Summer 2010, Vol. 13, No. 1

Quick Links:

Spiritual politics blog

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Christian Coalition Revisited

Haiti Laid Low

Snatching Babies for Jesus

Singing Against the Rubble

The GOP’s Latino Problem

Anti-Gay Bill

The Word from Kampala’s Anglicans

Losing Patience with the Vatican

Death in the Sweat Lodge

Faith-Based 2.0

Letter to the Editor



Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill
Mark Fackler

Is this the same planet? In March, 18-year-old Constance McMillen filed suit against her small Mississippi town to get permission to bring her girlfriend to the high school prom. In July the judge declared that the Itawamba school board had violated the teenager’s rights to free speech and assembly by cancelling the prom. While waiting for her case to be resolved, McMillen appeared on three network talk shows, was awarded a $30,000 college scholarship, and served as one of three grand marshals of New York City’s Gay Pride March.   

Meanwhile, in the Republic of Uganda, legislation pending before parliament would impose the death penalty on persons convicted of “aggravated homosexuality”—an offense that includes having homosexual sex with minors or disabled persons, engaging in homosexual acts if HIV-positive, and being a “serial offender.”

Intending to address loopholes in existing Ugandan laws against homosexual activity, the Anti-Homo-sexuality Bill of 2009, as it is called, would also subject a person “who purports to contract a marriage with another person of the same sex” to life imprisonment, while imposing five to seven years in prison for “promotion of homosexuality” and three years for failing to report any offense under the act.

The constitutions of both the United States and Uganda protect speech and assembly in similar terms. Why do the two nations read human rights so differently?

The bill was introduced last October 13 by parliamentarian David Bahati, whose stated intention was to “strengthen the nation’s capacity to deal with emerging internal and external threats to the traditional heterosexual family.” Chief among those threats, he claimed, was a new form of Western imperialism: “sexual rights activists seeking to impose their values of sexual promiscuity on the people of Uganda.”

Bahati’s action appears to have been at least in part the result of a conference held in Kampala the previous March by three anti-gay activists from the U.S.:  Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus International (which promotes “the message of Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ”); Caleb Brundidge of the International Healing Foundation (dedicated to “healing solutions for men and women with unwanted same-sex attraction”); and Scott Lively, author of The Pink Swastika, a 1995 book now in its fourth edition that claims that Hitler and his minions were homosexuals. The conference, entitled “Exposing the truth behind homosexuality and the homosexual agenda,” raised fears that the gay rights movement constituted a dangerous threat to Ugandan families and children.

Reporting from Kampala December 9, Time’s Zoe Alsop wrote that the bill included “some of the harshest anti-gay regulations in the world.” She went on to point out that only “terrorists and traitors” are currently treated as harshly, that “even murderers don’t face that kind of judicial reach.”

In the search for voices to oppose the bill, attention turned to megachurch pastor and author Rick Warren, known for his longstanding aid work in Uganda, which he called a “purpose-driven nation.” He had collaborated closely there with Martin Ssempa, a prominent anti-homosexuality campaigner and leading advocate of the bill.

Although Warren severed his ties with Ssempa in October, his reticence to make an outright condemnation of the bill was noted by many observers, Alsop included. But the day after her story appeared, he issued a statement and a video denouncing the bill as “unjust, extreme, and un-Christian,” and calling on Uganda’s religious leaders to do likewise.

 “The United States and others need to make clear to the Ugandan government that such barbarism is intolerable and will make it an international pariah,” the New York Times editorialized January 4. In due course, it seemed that every moral authority in the West, from the Vatican and the Archbishop of Canterbury on down, was condemning the bill.

Both Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and President Obama took the occasion of the National Prayer Breakfast February 4 to lend their voices to the chorus, with the president referring to the proposed legislation as “odious.” Uganda, the “pearl of Africa,” with its scars from the Amin years, its history of terror, and its one-party state apparatus, had become, in the eyes of Western leaders, the world’s leading gay-basher.

Donor countries let it be known, Jeffrey Gettleman reported in the New York Times January 3, that they would withhold foreign aid if the bill went forward—a threat Bahati might have characterized as Western imperialism as well, particularly in light of what amounts to pan-African anti-homosexual public policy. For Uganda is just one of 39 African countries that prescribe prison terms for engaging in homosexual acts. Indeed, the only African country to recognize gay rights is South Africa, and even there those rights are not fully enforced.

Responsibility for this continent-wide hard line is sometimes attributed to the missionaries who followed British governors into East and Central Africa. But if Victorian condemnations of homosexual practice were so powerful, why were similar condemnations of polygamy so much less effectual?  Missionary influence is not a sufficient explanation.

Possessing a deep communitarian impulse and a faith that God actually communicates his will to people and cares about what the church does, Ugandans of nearly all religious persuasions draw the line at sexual practices that human anatomy and village survival seem so clearly to witness against.

