By Jeff Sharlet
Originally published on Advocate.com August 23 2010 4:00 AM ET
Death sentences in Nigeria. Prison terms in Malawi. Violent, homophobic rhetoric spewed by dictators in Zimbabwe and Gambia. Perhaps nowhere on earth are gays persecuted more than in Africa — ground zero for a culture war waged by U.S. religious and political leaders. Through the lens of the missionary hotbed that is Uganda, Jeff Sharlet, author of C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, reports on the deadly consequences of evangelicals’ antigay exports.
* * *
At the airport into Entebbe, the gateway for flights in and out of Uganda, near the capital city of Kampala, I recently met Tommy and Teresa Harris, a pair of American missionaries. She had friendly brown curls; he wore a salt-and-pepper sea captain’s beard. You could tell they were missionaries because their shirts said so: “Faithful Servant” was stitched on the breast pocket of his khaki safari gear and across her bright white T-shirt. That was the name of their ministry in Uganda. “Going home?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” Tommy said, his voice jumpy and Georgian. “We’re just going to get more money.”
“Mm-hmm,” Teresa concurred. It was May 2010. They’d been “in country” since 2002, when Tommy received a message from God directing him to Uganda. Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, may send more preachers abroad to fill the pulpits of American churches (including at times those of Sarah Palin’s in Alaska and Ted Haggard’s former church in Colorado), and Rwanda may be officially designated the world’s first “Purpose-Driven Nation” — after the best-selling book by pastor Rick Warren — but Uganda is special missionary bait. It’s where the revival that launched born-again Christianity across the region in 1935 began. Fred Hartley, whose Atlanta-based College of Prayer claims nearly two dozen “campuses” in half a dozen African countries — all dedicated to teaching American-style evangelicalism to the continent’s leaders — told me that Uganda is the premier site for “spiritual war” in the world right now.
“Spiritual war” is a theological term, but in Uganda — ground zero for an explosion in violent homophobia across Africa — it’s taking increasingly concrete form. For the Ugandan government, that’s a pragmatic strategy as much as a spiritual one. Since 1986, Uganda has been ruled by an autocrat, Yoweri Museveni, who correctly guessed that American evangelicals eager to do good works and to save the heathen could be a big source of income for his regime.
“We have a primary, a secondary, and a high school,” Tommy said of Faithful Servants International Ministries. “Four hundred and fifty children, two meals a day, and we go into two hospitals and three prisons. We can’t do all that ourselves of course, so we have nine ministers. And our own seminary!”
“There are 54 employees,” Teresa said.
“Sure are,” Tommy replied. He was proud of their size but he liked to be nimble. “My thing is witnessing. Going to the villages and telling them about Jesus.” Uganda is overwhelmingly Christian, but that doesn’t stop Americans from trying to make it more so. A landlocked country with a population of 32 million and the second-highest birth rate in the world, it looms large in the American evangelical imagination: a project for purification, a case study in revival to be held up as a model back home. “Ten thousand souls were saved last year,” Tommy said. He meant through his efforts alone.
“What do you make of this Anti-Homosexuality Bill?” I asked. It was one of the hottest debates in the country, and a rare occasion when Uganda made international news. Said to be inspired by Americans, the bill would make homosexuality a crime punishable by death or life in prison. But Tommy heard only the word “homosexuality.”
“I do not believe in homosexuality!” he said, rearing up with indignation as if I’d just put a hand on his knee. “Absolutely not!” He crossed his arms over his burly chest.
“Of course,” I said, “of course.”
Teresa rubbed his shoulder. “Shh,” she said. “I don’t think that’s what he meant.”
I explained that I was interested in their view of the death penalty for homosexuality. Tommy shook his head. Tough one.
“Well, I’m totally against killing them. Because some of them can be saved, and changed. But the thing is, you can’t force them to stop. It’s been tried! But it don’t work.” He shook his head over the problem on all sides — the homosexuals, themselves, and his Ugandan friends, so on fire for the gospel that they’d gone too far in an antigay crusade. That’s how it is with Ugandans, he explained. They’re a bighearted people, but they get ahead of themselves sometimes. That’s where Americans could help.
