On January 27, amid gathering protests in Egypt, President Obama issued a passionate statement. Not about Hosni Mubarak—that would not come until the next evening. But about David Kato, a gay Ugandan murdered the day before. "The United States mourns his murder," the President said, "and we recommit ourselves to David's work." Kato's murder was also promptly condemned by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was featured in two full-length articles in The New York Times in as many days.
Since early 2008, the American government, media, and human rights groups have undertaken a coordinated effort to name, shame, and punish attacks on the human rights of homosexual persons, with an overwhelming focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Human Rights Watch has published ten major reports on anti-gay discrimination in this period, with special attention to Africa. The U.S. government has publicly criticized some African countries for even considering laws that criminalize homosexuality. It announced just last month that it is halting a $350 million aid program to Malawi at least partly because of its laws discouraging homosexuality.
But if any single African country has attracted American ire, it is Uganda. Is this because of a spate of anti-gay attacks? When a tiny college newspaper organized an egregious hate campaign last October against prominent gay activists, including Kato, a Ugandan court issued a permanent injunction against the publication. And David Kato's death is among only a handful of documented instances in which homosexuals have been killed in Uganda in recent years, with police now claiming that Kato was murdered by an acquaintance for reasons unrelated to homophobia. Despite Rachel Maddow's running commentary on Uganda—under the headline "Uganda Be Kidding Me!"—more Ugandans consider homosexual behavior morally acceptable or neutral—almost one in five—than people in any other major African country, including sexually tolerant South Africa, according to a 2010 Pew Forum survey.
Instead, Uganda has attracted human rights activism because of a single legislative stunt by a single low-level politician named David Bahati, a member of the country's authoritarian ruling party and an Anglican. In 2009, Bahati proposed an anti-homosexuality bill so draconian that it would make "serial" homosexual practice a capital crime and punish pro-gay advocacy with a seven-year jail sentence.
But the legislation has received widespread attention not primarily because of its draconian provisions, whose very harshness has repelled virtually all of Uganda's major political and religious leaders—including the President, the Catholic Bishops Conference, and a parliamentary committee that recommended the bill be thrown out as unconstitutional, effectively stopping it in its tracks. Instead, a major reason for the attention focused on the bill is that many believe it is the fruit of American evangelical homophobia.
In the telling of journalist Jeff Sharlet, it's the American fundamentalist gospel that turned supine Ugandans into raving homophobes. American "fundamentalists," "evangelicals," and advocates of "theocracy"—terms Sharlet uses more or less interchangeably—see Uganda as a crucial theo-political "laboratory." (Why Uganda is the crown jewel in their global conspiracy Sharlet does not say.) He further suggests that American "fundamentalists" such as Rick Warren harbor a genocidal "motive" because they aim at the "eradication of homosexuality" and so countenance the murder of open homosexuals such as David Kato. In fact, though Sharlet has maligned Warren's condemnation of the Bahati bill as "muted," he has condemned the bill as "unjust, extreme, and un-Christian."
Exhibit A in Sharlet's conspiracy theory is that a group of American evangelicals organized a conference in Uganda in March 2009 about what they consider the dangers of homosexuality. This event is believed to have triggered the homophobic anti-gay bill that led to David Kato's death. The evidence? Bahati attended the conference in March … and proposed his bill in April. Exhibit B is that Bahati and some conservative evangelicals are involved in "The Fellowship." As Peter Boyer subtly recounted in last September's New Yorker, however, this is a relational and non-doctrinaire group that seeks to get the high and the mighty a little closer to Jesus—pretty remote from a disciplined theocratic conspiracy.
There are, in fact, many reasons to doubt a causal or conspiratorial relationship between Bahati and American Bible-thumpers. Perhaps most important is that the agenda of the Americans who ran the 2009 conference was therapeutic, whereas Mr. Bahati's bill is remorselessly punitive. His bill even contains provisions that would render the pastoral care advocated by the conference organizers illegal in Uganda. For example, it would criminalize the failure of anyone—including ministers and priests—to report homosexual individuals to the authorities, nullifying pastoral confidentiality.
Some American groups have thus made a crusade of opposing the anti-gay bill in Uganda largely because of the mistaken belief that American evangelical groups have made a crusade of advancing it. In fact, its origins have far more to do with the idiosyncratic insecurities of David Bahati. Mr. Bahati and some of his fellow Anglicans feel themselves under enormous pressure to demonstrate their moral and spiritual traditionalism. Increasing competition from Islam and conservative Pentecostals throughout sub-Saharan Africa makes Anglicans' associations with liberals in the West suspect. Still, the theory of the bill's American inspiration is a useful device that enables advocates of gay rights to attack homophobia in Uganda without appearing insensitive to Ugandans or Africans.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has documented that hundreds if not thousands of homosexuals have been murdered in Iran alone since the Islamic Republic was founded. But the President has not gone out of his way to publicly denounce those abuses, or, for that matter, the recent crescendo of attacks in Muslim-majority countries against religious minorities, whether Christians, Hindus, or Muslim sects. Such criticisms would be seen as a direct attack on Islam or perhaps as "culturally imperialist." It's much easier, alas, to continue to blame American Christians for conspiring to promote global intolerance.
Mr. Shah is associate director & scholar in residence with the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs, Georgetown University, and author (with Monica Toft and Dan Philpott) of God's Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, published this week by W. W. Norton.
"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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Earlier Christianity Today coverage of Uganda and the anti-homosexuality bill includes:
Listen, Then Speak | Uganda's anti-gay bill is making cross-cultural relations more complex than ever. A Christianity Today editorial. (Feb. 11, 2010)
Ugandan Bishop Pleads With American Christians on Anti-Homosexuality Bill | David Zac Niringiye, the Church of Uganda's assistant bishop of Kampala, says that American Christians should cultivate relationships before condemning the proposed legislation. (Dec. 17, 2009)
Anti-Homosexuality Bill Divides Ugandan and American Christians | American pastors and leaders are united in condemning the legislation while Ugandans are united in support. (Dec. 17, 2009)
Rick Warren, Other Pastors Denounce Proposed Death Penalty for Gays in Uganda | Bloomberg reports that Uganda will drop the death penalty and life imprisonment for gays in a refined version of the bill. (Dec. 10, 2009)
Church of Uganda Recommends Amending Anti-Homosexuality Bill (Feb. 9, 2010)
Doug Coe's Vision for the Fellowship | The man behind the National Prayer Breakfast explains his original intent for his organization. (May 13, 2010)
Pointing Fingers in Kenya | Accusations of foreign Christian meddling fly as a constitution vote looms. (July 8, 2010)