Theocratic Horror in Uganda

Back in January, I alluded briefly to the events in Uganda, where Christian abstinence-only programs have reversed the success of comprehensive sex ed and led to a rise in HIV infection rates. At the time, I mentioned Martin Ssempa, a pastor in the country’s booming Pentecostal Christian movement, and his involvement in a campaign to criminalize homosexuality.

But this news has taken an even more ominous turn. Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda, but a bill currently being discussed in that country’s Parliament – and staunchly advocated by Ssempa and other Ugandan religious leaders – is even more draconian than the country’s current repressive laws.

Under the bill, a person who was convicted of gay sex would receive life imprisonment. But if that person was found to be HIV-positive, this would result in a charge of “aggravated homosexuality”, which carries the death penalty. Equally horribly, a person who was merely aware of homosexual activity but failed to report it to the police within 24 hours would themselves face a prison term – an extraordinarily evil measure that seems designed to deny gays and lesbians the right of shelter even among their own family and friends. Advocating for any increased rights for gays and lesbians, which would presumably include advocating a rollback of this bill, would also result in imprisonment.

This story is directly relevant to American readers because Uganda, in many ways, is the darling and the success story of the American religious right. As Kathryn Joyce explains in a Religion Dispatches interview with Rev. Kapya Kaoma, American evangelicals have been exporting their brand of conservative, homophobic culture-war politics to Africa for some time, and have had direct access to government officials in many African countries. (See also this commentary by Michelle Goldberg.)

Rick Warren in particular is held in high esteem there, and Martin Ssempa, the man who’s pushing for the mass execution of homosexuals, is a friend and protege of Warren’s. He’s made multiple appearances at Warren’s Saddleback Church in the past. And most shockingly, while Warren claims to have severed ties with Ssempa, he initially refused to denounce this proposed law! As Lisa Miller of Newsweek notes:

But Warren won’t go so far as to condemn the legislation itself. A request for a broader reaction to the proposed Ugandan antihomosexual laws generated this response: “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. However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations.”

When Warren was pressed on this point, his second response was to post a petulant reply to Twitter, claiming that because no one ever says anything about Christians being martyred for their faith, he shouldn’t have to care about legislation that would kill gays and lesbians. The fact that one of the backers of this legislation was his protege is something that he doesn’t seem to feel any guilt or moral responsibility at all for.

After several weeks of solid negative coverage, Warren finally issued a condemnation of the bill. Yet, as Archy points out, most of his stated reasons boil down to a claim that it would make the church’s mission more difficult, and he tries to dodge some inconvenient connections between himself and influential figures of the Ugandan government (see also). In the end, Warren did the right thing – but only just barely, and again, it’s extremely telling how much heat he had to take before he could be shamed into speaking out.

The theocratic terror state proposed in Uganda is the logical endpoint of the religious right’s anti-gay agenda and its inflammatory, homophobic rhetoric. Having nurtured and fostered this movement for so long, it’s much too late for them to wash their hands clean of it now. If they had any conscience, they would recognize the horrible evil they’ve created and would repent and devote themselves to opposing this bill before it comes to pass. But instead, their response has been noncommittal, tepid, even mildly supportive. That speaks worlds about what their true intentions are, what they hope to do in Uganda, and what they would do in America and the rest of the world if they have the chance.

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  • Ben

    Warren should realise that there is no leader of the gays that can speak out against slayings of Christians, but if he thinks we don’t care then he’s the one who’s wilfully ignorant of reality.

    On another note, religious zealots wonder why western countries have separation of church and state written into their constitutions. What’s happening in Uganda is a classic example of why “god’s love” needs to be kept out of politics. Absolute power corrupts, absolutely. It would happen here, too, if the fundies were given unanimous control of government.

  • Jim Baerg

    It sounds like killing mr Ssempa would be self defense for many people. Ditto killing the witch-hunters in Nigeria.

  • Chris Swanson

    Rick Warren’s an ass. I wonder where he got his statistic about the Christians “martyred” last year? Probably the same place people get the statistic that nine million women were burned for being witches.

  • Kit

    What the hell is wrong with people?! Arrg, I really wish the UN had some teeth and balls right now…

  • Charlotte

    I just read last night that the death penalty and life imprisonment have been removed from the bill, so the maximum sentence is 14 years in prison.
    The news site is in German, but there is a little English flag icon near the top which will provide a google translation of the page.

  • Staceyjw

    14 years in a Ugandan jail? You would probably prefer the death penalty…
    This bill is still evil and uncivilised, and so obviously a product of our wing nuts. I can’t imagine that someone killing a gay person would even get in trouble, this type of thing encourages gay killings.
    I wish we would leave Africa alone already…….

  • Leum

    Keep in mind that Our Fearless Leader only got around to condemning this yesterday. Perhaps he was waiting for Mr. Warren’s permission.

  • D

    My roommate recently said, in all seriousness, that he would start believing in God if a meteor took out the Vatican. I think he ought to add a few things to the list.

    Seriously, this is… argh. I have no words. I’m back to non-practicing KKK thoughts again. This shit is bananas.

  • bassmanpete

    And I thought Uganda was coming into the light when it got rid of Idi Amin. Looks like it’s a case of one nutter being followed by several more.

    staceyjw said: I wish we would leave Africa alone already…….

    Too late, unfortunately. What the European colonial powers did was try to bring to iron age tribal societies a level of civilisation that had taken them (the Europeans) centuries to achieve. The main things those tribal societies seem to have learned is a greed for wealth at the expense of the environment, and that modern weapons can bring more power more quickly than spears and clubs. Oh, and that you can use religion as an excuse for all sorts of barbarity.

  • Eric

    Uganda was doing great with its ABC (Abstinance, Be careful, Use Condoms) program, Why meddle with success? Oh, I forgot, the God thing. Let’s ignore reality and pretend everyone is going to practice lifelong M/F monogamy and kill gay people to help make this true.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    NPR did a story on this today:, from which:

    If the bill becomes law, a coalition of lawyers and activists will try to kill it in court. Human rights lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi says U.S. evangelicals may be behind the bill.

    “It’s difficult to tell from looking at this bill to say whether it is homegrown or foreign. The people who are anti-gay are supported by the Christian right from the U.S. It could be possible that there is some external influence,” Rwakafuzi says.

    U.S. evangelicals have long had a close relationship with top Ugandan leaders. In March, three American evangelicals attended a conference in Kampala on how to turn gay people straight. California minister Scott Lively was a key speaker.

  • Tom

    Please, Bassmanpete, don’t look down on Africans. According to the textbook Sociology, written by Ian Robertson, page 192, the Lango of eastern Africa are among the societies that have traditionally allowed homosexual male marriage. Unfortunately I don’t know if this is the Lango tribe of Uganda, or the much smaller Lango tribe of Sudan. Either way, I don’t expect this to last long, as people in Africa are converting to Christianity and Islam, both religions, introduced from the outside of Africa, being traditionally hostile to homosexuality.

  • Polly

    I saw this on Slate:

    Ugandan Pastor Shows Gay Porn To Increase Anti-Gay Support

    I agree with the closing sentence.