“What they need,” Tommy proposed, “is a special place, like, for people doing homosexual things to learn different. A camp, like.”
“Keep them all in one place?” I asked.
“Yes. I think that’s what we have to try,” he said. “Because the thing is, the Bible says we can’t kill them. And we can’t put them in prison because that’d be like putting a normal fella in a whorehouse!” Teresa chuckled with her husband. A camp in which to concentrate the offenders — that was the compassionate solution.
Last October a rising star in Uganda’s parliament named David Bahati introduced the most chillingly murderous initiative to emerge from the convergence of American homophobia with African religious zeal. Much has been made of the bill’s death penalty provision, but the scope of it remains so misunderstood that in July The Economist inaccurately reported that it had been removed (it hasn’t). Even more dangerously, some American evangelicals linked to the bill’s backers — ideologically and financially — are insisting that the death penalty applies only to pedophile rapists. To put that claim into context, consider the perspective of pastor Moses Solomon Male, leader of the National Coalition Against Homosexuality and Sexual Abuses in Uganda: “Let’s be honest,” he told me. “Pedophilia is really just a euphemism for homosexuality.”
Bahati, author of the bill, was even blunter. With biblical prohibitions against homosexuality as his weapon, he said he’s willing to kill every gay person in Africa. And he has the support to do it: Bahati and his allies are networking through American-organized evangelical groups in the governments of Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, and Congo to spread their new approach to homosexuality. These groups aren’t outsider activists — they’re insider politicians, members of parliamentary prayer fellowships organized by the Family, the oldest and most influential Christian conservative organization in Washington, D.C. The Family, also known as the Fellowship, doesn’t endorse candidates, doesn’t issue position papers, and didn’t even admit it existed until last year, when its attempts to keep three political sex scandals quiet — those of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, Nevada senator John Ensign, and former Mississippi representative Chip Pickering, all linked to the Family’s “C Street” clubhouse on Capitol Hill — forced it into the open. Family members such as South Carolina senator Jim DeMint and Oklahoma senators Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe wage culture war through rhetoric and bureaucratic maneuvers over domestic gay rights issues. But the African leaders they sponsor outstrip their mentors — nowhere more so than in Uganda.
And now the Ugandan campaign is spreading, drawing on the resources not just of the Family but also an array of American backers, from fringe characters such as activist Scott Lively, author of a book blaming the Holocaust on homosexuality called The Pink Swastika, to a mainstream Las Vegas megachurch, Canyon Ridge, that subsidizes the work of Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa, the most vicious leader within the antigay coalition. The coalition’s political wing has found politicians across the continent eager to fight “Western decadence” by joining Sudan, Mauritania, and sections of Nigeria and Somalia in making homosexuality a capital offense. When queer Senegalese fled an antigay crackdown in 2008, neighboring Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh proposed that the refugees be beheaded. Malawi, in southeastern Africa, looked positively liberal in comparison when it sentenced Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a gay couple, to 14 years in prison earlier this year for attempting to marry (the “criminals” were pardoned in response to international pressure). According to “Globalizing the Culture Wars,” a report for Political Research Associates by the Reverend Kapya Kaoma, U.S. activists have even been “ghostwriting African religious leaders’ statements,” using the African leaders as proxies in American cultural battles. If that seems like a long way round for Americans to make their point, consider the benefits: As the face of homophobia, instead of a smirking Pat Robertson, they get an African leader whose other work deals mostly with poverty.
