Theocratic Horror in Uganda

Theocratic Horror in Uganda December 13, 2009

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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