How US Clergy Brought Hate to Uganda

Published in: May-June 2010 issue.


FOR TWO DAYS in early March 2009, Ugandans flocked to the Kampala Triangle Hotel for the Family Life Network’s “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexuals’ Agenda.” The seminar’s very title revealed its claim: GLBT people and activists are engaged in a well thought-out plan to take over the world. The U.S. culture wars had come to Africa with a vengeance.

To put on the conference, the Uganda-based Family Life Network—led by Stephen Langa with the goal of “restoring” traditional family values and morals in Uganda—teamed with two U.S. hatemongers from the Christian Right, Holocaust revisionist Scott Lively and Dan Schmierer of the ex-gay group Exodus International. Vocal opposition in international circles did not stop the country’s high profile religious leaders, parliamentarians, police officers, teachers, and concerned parents from attending. Indeed, parliamentary action to wage war on gays was on the conference agenda. It was not enough that homosexuality is illegal in Uganda. As someone stated from the podium: “[The parliament] feels it is necessary to draft a new law that deals comprehensively with the issue of homosexuality and … takes into account the international gay agenda. … Right now there is a proposal that a new law be drafted.”

The unsuspecting audience heard Lively promote his book, The Pink Swastika (1995), and his argument that not only are gays seeking to take over the world, but they also threaten society by causing higher rates of divorce, child abuse, and AIDS. Legalizing homosexuality is on a par with accepting “molestation of children or having sex with animals,” he said. He denied that gay rights issues can be regarded as human rights issues: “The people coming to Africa now and advancing the idea that human rights serves the homosexual interests are absolutely wrong. Many of them are outright liars and they are manipulating history; they are manipulating facts in order to push their political agenda.” Lively even tarred abortion rights as “a product of the gay philosophy” meant to promote sexual promiscuity in order to “destroy the family.” In sum, he warned, U.S. homosexuals are out to recruit young people into homosexual lifestyles and must be stopped.

Lively had a receptive audience. Harry Mwebesa of Family Life Network told the crowd: “Dr. Scott told us about Brazil where ten years ago, homosexuality was unheard of. … Today it is in the capital. … There are people that have been against homosexuality that are having to leave because of the pressure and the threats that they are putting on them. That is how serious it is.” Another participant who called himself Elijah said:

The man of God [Scott Lively] told us about … a movement behind the promotion of homosexuality and it is called gay movement. Me, I had never heard of that. But I got to know that there is a force behind homosexuality which we need to tackle with force. He also told us that these people who are behind this … evil, they have all resources that they need … to spread this evil. [In] Africa, Uganda in particular … it is more easy for the young generation to get attracted into the evil.

If only Lively’s influence ended there. A few days later, he met with Ugandan lawmakers and government officials, some of whom would draft parliament’s Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009 the next month. This act would ban GLBT organizing and authorize the death penalty for gays, though not heterosexuals, who have sex with someone underage or who are infected with the HIV virus. Lively and the “traditional family values” language of U.S. antigay campaigners echo through the draft legislation:

Research indicates that the homosexuality has a variety of negative consequences including higher incidences of violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and use of drugs. The higher incidence of separation and break-up in homosexual relationships also creates a highly unstable environment for children raised by homosexuals through adoption or otherwise, and can have profound psychological consequences on those children. In addition, the promotion of homosexual behavior undermines our traditional family values.

At a follow-up meeting, Stephen Langa urged people to stand up for the tougher laws against homosexuality for their children’s sake, echoing Lively in charging that Ugandan gays and activists were being paid by U.S. gays to recruit schoolchildren into homosexuality.

Lost amid the ensuing hysteria was any sense that homosexuality has been in Africa from time immemorial. While it was hardly embraced and indeed was illegal in many countries, at least gay people were not hounded by churches and the police—until the American culture warriors came to Africa. Bishop Christopher Ssenjonyo, one of the most progressive voices on GLBT issues in Uganda, expressed his own concerns about the Americans’ role to me: “I am sure that these lies will incite public hatred against gays.”

