Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rick Warren and Ugandan Legislation to Criminalize Homosexuality: Bitter Fruit

Pastor Rick Warren is back in the news again—in a way that I don’t imagine will please him, as he tries to craft a kinder and gentler, a non-homophobic, public image for himself. Today, Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank that publishes The Public Eye, has issued a press release calling on Rev. Warren to renounce the savagely anti-gay legislation now before the Ugandan legislature.

This legislation seeks to criminalize gay sex with a penalty of life imprisonment for those who engage in gay sex. It would also provide capital punishment for those having same-sex relations if they are HIV+ or having sex with someone under 18. No such penalties are envisaged for straight people engaging in the same activities. The law also seeks to outlaw all human rights groups advocating for LGBT rights.

Why call on Rick Warren to involve himself in Ugandan politics? Well, it appears he has a certain history with that nation. He’s already involved. Quite a few commentators on the Ugandan situation are suggesting that the savage homophobia now on display in the country’s governing body is a direct outcome of years of right-wing American evangelical meddling in the affairs of this African nation—meddling in which Rev. Warren has played a key role.

As Political Research Associates note, in March 2008 Warren told Ugandans that homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right. And as Rick Street at Religion Dispatches points out, Rev. Warren has identified Uganda as a “purpose-driven nation.” One of the leaders of the anti-gay campaign in Uganda, an evangelical pastor named Rev. Martin Ssempa, who has called for the arrest of gay activists, is a disciple of Warren’s.

A Zambian Anglican priest, Rev. Kapya Kaoma, who has documented the influence of U.S. evangelicals on African politics, states,

Rick Warren shows one face in the United States where he says he loves gays, and another face in Africa, which is on the verge of pogroms against this community. We need to hear his voice loud and clear on this issue that gays and lesbians are entitled to full human rights.

In Rick Street’s view, Uganda is “in many ways an experiment in right-wing Christian social thought.” The country’s location on the borderline between Christian and Muslim areas of Africa has attracted American evangelical missionaries who want to promote a militant Christianity to counter Islam. To further this agenda, right-wing American Christians have deliberately exported Western culture-war battles to Uganda, as they try to craft a truly godly Christian nation in Africa to shame decadent Western Christians who increasingly tolerate and affirm gay persons.

As Tarso Luís Ramos, the executive director of Political Research Associates, observes,

Anti-gay activists here in the U.S. have used vitriol and money to entice their African counterparts to campaign against ordination of gay clergy in the Episcopal and other U.S. mainline churches. They have also exported the U.S. culture wars, fomenting particularly severe forms of homophobia in Uganda and other African countries whose sexual minorities are now the collateral damage to our domestic conflicts.

And now this religio-political meddling in the affairs of African nations is bearing bitter fruit. The Ugandan legislation to criminalize homosexuality was introduced this past March, immediately following a conference held by the Ugandan Family Life Network, at which Don Schmierer, president of Exodus International, and Holocaust revisionist and anti-gay evangelical activist Scott Lively deliberately fanned the flames of homophobia in the nation’s political life. As Jim Burroway notes, Lively addressed members of the Ugandan parliament, informing them that legalizing homosexuality would be like legalizing “the molestation of children or having sex with animals.”

For those interested in global trends in Christianity, this is a significant story to follow. One of the powerful memes the religious right has sought to plant in the American mainstream media claims that African Christianity has retained a purer, truer form of Christian faith than have the decadent churches of the West. The claim constantly made in media presentations of the African churches is that these churches are now embattled, that they are being pushed by progressive groups in North American and European churches to adopt practices alien to traditional African Christianity—practices like accepting women in positions of leadership and tolerating gays and lesbians.

This is a completely distorted—a false—representation of the historical roots of African Christianity. This interpretation assumes that the churches of Africa have previously been immune to political and theological influences from the West, and are only now encountering these influences in the form of corrupting cultural currents that call misogyny and homophobia into question.

Uganda has a well-developed history of right-leaning evangelical Christianity that was exported from England, particularly in the East African revival period of the early 20th century. For various political reasons, the churches of Europe and North America have long had a vested interest in determining the fate of African Christianity—as these areas have had a vested interest in determining the economic and political course of African nations.

To a great extent, African churches are being treated today as the playground of the European and American political and religious right. In what is now happening in Uganda, we can see the outcome of the attempt of right-wing groups in the West to use African culture and African churches as toys in Western political games—we can see that outcome in its most horrifying and brutal manifestations.

I wholeheartedly agree with Political Research Associates. Rick Warren needs to take responsibility for what he and his confreres have accomplished in Uganda.

The graphic shows Rev. Rick Warren with Rwandan President Paul Kagame.