The moral (and news) authority of Desmond Tutu

An article at on the launch of a United Nations-backed campaign to promote gay rights in South Africa is a perfect example of the kinds of difficulties that mainstream journalists face when reporting on world figures who have left the public eye.

The name and the work of retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu is known to most educated newspaper readers — but is a reputation built 25 years ago in the anti-apartheid struggle transferable to the modern debate on gay rights? Why should reporters automatically assume that the words of Tutu are major news?

Like Cher, Desmond Tutu has been on a never ending farewell tour. The ebullient archbishop will announce he is withdrawing from public life and then pop up again in conjunction with another cause or campaign. On 26 July the BBC ran a story under the catchy headline “Archbishop Tutu ‘would not worship a homophobic God.'” The article begins:

South Africa’s Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu says he will never worship a “homophobic God” and will rather go to hell. The retired archbishop was speaking at the launch of a UN-backed campaign in South Africa to promote gay rights. Despite same-sex relationships being legal in South Africa, it had some of the worst cases of homophobic violence, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said.

Archbishop Tutu, 81, is a long-standing campaigner for gay rights. He retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, but has remained the moral conscience of the nation, correspondents say.

While it is tempting to focus on the first line of the story in this post, to do so would breach the parameters of this blog by discussing a religious and cultural issue, not journalism. Thus, my focus is on the last line of the paragraph, the “moral conscience of the nation” line.

Should the BBC be making this claim, or is this editorial advocacy? Is the Corporation making a value judgment that equates a struggle over race and politics with a struggle over sex and politics?

Tutu’s role in the transformation of the South African state is part of the historical record, and he is rightly honored for his work. Yet he is not universally beloved. The pull quotes from a story reporting on comments made during a campaign rally this week by Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe were unkind — and not unexpected.

“Never, never, never will we support homosexuality in Zimbabwe,” Mr Mugabe said. “Archbishop Tutu said it is nice to be gay, yet he has a wife, he should have begun by getting himself a man for a woman.

“When you are a bishop and cannot interpret the Bible, you should resign and give it to those who can. We will not compromise our tradition and tolerate homosexuality.”

For many years Mugabe has played upon the religio-cultural disapprobation of homosexuality in Zimbabwe for political gain. It may be an act — a way of demonizing or scapegoating an unfavored minority to distract the people from the woes of the country. Sources in Zimbabwe, however, tell me that this is not feigned anger — he means what he says.

Being the object of Mugabe’s invective, however, is a badge of honor and would tend to boost Desmond Tutu’s credentials. Yet within the archbishop’s church his post-apartheid actions have made him yesterday’s man.

In 1998 I attended a meeting of the Anglican bishops of Africa held on the margins of the Lambeth Conference. What played out at this dinner was a contest for the unofficial leadership of Africa — who would be the paramount bishop. The new archbishop of Cape Town, a protege of Tutu — who had retired by this point — had his following. But the mantle of authority passed from South Africa to Nigeria. No votes were taken, nothing official occurred but at that dinner the Anglican churches of Africa moved on from apartheid. The culture wars and homosexuality took center stage.

One thing I took away from these encounters with African bishops was their visceral dislike of breaking ranks and of voicing public criticism of their own. As an American clergyman, I was used to one style of church warfare — Smite the Amalekites Oh Lord, smite them hip and thigh — not the African softly softly approach.

Thus when I saw this denunciation of Tutu by the Archbishop of Ghana following the publication of the BBC piece printed above, I was taken aback by its vehemence.

“Archbishop Tutu is respected in the Anglican Church and around the world but this time he has misfired and all Anglican Bishops from Africa, Asia and South America condemn his statement in no uncertain terms,” he told Adom News.

The Ghanaian archbishop goes on to say he believes Tutu’ is corrupt — and is now a moral authority for hire.

“We suspect that retired Archbishop Tutu may have collected some moneys from some of the western governments or from gay rights activists to do their bidding but the Anglican Church condemns gay practice,” he said.