History of U.S. Conservatives in Africa

Scott Lively and Don Schmierer are just two among a parade of right-leaning American Christians who have brought the U.S. culture wars to Africa. Unlike in the U.S., sexual minorities in Africa are only thinly organized and have few allies who will stand up for them. Those who do are tarred as neocolonialist and racist. In countries like Uganda and Nigeria, where some counties already punish homosexuality with death, U.S. religious conservatives have built on decades of missionary work to promote an anti-gay agenda. (A less authoritarian country like Kenya, with its democratic past and stronger civil society, has been able to resist efforts to broadly criminalize homosexuality.)

Evangelicals like California’s Rick Warren have turned their attention to Africa as its role in global Christianity has grown. Warren is especially influential on the continent, enjoying close ties to African religious and political leaders. They quote him to justify anti-gay discrimination and to support their challenge to U.S. mainline Protestants for liberalizing their policies on gay ordination. “Homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right,” Warren said during a 2008 visit with African religious and political leaders in Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya. That quote has reverberated ever since.

Warren’s bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life, is studied across sub-Saharan Africa, and his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, has close ties with leaders across Africa, including, until recently, Martin Ssempa of Uganda’s Makerere Community Church. Ssempa is one of the key architects of the anti-gay bill. He made global news when he published the names of gay people in the local press and destroyed condoms to promote abstinence-only programs in the fight against hiv/aids in Uganda. Ssempa was a regular visitor to Saddleback until Warren distanced himself from him in 2008.

Within Africa, Warren seems to be progressive when it comes to fighting poverty, illiteracy, and hiv/aids. These efforts have painted him as a real partner in development. But as Warren’s “purpose-driven” projects in Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda have grown, so too has the level of homophobia and anti-gay legislation. Warren’s allies—particularly Anglican Archbishops Henry Orombi of Uganda, Peter Akinola of Nigeria, Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, and Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya—are in the forefront of lobbying for stiffer laws against GLBT persons in their countries.

Archbishop Orombi argues that U.S. homosexuals should be kept out of Uganda because they are “taking advantage of the abject poverty in Africa to lure people into their club” (Daily Monitor, Kampala, 11/24/08). In neighboring Nigeria, Archbishop Akinola wrote in a “Lent Pastoral Letter”: “We are especially concerned about those who are using large sums of money to lure our youth to see homosexuality and lesbianism as normative. We must consistently and faithfully teach about God’s commands on this ungodly practice and help those with such orientation to seek deliverance and pastoral counsel.”

If they had faced strong opposition, U.S. conservatives might not have been so successful in promoting their homophobic politics. Traditionally, evangelical African churches have been biblically and doctrinally orthodox but socially progressive on such issues as national liberation and poverty, making them natural partners of the politically liberal Western churches. But their religious orthodoxy also provides the U.S. Right with an opportunity. Africans resonate with the denunciation of homosexuality as a postcolonial plot; their homophobia is as much an expression of resistance to the West as it is a statement about human sexuality. Similarly, campaigns for “family values” in Africa rest on rich indigenous notions of the importance of family and procreation. In Africa, “family” expresses the idea that to be human is to be embedded in community, a concept called ubuntu. African traditional values also value procreation, making those hindering this virtue an enemy of life.

Although Rick Warren’s involvement in Africa is the most celebrated, and Lively’s perhaps the most notorious, they are not the first U.S. conservative evangelicals to influence African policies. Pat Robertson’s television show The 700 Club is watched across sub-Saharan Africa. Yet most Africans are not aware that Robertson supported the civil war in Angola and the oppressive white governments of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. He was one of many U.S. conservative evangelicals, some of whom came to Africa as missionaries in the 1980’s, who sided with those white minority governments in their effort to stop the spread of liberation theology. Allied with them was—and is—the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a U.S. group that also supported the white regimes and challenged the National Council of Churches as a group of subversive Marxists. The group formed in 1981 with the goal of weakening and splitting U.S. mainline denominations in order to block their powerful, progressive witness for social and economic justice.

During this same period, the U.S. mainline churches sided with oppressed Africans living in white regimes. Along with exposing the crimes committed in the name of fighting communism, these churches provided financial and social support to displaced families in Africa, Asia, and South America. The torrential flow of conservative Christian resources to Africa helps wash away the memory of their alliances with white regimes.