Radical Islam also plays a significant role in the spread of African homophobia, as does the cynicism of leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who learned that he could distract his people from the massive corruption of his regime by stoking their latent homophobia. But it’s American evangelicals, through naïveté in some cases and hate in others, who have done the most damage. That’s partly a reflection of economics: American evangelicals have more money to spend. It’s also linked to another phobia, that of Islam. The 80 million strong Anglican Communion (represented in the United States by the Episcopal Church) is on the verge of schism as right-wing American churches bolt their dioceses for the authority of men such as Nigeria’s recently retired Anglican primate Peter Akinola, who seemed to see his church as in competition with Sharia-law advocates for the most antigay position. There’s a tragic truth beneath such bigotry: In Africa “homosexuality” has become shorthand for the hypocrisy of Europe and America, powers that promote liberal social values even as they allow their corporations to plunder African resources.Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which legislators declared in its first draft to be a model for other nations, is a witch hunt on multiple fronts. In addition to the draconian provisions for gay people, the legislation requires every Ugandan to report any homosexual activity they’re aware of within 24 hours or face three years in prison themselves. “Promotion,” meanwhile, can get you seven. What’s “promotion”? According to Bahati, when his law passes I could be arrested just for asking that question. “Promotion” includes everything from advocacy for basic human rights to merely acknowledging homosexuality’s existence.
And that, in a sense, is what’s really at stake in the story of the American export of homophobia to Africa. It’s not that homophobia didn’t exist on the continent before American evangelicals began exporting culture war; it’s that it’s now taken on life-or-death proportions for many Africans on all sides. According to James Nsaba Buturo, Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity — and the chairman of a weekly meeting of Ugandan politicians involved with the Family — it’s “the gays” who are attempting genocide. “They are a threat to our existence,” he told me.
Buturo sees his relationship with American evangelicals (his parliamentary prayer group has been visited by pastor Rick Warren, Senator Inhofe, and former attorney general John Ashcroft) as a two-way street. The fact is, he said, America is in worse shape than Africa. “[Homosexuality] is everywhere. It controls governments and commercial institutions.” Since Warren, under international pressure, offered a tepid denunciation of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in December, Buturo and other Africans who once admired him suggest that even the antigay pastor (“I’m no homophobic guy,” Warren has said, even as he equates homosexuality to pedophilia) may now be under the control of “the gays.”
“America, she is great today because of her spiritual background,” Buturo said. “That is what has made America a superpower.” But he sees the empire crumbling at the edges — and waiting for Africa to save it. “God,” he explained, “has a way of using the weak.”
Or, rather, American fundamentalists do. It’s a tradition, in fact — the practice of exporting a religious battle you’re losing somewhere far out on the edges and then declaring victory there as a precedent for revival back home. It’s as old as evangelicalism, dating back to the origins of the term itself in the first Great Awakening of American religion during the 18th century, when revival caught fire not in the trading centers of the colonies but deep in the hinterlands. The faith of rural folk somehow was seen as more authentic, more inspiring as it was trumpeted right back to the cities, to Boston, New York, and London. And when that revival faltered, the missionaries ventured farther out, focusing their hearts and minds and Bibles on the savages, the Indians, and always dreaming of their own return, the day they would declare, again, in Boston, New York, London: See? The savages have accepted God. Can civilized men do any less?
For the Moral Majority, then the Christian Coalition, then Focus on the Family, and now the more chaotic Christian nationalism of the Tea Party (“a new Great Awakening,” crows South Carolina’s DeMint), it’s not so much a question as it is a warning.
“We warn everybody that the future king is coming,” said David Coe, a leader of the Family. “Not just of this country or that, but of the world.” In Kampala, I attended a rally I’d seen advertised all over the city on posters featuring a group of handsome young men with the word “holy” Photoshopped on their foreheads to look as if it had been carved with a knife. It was a flier for TheCall, an American ministry led by pastor Lou Engle. The last time I’d seen Engle was on U.S. television, where he led a “prayercast” in December against health care reform with a group of conservative politicians: Senator DeMint, Kansas senator Sam Brownback (a former roommate of Engle’s), Virginia representative Randy Forbes, and Rep. Michelle Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican so extreme that she makes even fundamentalists cringe. Pastor Lou is like that too. He represents a convergence of populist fundamentalism and politics that has made countries such as Uganda into laboratories for the “God-led government” that Engle wants to bring back from the margins to the center.
