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Jeff Sharlet on Uganda


With mounting international pressure on Uganda to table the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, even key members of the Family -- the secretive evangelical group with extensive links to Capitol Hill that has dominated headlines in recent weeks -- has spoken out against the draconian legislation authored by one of its own Ugandan members.

Whether the plea falls on deaf ears is unclear. But passage of the bill could mean death sentences for gays and lesbians in one of Africa's most homophobic countries -- as well as severe restrictions for nongovernmental organizations working to combat HIV/AIDS in the region.

A near-nightly subject of cable news programs led by MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, the Family has cultivated relationships over decades with Ugandan political leaders, ostensibly in order to export its brand of fundamentalism to the developing nation. David Bahati, a Ugandan politician and the author of the bill, is a Family member who organizes the Ugandan equivalent of the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast -- the latter being an annual event that's become a staple of Beltway politics and has been attended by every sitting U.S. president since 1953.

With the bill currently before a Ugandan parliament committee, Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, talks to about why some Family members have spoken out and why President Obama should finally stare down the Christian right by skipping the yearly prayer event that President Dwight D. Eisenhower hoped would never become a tradition for sitting presidents. This antigay bill was drafted months ago. Why are Family members speaking out now?
Jeff Sharlet:
They're speaking out against only in response to heavy pressure, both from the media and behind the scenes. None of these statements from politicians is a profile in courage, and not one of them has pledged to use his influence against the bill. [Wisconsin] Sen. Russ Feingold -- with no special connections to Uganda -- has. How hard would it be for [Oklahoma] Sen. James Inhofe, who has a personal relationship with the Ugandan dictator, to call up his pal up and say, "Not such a good idea"? After all, Inhofe, [Kansas senator] Sam Brownback, [Pennsylvania representative] Joe Pitts, and others have been interfering in the internal affairs of Uganda for years. [Nevada] Sen. John Ensign stepped up to make sure Ugandans' access to condoms is limited, using money meant to help Uganda as a club with which to beat it into submission to his ideas about sexuality. No word from the senator's office whether he used protection when he was secretly having sex with his employee.

The only guy in the Family that I know of who's really doing the right thing is Bob Hunter, a former Ford and Carter administration official who helped build the relationship between the Family -- which he prefers to call by its other name, the Fellowship -- and President Museveni of Uganda. Bob is speaking out and encouraging others to do the same. He's also trying to work behind the scenes. ... There are still issues there ... but the important thing is that Hunter is doing the right thing for the right reasons and sacrificing the Family's preference for secrecy to make that known.

Has there ever been a formal statement from the Family renouncing legislation or any other political or cultural issue?
No, and there won't be, because many in the Family cling to their secrecy policy. As the Christian right magazine World reported (they've taken a hard line against the Family, because, despite their general religious agreement, they don't believe in secrecy), the Family held a meeting recently to discuss a response to all the unwanted publicity they've received as a result of the C Street scandals. Some thought it was time to come clean.

But the leadership, Doug Coe and his two sons, David and Tim, reportedly stood firm on secrecy. Bob Hunter, part of the faction that wants transparency, told me that it's not settled yet. In the meantime, though, we're forced to endure the dishonesty of Family-associated politicians such as Representative Pitts and [Iowa] Sen. Chuck Grassley, who deny any linkage despite a documentary record to the contrary -- and, in the case of Pitts, significant financial connections.

Several senators who are Family members have yet to speak out, including Brownback.
I know Senator Brownback well. I've been to church with him, I've been in his home. I've even gone with him to his kid's soccer game. He's a big part of my book precisely because he's such a puzzling character. His sincerity is unbounded. He always believes, deeply, passionately, everything he says. But don't mistake that wide-eyed self-regard for naivete. As Kansas will tell you, he's one tough politician.

Right now he's running virtually unopposed for governor of Kansas, a position from which he's almost sure to make another bid for the White House. So, from his perspective, why say anything? Why let himself be linked? He already gets credit from some mushy liberals, like [New York Times columnist] Nicholas Kristof, for caring about Africa. "His heart's in Africa," his less conservative supporters like to say. Great. But the question is, What is it up to there? In Uganda we have an answer: no good.

What is Bob Hunter's role with the Family in Uganda? Does he have a close relationship with David Bahati, the author of this antigay bill?
Bob Hunter began traveling to Uganda in the early '80s. He met with the former dictator, Milton Obote, and brought Senator Grassley over on a Family mission, in which they had help from the U.S. and German ambassadors.