But today, the mainline churches are labeled as neocolonialists and this history is forgotten. You can still hear snippets of the old, right-wing scripts in today’s attacks on the mainline churches. James V. Heidinger II, the president of Good News, the United Methodist Church’s renewal movement that opposes gay ordination and supports conservative theology, claimed that the official Methodist church lacks “a theology of mission but has bought into liberation theology. Mission for them involves bringing about social and political change in third world countries. They favor social ministry at the expense of evangelism” (telephone interview, 2/13/09). Through their extensive communication networks in Africa, social welfare projects, Bible schools, and educational materials, U.S. evangelists have effectively marginalized the mainline churches that once had strong relationships on the continent. Often they entice African religious leaders to reject funding from mainline denominations—which require documentation of how the money is spent—and instead to accept funds from them, further empowering the evangelical viewpoint while giving local bishops the opportunity to line their pockets. Kenyan professor Esther Mombo noted in an interview: “American conservatives have been in my office several times requesting that we cut ties with the Episcopal Church USA and other progressive funders in exchange for their funds. They have succeeded in getting small colleges into their camp but we have refused.”

To reach Africans, U.S. evangelicals now broadcast their Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Although generally uninterested in helping poor blacks at home, American evangelicals in Africa provide social services, run orphanages, schools, and universities, and offer loans to blacks. Charities like World Vision, Solar Light for Africa, and the IRD-founded Five Talents all present a highly conservative, and misleading, position on homosexuality. Unfortunately, Africans tend not to distinguish between moderate evangelicals in World Vision and far Right figures like Scott Lively. For them, the term “evangelical” conveys the notion of Protestant Christianity as a whole, without the substantive distinctions made by U.S. religious groups.

While it is largely U.S. evangelical money displacing mainline funds supporting African churches, renewal movements within mainline U.S. churches reap the rewards by securing the alliance of Africans in fighting their battles over gay ordination and other issues at home and in international venues. This effort started as early as 1999, when members of the IRD-affiliated renewal movement in the Episcopal Church USA went to Africa to ask African bishops to support suspending the American church from the worldwide Anglican Communion for being too gay friendly and socially liberal.

The attacks on U.S. mainline churches intensified when the Episcopal Church USA consecrated an openly gay person, Gene Robinson, as a bishop in 2004. On the surface, Bishop Robinson’s consecration was an Episcopal issue. However, renewal movements in the Episcopal, United Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, and other U.S. conservatives used it as an organizing tool to preach hatred against gay people. In addition to citing Robinson as an example of Western corruption, they partnered with African religious leaders to demand that the Episcopal Church USA be excommunicated from the worldwide Anglican Communion and replaced with conservative leadership.

The churches then used their “principled” rejection of mainline money as a fundraising opportunity. In appeals to U.S. conservatives, Canon Allison Barfoot said the Anglican church of Uganda in Kampala lacked working phones because it had cut its ties with the Episcopal Church USA. Two years later, the phones were again humming, as both churches had secured funding from U.S. evangelical groups. This funding is attractive because it comes without the demands for strict accountability made by mainline churches. Curiously enough, U.S. conservatives have always campaigned against “unrestricted” giving in U.S. mainline churches.

Local fears that this lack of accountability breeds corruption appear well founded. Canon Alison Barfoot, an American conservative, administers American funding at the Anglican Church of Uganda headquarters without giving African accountants access to U.S.-related financial information or books. Furthermore, dissident U.S. Episcopal Bishop John Guernsey of Woodbridge, Virginia, vets all U.S. donations and mission partnerships with Uganda to ensure they come from “friendly” churches, and other U.S. conservatives play that role for other countries, bypassing the usual safeguards. At least one bishop, the retired Samuel Sekadde of Namirembe, is under suspicion for alleged misuse of church funds. The independent Uganda Monitor observed that his estates suggest that “the good bishop was either living beyond his means or helping himself to church property.”

Neocolonial Relationship and Islam

Most conservative religious and political leaders in Africa view homosexuality as a Western export, an expression of imperialism and neocolonialism. Denouncing homosexuality, in turn, is a way for Africa to claim moral superiority over the Western world. U.S. evangelicals, needless to say, exploit and encourage this belief, accusing progressive Christians of being imperialistic. Ironically, though, it is the evangelicals who are the imperialists. Their flow of funds creates a client relationship with the expectation that the recipients will toe the ideological line.