But the Kingdom began, on that day at least, in Uganda: Engle on a stage in a field surrounded by Ugandan pastors in suits, Engle decked out in modern safari cargo, a middle-aged bald man with a brown walrus mustache and a great, guttural voice, shouting at Uganda. Engle’s signature move is davening like a rabbi, rocking backward and forward at the hips, only he doesn’t need scripture to do daven; he moves to his own words. The crowd was small, about 1,300 people clustered in the midst of a vast, mostly empty field, and the sky was threatening, bruised clouds tumbling over one another, rain coming like a veil across the city and specks crackling on the mike. Or maybe that was spittle. Engle was working up a lather, an anointing, working it for God and the cameras on each side of the stage. Press, yes, but more importantly, Engle’s own media men, tattooed fundamentalist hipsters with “tribal” piercings parachuted into Uganda — they’d arrived hours ago, and they’d leave soon — to document every one of Engle’s God-given syllables. The real audience was back home.
“Uganda is leading the world in prayer,” Pastor Lou groaned. “Do it again! Do it again!” Revive us, he meant: Lead us, show America how it’s done. “Pray for America,” he begged the Ugandans. “We are restraining! And trying to restrain! An agenda! That’s going to hurt the nation, and hurt them! Right now, that homosexual agenda is sweeping into our education system. And parents are losing their rights over the education of their children. I believe there’s only one hope! Hope is God! Hope is God! And I believe — ” He took a big breath, rocking to his own beat, ready to lay some prophecy on the crowd: “And I believe” — here it is — “Uganda! Has become ground zero.”
When he was done preaching, Engle got down on his knees and the Ugandan preachers surrounded him, covered him in hands. An eerie stringed instrument moaned in the background as another preacher pleaded for fire that Lou could take back to America.
I left the rally with Bahati in his minivan. Riding with us was bishop Julius Oyet, another leader of the antigay movement with deep American connections through Fred Hartley’s College of Prayer; Lifeline Ministries, Oyet’s network of churches, has offices in Atlanta, London, and throughout Africa. He’s a massive, square-headed man who wears double-breasted suits and likes to tell stories about facing down the Lord’s Resistance Army, a psychotic rebel movement in the north that makes Oyet look mild. And that’s a feat. “In my view,” he later told me over sodas at the Sheraton Hotel, one of Kampala’s swankiest, “homosexuals should be grateful.” The bill, he explained, would cover them under the rule of law, leaving their fate to the court rather than the mob. There was even hope of redemption: Oyet claimed to have performed more than 10 successful exorcisms on those possessed by homosexual demons.
In the car Oyet and Bahati were ecstatic about Engle’s rally. “Amazing!” both men kept repeating. Bahati, who was driving (he’d given his driver the day off), turned around to boast to me that Pastor Lou had pledged his support of the bill. But I’d heard him hedge that support with a documentary film crew, I said. “Of course!” he explained. “The gays, they control the media.” Pastor Lou had cleverly deceived them, Bahati said with a giggle. Oyet jumped in and said he’d received the pastor’s support too. “This statement Pastor Lou has made, it could change the situation in America,” he gushed. Engle’s stand against the gays might inspire others to likewise pledge secret support to Uganda’s crusade.
According to Bahati, half a dozen American politicians already had. He wouldn’t name names, but he seemed to think Inhofe was on his side, identifying as his liaison to the senator an aide named John Mark Powers. Powers, Inhofe’s director of African affairs, is an Assemblies of God missionary who is also CC’d on numerous Family documents related to Africa. On Capitol Hill, Inhofe competes with two other members of the Family, Coburn and Brownback, for the title of most homophobic senator. His qualifications? Campaigning in 1994, Inhofe coined the phrase “God, gays, and guns” as his platform; he boasts of never having hired a homosexual; and once took to the floor of the Senate with a giant photograph of his children and grandchildren to declare, “I’m really proud to say that in the recorded history of our family, we’ve never had a divorce or any kind of homosexual relationship.”
