Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It Takes a Village: Abby Scheer on Keeping the Media Honest re: American Churches and Anti-Gay Movements in Africa

The Ugandan story continues to simmer. I recommend Gwen Thompkins’ summary of what’s taking place in that nation, vis-à-vis gay citizens, on NPR’s “Morning Edition” today. Thompkins concludes unambiguously that the ultimate objective of the Ugandan legislation is “to remove gay people from society.”

She also notes the close ties of American conservative evangelicals, including Rick Warren and Scott Lively, to Ugandan leaders. As I’ve noted previously, Lively is president of a group, Abiding Truth Ministries, classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-gay hate group (and see here and here).

I welcome the mainstream media’s attempt to deal with a story to which it has paid insufficient attention in the past—the connection of American churches to anti-gay extremism in African nations. I also welcome the spotlight now focused in these media reports on extremists like Scott Lively.

At the same time, I think what may be lost sight of, now that the media have finally recognized the significance of the African anti-gay story (and its religious roots in the United States), is the following: it’s not merely extreme right-wing evangelical religious groups that have fanned the flames of anti-gay hatred in Africa. It’s “moderate” and mainline churches that are implicated in the outbreak of homophobic hate in Africa, as well.

Abby Scheer alluded to this important backstory in a powerful statement at Religion Dispatches earlier this week. Scheer argues that it has taken a village to get the story of what’s occurring in Uganda into the mainstream media. As she observes this, she also suggests the odds against which those trying to get the story into the media have had to work:

U.S. conservative evangelicals operating in Africa have seemed untouchable–and now they are not because of credible research establishing Rick Warren’s role in fomenting homophobia in Africa, and the strong and brave work of human rights groups in publicizing the threat.

The credible research to which Abby Scheer is pointing in the preceding statement is the recent Public Eye report, Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia by Zambian Anglican priest Kapya Kaoma (and here), about which I blogged in October. Rev. Kaoma presents a compelling, well-documented case for the thick involvement of American evangelicals in African anti-gay movements.

The primary reason that U.S. religious leaders working to foment hostility of gays in Africa have been “untouchable” in the mainstream media until recently is that those religious leaders have been not only extremist figures like Lively, but are, in many cases, “moderate” leaders of mainline churches. Who are acting with strong support from leading Catholic neoconservative activists . . . .

I’ve told my own pieces of this backstory on this blog. As I’ve noted, I became aware of how influential leaders of mainline churches in the U.S. were promoting homophobia in African churches in order to block inclusion of gays in American churches through my work in two United Methodist colleges from the mid-1990s up to 2007. Both were United Methodist HBCUs.

Through my close contact with Methodist bishops and clergy in these two institutions, as well as with African-American academic leaders who had been trained in the governing structures of the UMC, I became aware that there are exceptionally strong movements in the UMC—a mainline, “moderate” church—that are actively working to promote homophobia in African churches, in order to justify the continued exclusion and denigration of gays within the UMC in the United States.

The game that these religious groups play is as follows: they export and grow homophobia in the churches of Africa by encouraging African Christians to think that homosexuality is a decadent Western import to Africa, and that Methodists advocating for full inclusion of gay people in the church are imperialists seeking to impose Western cultural norms in developing nations. Then they turn around and tell their religious confreres in the United States that they are wounding the global church by campaigning for full inclusion of gays, because the Christians of the developing world are culturally predisposed against tolerance of gay people.

As my previous postings about this process within the United Methodist Church (which has parallels in other mainline Protestant denominations including the Episcopal Church/Anglican communion) have noted, this anti-gay movement spearheaded by religious leaders in the U.S. who are using African Christians in a Western political battle is extremely well-funded. It has strong political ties, and is more than a religious movement.

It is actively promoted by groups like the well-heeled and politically powerful Institute on Religion and Democracy, which has, for some time now, deliberately sought to divide mainline Protestant churches by stirring up the gay issue (and other political hot-button issues). The ultimate agenda of the IRD appears to be to induce enervating battles in mainline Protestant churches over such hot-button issues in order to diminish their potentially powerful social witness.

At recent UMC General Conferences, the IRD has gone so far as to provide African members of General Conference with cell phones to which IRD representatives text messages that instruct African delegates about how to vote on key legislation. For documentation of this claim, and citations of extensive research on the connection between the IRD and the UMC, see the links provided below.

One other point deserves attention here. As the links below will also demonstrate, there is strong Catholic influence in the IRD and, through this and other neoconservative political groups seeking to diminish the social witness of mainline Protestant churches. To sum up the story of American church involvement in anti-gay movements in Africa by pointing only to right-wing Protestant groups is to miss a significant part of the story.

The script being promoted by groups like the IRD and its cronies in mainline Protestant churches—a script that seeks to block greater inclusion of LGBT persons within American churches on the ground that such inclusion divides the global church—is also powerfully at work in the commentary of influential American Catholic journalists such as John Allen. This script is, in my view, all about seeding an irresistible, dominant meme in the mainstream media which views movements for full inclusion of gays in the churches as insensitive to the wishes of Christians of the developing nations, and as divisive of the global church.

And thats to say that the objective of those working to plant this meme in the mainstream media is every bit as political as, if not more political than, a religious objective. The goal of American religious groups fomenting anti-gay prejudice in the churches of the developing world is to halt the progress of gay rights movements in the United States and other Western countries. And it is, as well, to further the enervating battles within the churches over such issues, in order to weaken the social witness of churches in sociopolitical discussions.

Abby Scheer is absolutely correct: Rick Warren and other American religious figures working to promote homophobia in African churches have been untouchable, and it has taken considerable work—it has taken a village—to get the mainstream media to touch this story. The reason these religious figures have been untouchable is that they are the religious expression of powerful political movements that are all about thwarting progressive political and social change in the West. And those powerful political movements have considerable influence not only in the far-right of American religion. Their influence is considerable within mainline Protestant churches and the Catholic church as well.

The media know this, and have been unwilling to name the cynical game that these groups are playing until now for that reason. For my previous discussions of these points, which provide documentation to substantiate them, please see the following preceding Bilgrimage posts:

Week’s End News Roundup: Religious Right and Anti-Gay Hate

Dirty Money: The United Methodist Church and the IRD

Further Digging: The UMC and the IRD

The IRD and Its Connections to the UMC: Research Conclusions