In contrast, U.S. mainline churches have repeatedly demonstrated their opposition to neocolonialism, not least by supporting the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to fight poverty in postcolonial Africa. Yet American conservatives succeed in depicting such efforts as neocolonial attempts to bribe Africans into accepting homosexuality, which they characterize as a purely Western phenomenon.

Sadly, the sensitivity of mainline church leaders in the U.S. to charges of neocolonialism can prevent them from speaking out on GLBT issues. Unfortunately, this fear leads many social and theological progressives to ignore social justice issues in their daily proclamations. While Episcopalians risked schism to support gay bishops, U.S. Presbyterian and Methodist churches do not openly ordain gay clergy. African clergy directly threatened to cut links with Presbyterians in 2004 if they did so. Despite the active role American progressives played and continue to play in Africa, they were out-organized.

Another ploy is for evangelicals to suggest that mainline churches’ acceptance of homosexuality puts African Christian witness at a competitive disadvantage with Islam in winning converts. Thus do they whip up concerns about Muslims and homosexuals simultaneously in their attacks on mainline churches’ social witness.

In November 2008, Jim Tonkowich, then IRD president, announced that his group was “beginning a project to research how the actions of the Episcopal Church promoting homosexuality is negatively impacting Christians in Africa who live within and alongside Muslim cultures.” In a February 2009 telephone interview, Faith McDonnell, the director of IRD’s Religious Liberty Programs and of the Church Alliance for a New Sudan, explained: “Islam prohibits homosexuality. … Radical Muslims would use it as another reason for attacking Christians who would be viewed as infidels. … We are competing with Islam in Africa. Muslims are going to use the argument that Africans are part of the wider communion which accepts homosexuality.”

It has happened in the Sudan, where one Bishop has already formed the Reformed Episcopal Church by appealing to the argument that he is not part of “the church of homosexuals.” Homosexuality hampers the Christian witness in Africa. When asked whether IRD and its allied renewal movements had evidence for such claims, McDonnell replied, “We do not have any empirical evidence yet. This is solely what Christians are thinking and it is damaging the witness among Christians.”


The relationship between U.S. conservatives and African religious leaders is inhibiting the ability of GLBT people to live freely and without persecution both in the U.S. and Africa. In Africa, people’s lives are threatened not only by vigilantism but by government actions. If we agree that African churches should be allowed to map their own agenda in the global church, then the conservatives should let go of Africa. Unfortunately, they will not, at least not without a fight.

Progressive activists in mainline churches are now taking the fight to conservatives and putting them on the defensive at home. In the UMC, progressives managed to expose IRD and renewal movements’ attempt to influence African delegates to the 2008 international church gathering by giving out cellphones. In the Episcopal Church, progressives exposed the presence of conservative lobbyists at international Anglican conferences. They’re also making new inroads with African religious leaders. It’s a positive sign that the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan and the Congo, as well as bishops from West Africa traveled to the U.S. to attend the 2009 General Convention of Episcopal Church USA. Not only did American progressives represent their positions in their own words, the African leaders were able to explore the American church’s intentions in Africa. Most of the African bishops pointed to poverty as the biggest challenge Africa faces and sought the church’s support in antipoverty struggles—even though the Episcopal Church lifted the moratorium on blessing of same-sex marriages and ordination of gays and lesbians to the office of the bishop. Although not all agreed with the position taken by the Episcopal Church on GLBT issues, African bishops were generally sympathetic with their U.S. colleagues on the matter.

The campaign challenging Rick Warren to denounce the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda—which he still has not done—is another example of taking the fight to America. Because the U.S. Right is so skillful at twisting the mainline churches’ statements in Africa as colonial interference, these challenges on conservatives’ home territory provide vital support for GLBT Africans under attack. We must make sure that they are not collateral damage in the U.S. culture wars.


Kapya Kaoma is an Anglican priest from Zambia and project director of Political Research Associates. He is the author of PRA’s October 2009 report, Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches and Homophobia.


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