Since his first trip to Africa in 1997 — to meet with Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha — Inhofe has traveled to the continent more than any other American politician, adopting 12 nations as special projects. Top of the list is Uganda, into which the Family has poured millions of dollars in “leadership development.” “We know Senator Inhofe,” Bahati told me. “We respect him. We know him.”
When I asked Bahati if there was any connection between the Family in Uganda (where it’s called the Fellowship) and his antigay legislation, he seemed puzzled by the question. “I do not know what you mean, ‘connection,’ ” he said. “There is no ‘connection.’ They are the same thing. The bill is the Fellowship. It was our idea.”
It needs to be stressed that Bahati, not Inhofe, wrote the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. After a long campaign of pressure, Inhofe did denounce the legislation, however timidly. But while the Family didn’t pull the trigger on the bill, they provided the gun. And the weapon was an idea: “God-led government” in lieu of democracy, scripture in place of law. The bill is a bullet, and whether or not it’s made law, it’s already been fired. What’s left for the Family is damage control.
In charge of that PR operation is a man named Bob Hunter. A former Ford and Carter administration official, Hunter built the Family’s relationship with Uganda back when the current dictator, Museveni, took power in 1986. Museveni replaced a pseudo-Marxist regime with a pseudo-Christian one, and Hunter, in the beginning, was his connection to the American Christian politicians whom Museveni knew could build Uganda into a well-armed U.S. proxy for a region that’s rich in both oil and chaos. Hunter, meanwhile, sees himself as a liberal, simply applying the principles of Jesus to foreign development. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill absolutely horrifies him, and he says he’s done what he can to prevent it from passing.
At the same time, though, he wants to distance his American friends from Bahati, who has been the Family’s guest in America but now is a liability — “off track,” Hunter explained. Hunter is more interested in people “behind the scenes,” as he puts it.
When Hunter told me his theory of advocacy — reaching out to “the little group around the president” instead of the dictator himself, “the nail on the wall” instead of the man in the presidential portrait, I thought he meant Bahati’s Parliament Fellowship group, which meets on Thursdays. No, Hunter said; “the Friday group is really the power group.” Bahati’s group includes some 60 legislators, and it’s responsible for much of the “morality” legislation that comes out of the Ugandan parliament, but to Hunter it’s secondary. The Friday group, just three or four influential people, “they are the ones we’d go to if we really needed something done.” The leader, he said, is an American named Tim Kreutter, the head of a network of youth homes, schools, and a leadership academy, one replicated in several other countries and designed to create a new generation of African leaders. Bahati, who calls Kreutter his mentor, is one of them.
But Bahati’s bill isn’t what Kreutter had in mind. He’s a mild-mannered man with an Obama sticker on the back of his SUV. He admits to some uncertainty on how to respond to homosexuality, and shared with me a blue binder of research he’d prepared for curious students in his academy. The first document is titled “How Might Homosexuality Develop?” excerpted from a seemingly scientific work, “The Complex Interaction of Genes and Environment: A Model for Homosexuality,” by Jeffrey Satinover. There may be a genetic predisposition, Satinover writes, evidenced in traits in boys such as “a ‘sensitive’ disposition” and “a keen aesthetic sense” — an argument every bit as scientifically sound as the one asserting that Jews are genetically predisposed to be wealthy. An interview with another “scientist,” one “Dr. Fitzgibbons,” reveals that a lack of hand-eye coordination among boys and subsequent poor performance in sports can lead to unnatural desires. To be fair, the binder also includes a short op-ed by evangelical scholar Warren Throckmorton, who argues against the bill. (Throckmorton, a former leader in the “cure the gays” movement, has fought the bill harder and more effectively than any other American.) But that’s still an awfully narrow spectrum, from homosexuality as sin that should not be legally punished to homosexuality as disease that should be eradicated. Just to the right of Kreutter’s research, meanwhile, is the murder in the heart of men such as Bahati.