Cultural values go deep. Every June 3, a million Ugandans gather at the Basilica of the Martyrs in Namugongo to remember the 26 Catholic and Anglican men who were burned to death in 1886 by King Mwanga II. Among other offenses, the martyrs refused to engage in homosexual practices that had become fashionable and even obligatory at his court.

The missionary movement that established Uganda’s schools and churches did not advocate normalizing homosexuality, and hardly an African theologian does so now. The liberal theologians in the West who have interpreted away the famous seven passages in the Bible condemning homosexual acts have had not a shred of persuasive impact on the African church.

Next to Paul’s condemnation of “sexual impurity” in Romans 1:24, Zondervan’s highly successful 2006 Africa Bible Commentary teaches, “Homosexuality is a sin…A proper sexual relationship is between a man and his wife…All other forms of sexual relationships are abnormal, unnatural, and a perversion.” Opposing such forms seems a matter of simple obedience to God, as church leaders and their flocks have been taught by every mentor and colleague they can name. That elements of the Western church have accepted gay marriage is a concession contrary to nature and to faith in the minds of most Ugandans. 

To be sure, Desmond Tutu, the celebrated former Anglican archbishop of South Africa, has been a strong supporter of gay rights, but he strains to find churchmen in East Africa to join him. The exception that proves the rule in Uganda is Christopher Senyonjo, former Anglican bishop of the West Buganda diocese, who began counseling gay men after his retirement in 1998. But Senyonjo, who toured the United States in June, has become a prophet without honor in his own country. While there are other Ugandan church leaders who urge pastoral care for persons attracted to their own sex, they acknowledge the intense social pressure (ostracism, avoidance, shunning) that such persons would endure if their sexuality became known.

Is there middle ground available between the worlds of gay rights and traditional East African morality?

Responding to the pressure from the West, Uganda’s Minister of Ethics and Integrity, James Nsaba Buturo, announced in December that the death penalty would be changed to life imprisonment. A month after that, President Yoweri Museveni, who is adroit at arranging law to suit his pleasure, gave assurances that further concessions and compromises were forthcoming.

On February 10, the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU), consisting of the leaders of the country’s five largest faiths—Roman Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, and Seventh-Day Adventist—agreed on a statement that at once emphasized the sinfulness of homosexuality and sharply criticized the bill:

“Our religious teachings promote respect, compassion and sensitivity. We, therefore, condemn the sin but welcome the sinners to confess, repent and seek a new beginning. This is based on the belief that all people are called by God to fulfill His will in their lives. The IRCU, therefore, decries the proposed death penalty and life imprisonment in the proposed Bill as unwarranted. We believe homosexuals need conversion, repentance, support, and understanding and love in order to abandon their practices and return to God fully.”

The statement went on to attack the bill’s proposal to prosecute those who fail to disclose information regarding homosexual acts while acknowledging that some additions to the penal code were warranted and calling for increased anti-homosexual education.

The statement was published by Uganda’s largest newspaper, the state-owned New Vision, on March 9. On March 13, Box Turtle Bulletin, a gay-rights website that has tracked the issue closely, published a long analysis by Jim Burroway calling the statement “deeply homophobic and ill-informed” but acknowledging that it “represents the strongest criticism yet of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill by Uganda’s mainline religious leaders.” In Burroway’s view, the fact that it was published in toto by New Vision possibly indicated that the Museveni government intended to bury the bill.

It did become difficult to know what was happening to it. As of this writing, the nature of the provisions and the prospects for passage remain obscure.

Ultimately, the middle ground in this culture war may be humanity itself. Where people of faith, heart, and will can still speak together, room to live is often found. 

Interviews and experience among the people of East Africa lead to the belief that the specifics of the bill will be modified in the direction prescribed by the IRCU, and that gay persons in Uganda will not be executed for their sexual preferences. While the religious communities will not soften their convictions about human sexuality, gay rights will be widely and publicly debated, and there will be some public understanding and accommodation, if not legal protection, as a result.

For today, gays in Uganda are intimidated. “In Uganda people take us to be sinners,” Grace, a lesbian leader of the gay community at Makerere University, told Time’s Zoe Alsop December 10. “They consider us as a destroyed person. Most [gays] say, ‘I don’t know what I am doing in this world. Everybody hates me.’ We have to keep on consoling them.”

Uganda’s religious leaders, its government, and its extensive civil society will eventually provide the consolations, each in their own voice and vision, until the perceived hate disappears and something approaching a cease fire prevails.

The excitement about the bill will recede, Western nations will continue their aid, and the terrible losses due to poverty, illiteracy, corruption, and AIDS will again occupy African leaders’ agendas, as they should. And in all this, the mustard seed that turns into a tree will quietly grow, taking new forms and discovering new possibilities.


Hit Counter