This is all by way of background. Desmond Tutu has long been a vocal supporter of gay rights, and it is unlikely he has been swayed by American gold. The question I see is how to inject nuance into a story. Tutu may be a towering moral figure in the newsrooms of the West, but not in the African street or pew. I liken it to the reputation of Tony Blair — a prime minister beloved by American neoconservatives but despised by the British left. Should the BBC report on the launch of the Free & Equal campaign in Cape Town have focused on Tutu or on the campaign? The quotes make for a fun story — but are they news?

Newspapers need shorthand ways of explaining issues in order to save space, to use code and symbols readers understand. But it is poor practice to allow historical analogies to frame issues as it distorts the past and does an injustice to the present. We see this sort of thing all the time — conflating the civil rights movement of the 60’s with the gay marriage debate of today, or the apartheid regime of South Africa with the modern state of Israel.

Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results, stockbrokers tell us. Should not newspapers do this too and inject context and nuance when discussing the contemporary comments of historical figures? Or is this asking too much? Did the BBC allow celebrity to trump news? Did the BBC’s moral worldview, its conception of heroes and villains, prevent it from telling the true story? I think so.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • David

    I pray you can understand this comment as not taking one side of the issue over another, but what the Archbishop has said is that he stands in judgment of God.

    Anytime that we with our limited human minds (in comparison to God’s infinite knowledge) make such statements against God, we are standing in judgement of Him. If the Archbishop said something along the lines of “I think this about God and God’s Word…” that would be another story, but the stridency of his statement gives me great pause. I expect I am wrong about any number of things, is the good Archbishop claiming that in this instance he is in the right and “God” is in the wrong?

  • Seriously. Desmond Tutu is a “has-been” is the best you can come up with when you’re not allowed to argue theologically on this blog and so you have to resort to contortions to try to get the press to refuse to treat the gay rights struggle as comparable to other civil rights issues? Unbelievable.

    – Joe Perez

    • Geoff McLarney

      Thank you. Like Dan Savage, I continue to be chagrined by the degree to which supposedly reputable journalistic outlets will seek voices to “balance” queer families in a way that they no do the White Citizens’ Councils, the Orange Order, or “REAL” Women.

      • Julia B

        If you are reporting on how the people of a country (or a region) are reacting to a call for a change in how people live, there is certainly a hole in the coverage if there is little or no mention of people who disagree with the proposed change. I was a young adult in the 60s and well remember people like Bull Connor and George Wallace being in the news as well as Dr. King. I’ve seen The Orange Order in the news in N. Ireland and some places in the UK because of their marches every year. Recently, there has been a push in N Ireland to better integrate Protestants and Catholics – the Orange Order is a very big stumbling block and needs to be part of the news coverage.

        However, Dr./Fr. Conger’s issue is with the BBC calling Archbishop Tutu the conscience of his nation – that’s more likely to be Mandela, seems to me – and he provides an anecdote that undermines the BBC’s claiming such a thing. I’m guessing he would question such a label if Archbishop Tutu was on the other side of gay rights.

      • bob

        I continue to be chagrined that Dan Savage is taken seriously by anyone anywhere. He makes me very happy to be from Seattle, not living in it.

    • Jeremiah Oehlerich

      The point is, if the press wants to treat the struggles of homosexuals in Africa seriously, they must speak to those who have real influence on the religious practice in Africa. Tutu’s words sound great to Western minds, but do they have any real cache in Africa? Mr Conger notes that for years now, this is no longer the case. If the Democrats want to stir up action by they’re party do they want our current president stumping for the issues or do they call in Jimmy Carter to do the work? Both are important public figures, yet one holds greater sway. The question regarding the BBC report is not solely Tutu’s remarks, but rather the judgment that he remains “the moral conscience” of an entire nation. Isn’t it just as disadvantageous for your cause to have reporters overstate the case, rather than report accurately the realities of it?