This hatred may be best expressed in another blue binder, given to me by one of the original leaders of the Ugandan antigay movement, Moses Solomon Male. Unlike Bahati and most of the other prominent men in the crusade, Male has never been to America; he hasn’t been granted a visa. So an American Bible college gave him a scholarship to one of its campuses in Singapore. He’d already settled on fighting homosexuality as his life’s work, but it was that education that gave him the intellectual tools with which to pursue the goal, a story he documents in his memoir, Devil in the Pulpit, for which he is seeking an American publisher. But the blue binder is the truer portrait of Male and his obsession. Titled “A Report and Petition on Homosexuality in Uganda,” it’s the Mein Kampf of the Ugandan antigay crusade. What it lacks in narrative force it makes up for with a seemingly objective parade of police reports and hospital records, accounts of what Male contends is an epidemic of homosexual rape aided by witchcraft. Taken at face value, it’s a horrifying chronicle of crimes demanding swift and severe response. But ask even a few questions, and the story unravels.
Male was determined to have me speak with victims of the rape epidemic. He asked me for $100 a head to arrange interviews. When I said no, he cut his rate to zero. I still tried to dodge him, but he began calling me at 6 a.m. until I agreed to meet his “victims.” I’d already heard recordings of Male’s associates, made by a Ugandan investigative reporter, discussing fabricated accusations of rape targeted at Uganda’s most popular preacher, Robert Kayanja. He wasn’t targeted because he’s gay-friendly but because Male and his allies covet Kayanja’s connections: Kayanja’s church is an important site of pilgrimage for American televangelists eager to show their flocks that they care about the African poor. Their concern has made Kayanja one of the richest men in the country.
But if he’s guilty of selling snake-oil spirituality, Kayanja is innocent of the charges leveled against him by Male, unless he’s managed to fake his passport, British airline tickets, and American hotel receipts that all say he was in the United States at the time of the alleged crimes. And the rest of Male’s accusations fall apart even more easily. An alleged rape victim of one of Kayanja’s associate pastors told me that beneath his suit the handsome preacher had breasts as “big as Dolly Parton’s” — a claim only slightly more plausible than that of another antigay preacher who told me in great detail about the vast, underwater city of homosexual witches beneath the surface of Lake Victoria.
After Engle’s rally, after my ride with Oyet and Bahati and drinks with the bishop at the Sheraton, I walked down the hill from my hotel and waited for a couple of friends to take me to a gay bar called T-Cozy, allegedly the only one in Uganda. And it’s open only one night a week, on Sundays. Queer Ugandans are proud of the bar and throughout the week they’d been telling me about what an incredible time I’d have there. As it happened, Sunday night was my last in Kampala, so T-Cozy was to be my reward for a week of interviews with would-be killers.
Since frequenting T-Cozy may soon become a crime punishable with prison, I’ll call my two friends Michael and Julius. Michael is straight; Julius is gay. Michael is broad-minded on sexual orientation by Ugandan standards: He’s firmly opposed to homosexuality but not afraid of homosexuals. He doesn’t think they’re witches or pedophiles or the secret shock troops of a new colonialism. More importantly, Michael had a car.
The music at T-Cozy was no different than anything you’d find back in the States — which is to say Rihanna. If it was gay cliché, it wasn’t the DJ’s fault: That choice belonged to the dancers, T-Cozy regulars who’d prepared routines to their favorite hits. They danced on a stage a few feet off the ground, backed by burgundy drapes that were a little too long, bunched up at the bottom like saggy socks. But the effect was, well, cozy; it looked like a stage for a children’s play. The dancers were earnest and excellent. The beer was cold. If you wanted, you could get a big plate of french fries. Later, there would be greater revelry, maybe even some drag, but on this humid night in Kampala, the air still heavy with the day’s rain, this was it: the international gay conspiracy to conquer Africa in full force.
I was a little disappointed; I’d wanted a real party, an exorcism to send me back home to America free of Bahati and his nightmares. But the nightmare is still growing, Americans are still denying, and the worst may be yet to come. For now, this is what’s possible, not deliverance, but a reprieve: a sweet, happy gathering on Sunday, like a church supper with a little dancing, the sins of the world beyond T-Cozy’s courtyard for the moment, at least, forgotten.
Click here for four African charities you can donate to.