But the American uses and abuses of Uganda are still more cynical: Christian Africa has been appropriated for a story with which American fundamentalists argue for domestic policy, a parable detached from African realities, preached for the benefit of Americans.
Before United States politicians and religious leaders made homosexuality a key issue in Uganda, they attacked family planning and AIDS prevention programs. Sharlet writes,
Uganda, which following the collapse of Siad Barre’s Somalia became the focus of the Family’s interests in the African Horn, has been the most tragic victim of this projection of American’s sexual anxieties. Following implementation of one of the continent’s only successful anti-AIDS program, President Yoweri Museveni, the Family’s key-man in Africa, came under pressure from the United States to emphasize abstinence instead of condoms. Congressman Pitts wrote that pressure into law, redirecting millions of dollars from effective sex-ed programs to [abstinence only] programs. This pressure achieved the desired result: an evangelical revival in Uganda, and a stigmatization of condoms and those who use them so severe that some college campuses held condom bonfires… [F]ollowing the American intervention, the Ugandan AIDS rate, once dropping, nearly doubled.
Since the fall of 2009, the Ugandan government has on several occasions considered passing a draconian anti-homosexuality bill. This piece of legislation has never come to a vote, though it surely will be considered again. You can read the bill here. It contains provisions for life imprisonment or the death penalty for gays, lengthy prison sentences for people who do not report people known to be homosexuals, and harsh penalties for doctors, ministers, and businesses that knowingly serve gay individuals.

The bill was introduced by David Bahati, a rising star in Ugandan politics with close connections to the Family. One of the bill’s most vocal supporters, Martin Ssempa, was a close associate of Rick Warren, minister of the Saddleback Church in California.

The anti-homosexuality bill is so repulsive and indefensible that it has caused many American evangelical leaders and members of the Family to try to distance themselves from it. The internet is full of allegations and speculations as to where many of these American figures actually stand in terms of their support for the bill.

Rick Warren initially said, “It is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations.” Then he backtracked, issuing a video to attempt to distance himself from the bill and Ssempa, the controversial Ugandan pastor who had visited him numerous times in California. Ssempa fired back, calling him a wimp and a flip-flopper.

Even some of America’s most vicious and virulent anti-gay preachers have backed away from the Ugandan bill. Scott Lively, a disgusting preacher who leads an anti-gay group classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the author of a book, The Pink Swastika, which claims that homosexuals were the inventors of Nazism, has stated his opposition to the Ugandan law.

It seems clear to me that when folks like Lively and Lou Engle backtrack from fully supporting the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill, they are talking out of both sides of their mouths. The homophobic violence in Uganda is so extreme that they want to have some evidence of plausible deniability lest they be implicated in genocide. On the other hand, their friends in Uganda say that they know that in their hearts, they support the persecution of homosexuals.

Despite what they say about the bill, I believe that American Evangelical leaders have blood on their hands in Uganda. Even if the government isn’t willing to kill gays, the mobs are certainly willing. Publications have outed dozens of gay Ugandans. Many have been murdered, including gay activist David Kato. The explosion of violence may have happened in Uganda, but American evangelicals helped to organize the mob and armed them with pitchforks and torches.

What can Americans do to help improve the situation in Uganda?

I think Americans can do several things. First, Americans need to make sure that the feet of American politicians and religious leaders continue to be held to the fire. Inquire about their activities in Uganda. Demand that they clarify their position on Uganda. Ask about travel. Scrutinize their interactions with Museveni, Bahati, Ssempa, or any other promoters of homophobia in Uganda. American ministers and politicians fear embarrassment. Pay attention and let them know you are paying attention.

Second, demand that the Obama administration use its diplomatic power to insist that Uganda protect the human rights of all of its citizens.

Finally, Americans can partner with and support organizations that are watching Ugandan political and religious leaders and Americans involved in Uganda.

Resources:
Here is Jeff Sharlet being interviewed on The Rachel Maddow Show.
Here is an article by Jeff Sharlet from The Advocate.
Here is a video of a Kansas City activist organization protesting Lou Engle.
Here is a statement by Unitarian Universalist Associate President Peter Morales on Uganda.
Here is coverage of Uganda in the UU World.