Uganda analysis: American religious conservatives and the global trade in culture wars

by on December 16, 2009  •  In Religion

Pressure is building on Uganda's government to abandon or revise extremist anti-gay legislation that would imprison or, in some situations, execute persons for homosexuality. American political and religious leaders have condemned the bill, joined by other governments and the Vatican. (Photo below is from protest in London.) In the process, the role of conservative American churches in promoting anti-gay policies through various Christian churches in Africa has come to light. The same issue, in less extreme form, is being debated in Rwanda and may surface in Egypt.

 The best analysis that I have read is by Rev. Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest from Zambia. Rev. Kaoma's article (based on a recently published study) goes beyond dissing Rick Warren or describing how a March 2009 Family Life Network conference in Kampala, featuring right-wing evangelist Scott Lively, provided the trigger for the new bill. The story is more complex than the image of bigoted white guys yahooing it up in Africa. The heart of it is a mutually beneficial reciprocity of dollars from First World churches going to economically desperate populations and Third World moral authority being exported as a weapon to use against First World religious progressives.

Following are excerpts from his article in Public Eye:

…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 1980s, 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. neoconservative group that also supported the White regimes and challenged the National Council of Churches as a group of dangerous Marxists supporting subversion. The group formed in 1981 with the goal of weakening and splitting U.S. mainline denominations in order to block their powerful progressive social witness promoting social and economic justice….

The torrential flow of conservative Christian resources to Africa helps wash away the memory of their alliances with White regimes. Through their extensive communication networks in Africa, social welfare projects, Bible schools, and educational materials, U.S. religious conservatives warn of the dangers of homosexuals and present themselves as the true representatives of U.S. evangelicalism, effectively marginalizing mainline U.S. churches that once had strong relationships on the continent. Right-wing groups have enticed African religious leaders to reject funding from mainline denominations – which require documentation of how the money is spent – and instead to accept funds from conservatives, further empowering the U.S. evangelical viewpoint while giving local bishops the opportunity to line their pockets.

To reach Africans, U.S. evangelicals now broadcast their Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Although generally disinterested in helping poor Blacks in their own backyard, in Africa U.S. White conservatives driven to convert the continent dominate social services, run orphanages, schools and universities, and provide loans. These conservatives and evangelical charities like World Vision, Solar Light for Africa, and the IRD-founded Five Talents use their presence in Africa to address the question of homosexuality from a conservative albeit misleading position. In this way, almost all U.S. conservative Christians working in Africa are responsible for exporting homophobia to Africa.

Indeed, Africans do not distinguish between moderate evangelicals in World Vision and Hard 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. And U.S. conservative evangelicals support diverse Anglican, Presbyterian and Pentecostal church leadership in Africa with which they share no denominational tie. For instance, the Providence Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan is not an Episcopal congregation yet it provides funding to the Anglican Church of Uganda. Some U.S. support goes directly to salaries, and has since 1998 ….

While U.S. evangelicals are actively disseminating their antigay views through their mission work, American mainline renewal movements reach out to African churches for support in fights against gay ordination and marriage, helping to further crystallize this as an African issue. At their behest, Anglican churches in Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria rejected funding from The Episcopal Church USA in 2004 over disagreements about gay ordination and other culture war issues. While these attacks have resulted in schisms within the Episcopal Church USA and the Presbyterian Church USA and continue to threaten the unity of the United Methodist Church, they offer African churches financial and ideological benefits, including a voice in international circles. As Kenya's Rosemary Mbongo told me, "Africans, Asians, and Latin American evangelical Christians have the voice today; they owe it to American conservatives."

Continues after the jump –>

Although conservative circles celebrate this rejection of aid as a sign of Africans' moral purity, Africans simply responded to U.S. conservatives' demands. A Kenyan professor noted, "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."

The apparent plan is to encourage African church leaders to swap their relationships with mainline churches for U.S. conservative organizations and individuals.

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.

More recently, IRD and United Methodist Church renewal groups organized African delegates to prevent the United Methodist Church from lifting its ban on the ordination of LGBT clergy during its global General Conference in 2008. Jerald Walz of IRD put it this way, "Wherever there is theological agreement, Americans are making ways of helping their brothers and sisters both financially and theologically…In the UMC, Americans reached out to the African delegates by helping them navigate the system… Americans are also reaching out to their African friends by giving them a voice at international gatherings."

Africa's 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 LGBT 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 rejected money from the Episcopal Church USA. Two years after the Anglican Church of Kenya cut ties with the Episcopal Church USA in 2004, the Reverend Canon Rosemary Mbogo, its Provincial Mission coordinator, appealed for tithing from U.S. evangelical churches "to help the Kenyan province." Their requests to U.S. conservatives appear to have been answered, since both churches confirmed that U.S. conservatives provide regular funding to churches in both countries.

U.S. evangelical money is attractive because it does not come with the demands for strict accountability made by mainline churches. Bishops can spend it as they like. Ironically, U.S. conservatives have always campaigned against "unrestricted" giving in U.S. mainline churches. But in Africa, they prefer unrestricted giving as another way of undermining progressives.

Local fears that this lack of accountability breeds corruption appear well grounded. Canon Alison Barfoot, an American conservative, administers American funding at the Anglican Church of Uganda headquarters without giving African accountants any access to U.S.-related financial information or books, we learned. 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 usual safeguards….

Despite historical evidence of homosexuality in Africa long before the Europeans arrived, most conservative African religious and political leaders now view homosexuality as a Western export, and a form of imperialism and neocolonialism. And of course, U.S. conservatives exploit and encourage this belief.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose wife is a close ally of Rick Warren, warned, "It is a danger not only to the believers but to the whole of Africa. It is bad if our children become complacent and think that people who are not in order are alright… These foreigners should go and practice their nonsense elsewhere."

Because Africans are sensitive to neocolonialism, the conservative claim that homosexuality is part of a "Western agenda" gives African church leaders ammunition to demand greater influence and power in the affairs of the church. Denouncing homosexuality is Africa's way of claiming power over the western world. In this regard, when Africans claim that homosexuality is un-African, they are pointing to a politics of postcolonial identity.

This history gives the struggle greater depth and tenacity, and for that reason, African involvement in U.S. church issues will continue. Moreover, rejecting what is claimed to be an imposition from the West gives them power both within the African context and with American conservatives of all persuasions.

Ironically enough, although American conservatives repeatedly accuse progressives of being imperialist, it is their dealings with Africa that are extremely imperialistic. Their flow of funds creates a form of clientelism, with the expectation that the recipients toe an ideological line. They put words into the mouths of their African church allies, even writing or rewriting their anticolonial statements to reflect U.S. conservative concerns….

In contrast, U.S. mainline churches repeatedly demonstrate their opposition to neocolonialism of all sorts, not least by supporting the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to fight poverty in postcolonial Africa. Yet American conservatives succeed in dismissing 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 United States to charges of colonialism can silence them from speaking out on LGBT issues. The African attacks create a dilemma for them: How can they be relevant to their own global North context, while remaining connected to global mainline Christianity? Unfortunately, the fear of isolation leads many social and theological progressives in the church 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 LGBT clergy. African clergy directly threatened to cut links with Presbyterians in 2004 if they did. Despite the active role American progressives played and continue to play in Africa, they were out-organized….


One Response to Uganda analysis: American religious conservatives and the global trade in culture wars

  1. Mudding Trucks May 30, 2010 at 3:57 PM

    The missionaries are pretty much cut off from the rest of the world and have to defend themselves.

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