Hunter, himself a liberal on many issues, helped organize U.S. foreign aid for Uganda, guiding Museveni through the intricacies of Washington. He says his intentions were apolitical, and I believe him. Hunter is the exception to the rule in an organization defined by political operators. The effect was to slowly bring Uganda into the American sphere of influence. Today, it's something of a proxy in an incredibly resource-rich and conflict-riddled region.

Hunter helped establish the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast ... David Bahati got involved with the Family through the National Prayer Breakfast. According to Hunter, Bahati's been in the U.S. for a Prayer Breakfast here. One Family source says Bahati first floated the idea for the gay death penalty bill at the 2008 Ugandan Prayer Breakfast. Someone allegedly told him to get more input -- that'd be more of that "quiet diplomacy," a mild, euphemistic form of disapproval. Someone else may have said he thought it was too draconian.

Bahati, meanwhile, sought the counsel of fringe characters like Scott Lively, author of The Pink Swastika. The bill advanced, and the Family didn't get involved until late in the game. Hunter doesn't have a close relationship with Bahati. In fact, he seems to be distancing himself from Bahati and [Ugandan ethics and integrity minister James Nsaba] Buturo both. That's good. But it leaves Museveni, the Family's "key man" for Africa, in place. I'd like to see Hunter speak truth to Museveni's power. Maybe he will.

Bahati claims the bill has been misinterpreted by foreign media, and there have been claims that death sentence provisions would be removed from the bill. Do you think the bill will pass in its current form?
Nobody can say with certainty, but one thing's for sure: If the bill has been misinterpreted by foreign media late to the story, it's been to understate just how monstrous it is. This is potentially a genocidal piece of legislation in a region that's been marked by real genocide. ... Even if they strip the death penalty from the bill, it's a monstrous step, an invitation to a witch hunt in a nation where many Christian leaders describe their opponents as actual witches.

Is this public renouncement by Hunter and other Family members enough?
Nothing's enough until the bill is dead. Hunter knows that, and he continues to work toward that end. His colleagues in the Family, though, think that they can send Rachel Maddow a brief statement and be rid of this headache. What they don't seem to understand is that this is a rare instance where they're facing a movement broad enough to encompass both LGBT rights groups and evangelical groups. If this bill is still on the table come February, when the Ugandan "brothers" arrive to mingle with our nation's leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast, I suspect the Family will discover they've provoked the most remarkable feat of bridge-building in their history: There will be queer rights activists protesting alongside members of Exodus, many of whom have been quietly pressuring their congressmen to take a real stand.

My view is that the Family, along with other American religious organizations, have treated Uganda as a guinea pig for culture war ideas about "God-led" government. Now the guinea pig has turned into a Frankenstein's monster. There are some within the group ready to take responsibility for their part in that. That's laudable. There are others, particularly the politicians, who'd rather look away. They don't seem to understand that "see no evil" is its own kind of awful.

Legislation that would criminalize homosexuality in Rwanda is also starting to receive attention -- does the Family have similar outreach in that country? Or is this legislation arising for different reasons?
The Family does have a relationship with Rwanda. Paul Kagame, the president since the genocide, has been a guest at the Family's Arlington, Va., mansion. His predecessor, the Rwandan leader whose assassination, along with that of Burundi's leader -- the event that sparked the genocide -- was on his way to a Family meeting when he was shot out of the air. But the relationship is not, as far as I know, as deep as that with Uganda. Still, I hope they'll use what influence they have to stand against this. There's no question that these views are a virus -- the original draft of the bill stated that it was intended as a model for other nations.

As for different reasons: I'd say many reasons. There's more at play here than American evangelicalism.

Given what has transpired in Uganda, should Obama attend the National Prayer Breakfast in February?
I don't think any U.S. president should attend a privately organized and funded sectarian event, secretly presided over by a leader who is on record and on video talking about the leadership lessons of Hitler. The planning documents of this ostensibly ecumenical event declare: "Anything can happen, the Koran could even be read, but JESUS is there! He is infiltrating the world." Citizens are entitled to that view. But they're not entitled to de facto government endorsement of it.

The first president to attend, Eisenhower, did so under political pressure and said he hoped it wouldn't become a tradition. It might not have had the next president, John F. Kennedy, not been compelled to attend to prove to evangelicals that his Catholicism wouldn't be a barrier between them. It's worth noting that Jackie refused to go. Every president since has found in the Prayer Breakfast a platform for publicly banal and privately powerful engagements with American religious figures and the foreign leaders the Family chooses to invite to the many off-the-record events that surround the breakfast. This simply isn't a "National Prayer Breakfast"; it's a lobbyist's dream. If the American people want a National Prayer Breakfast, fine -- let Congress appropriate funds and designate a national-level agency to run it. And let the Supreme Court deal with the First Amendment issues that will follow.

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