      • The analogy is not to Jimmy Carter, I would think, but someone like Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather remaining the “moral conscience” of journalism long after retiring, or a professor emeritus. They are respected regardless of how influential they remain in the pews. Regarding Tutu remaining the moral conscience of his nation, the report qualified the comment, attributing it as what “correspondents say”, which is quite reasonable. The only reason we are having this discussion is because Conger will not countenance that the struggles for equality are comparable so he must demean his opponents (Tutu) instead of arguing for his theology. Unfortunate really.

        • jaybird1951

          I think that Dan Rather is a rather bad example of the “moral conscience” of journalism given the reasons for his exit from CBS, an attempt to slander George Bush and affect the 2004 election by “reporting” a lie about him. Walter Cronkite was highly respected during his years on TV but we now know how politically biased he actually was and how adroit he was at veiling it.

  • Sergey Hudiev

    And what about the heterosexual fornicators? Are they still going to hell? Desmond is OK with fornicator-phobic God? It looks like the unjust discrimination…

    • Geoff McLarney

      The church provides heterosexual fornicators with a simple “out” – marriage – while (in most places still) declaring married homosexual couples “fornicators” by circular definitional fiat.

      • jaybird1951

        The church declares “gay marriage” to be an impossibility and an oxymoron since the very definition of marriage is and always has been throughout the entire human race the union of male and female. For Christians, that is strongly reinforced by Christ’s very words about marriage ( a man shall…cleave to his wife and they shall be as one).

        • Geoff McLarney

          Perhaps, but the church has also tended to look negatively on non-marital relationships as well. Like the Bishop of Milwaukee, I am not at all convinced that inventing a para-sacramental rite of blessing is less of a rupture than incorporating same-gender families into the existing Christian norms.

        • Sterling Ericsson
  • Jay

    “Like Cher, Desmond Tutu has been on a never ending farewell tour.”

    The best sentence EVER!!!

    In all seriousness, Desmond Tutu’s words are very noteworthy and I do believe what he said can easily stand on its own. With that said, it would be nice if the BBC could write an article that dealt with reaction to his statements from South African citizens or at least others within the Anglican Church.

    On the article you linked to it said,

    “He noted all the Bishops and Archbishops of the Anglican Church met in Mauritius recently and unanimously condemned those comments (Tutu’s) and dissociated themselves from it…

    Archbishop Yinkah Sarfo said in a few days to come the Anglican Bishops of Africa, South America and Asia would come out and formally state their position on this matter.

    He is therefore admonishing all members of the Anglican Church in Africa to remain steadfast because the church does not support gay practice and the leadership will make that clear in a few days.”

    Considering what Tutu said, I will be very interested to see if the BBC covers it. Hopefully they will.

  • boinkie

    It is not simple “homophobia” but often based on the rage by the voiceless victims of predatory gays (yes, most gays are not predatory, but some were, and that is the problem).

    in Africa, under tribal custom you obey your superior. In the more modern world, if your boss asks you for sex, you obey. This usually means sexual abuse for women employees is common. but also means an employer or school teacher can easily use his male students for sex: saying no might mean being fired, or expelled from school.

    The use of rape to punish men in various African wars including during colonial days and during apartheid, including the sexual abuse of prisoners, is only now being appreciated. Few men are willing to admit these things, but I wonder if this explains Robert Mugabe’s rage against gays, since Mugabe was in jail and house arrest under the Smith regime…

    There is also a high rate of sexual abuse of street children, including boys.

    Think “Catholic priests and altar boys” meme on steroids and you might understand the rage of the average African against gay behavior…

  • bob

    Desmond Tutu: because Al Sharpton can’t be everywhere. He is and always has been (no pun intended, of course) listened to because he has a collar. It would never ever be a story to ask him if he believes the Nicene Creed. Although it would be a perfectly sensible followup question after saying what sort of God he *doesn’t* believe in!