This post originally published at Huffington Post’s Gay Voices blog.
Did you know that the same Christian-right legal organization responsible for drafting the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which bans federal recognition of same-sex marriage in the U.S., also supports the constitutional criminalization of homosexuality in Kenya and Zimbabwe and has now set its sight on Brazil, home of the world’s largest LGBTQ Pride parade?
Televangelist Pat Robertson founded the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) to counter the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which he saw as undermining “family values.” With an annual budget of $16,746,496 to pursue its agenda, the center’s anti-LGBTQ credits include defending the Boy Scouts’ ban on openly gay scouts and scoutmasters and defending its creation, DOMA, now under constitutional review by the Supreme Court. Seeking to insert a Christian-right worldview into law, the ACLJ’s other issues include defending anti-choice clinic harassers, stirring up fear about “Sharia law,” and challenging “Obamacare” as an assault on religious liberty.
ACLJ exports its agenda overseas through affiliate offices in Europe, Africa and now Brazil, with father-son leadership team Jay (chief counsel) and Jordan Sekulow (executive director) forging alliances with key evangelical power brokers to gain access to government officials — and seeming to lack any qualms about working with unsavory leaders and inflaming already dangerous situations for LGBTQ people.
The offices in Africa launched during the 2009/2010 controversy over Uganda’s (now-resurrected) Anti-Homosexuality Bill (the so-called “kill the gays” bill) introducing the death penalty for homosexuality, as discussed in Political Research Associates’ Colonizing African Values.
Goodwill Shana, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ), helped ACLJ gain direct access to the administration of Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, a dictator sanctioned for human rights abuses who considers LGBTQ rights “madness” and launched a brutal police raid on activists last year. In 2010 EFZ and ACLJ distributed pamphlets, uncovered by journalist Sarah Posner, pushing the new constitution to ban abortion and same-sex marriage and insisting that homosexual relations “remain a criminal activity.” The new constitution, finished earlier this month and approved by referendum vote on March 16, prohibits same-sex marriage and does not otherwise reference LGBTQ rights, meaning that ACLJ was successful, because penal code laws criminalizing sodomy and homosexual acts stand.
In Kenya the East African Center for Law and Justice (EACLJ) secured the support of Bishop Mark Kariuki, presiding bishop of Deliverance Church Kenya’s 700 Pentecostal churches. In tandem with Human Life International, an anti-choice Catholic organization, the EACLJ fought to endanger women’s lives by vehemently opposing the new constitution’s narrow health exception to the existing abortion ban.
Filipe Coelho, director of the newly formed Brazilian Center for Law and Justice (BCLJ) and a friend of the Sekulows from his time studying in the U.S., says ACLJ decided to open an office in his country after discovering last year “how strong evangelical power is within Brazilian politics.” A well-connected evangelical in the rapidly growing Assemblies of God church, Coelho was able to arrange a meeting for Jordan Sekulow with Brazil’s vice president on 48 hours’ notice. With more than 40 million people identifying themselves as evangelical in Brazil, the world’s second-largest predominantly Christian country (after the U.S.), it presents a tempting prize for ACLJ expansion.
Though Brazil boasts the largest Pride parade in the world, it may come as a surprise that same-sex couples cannot marry or adopt and lack constitutional protections. In 2011 Rev. Silas Malafaia, pastor of the nearly 20,000-member Victory in Christ Assemblies of God church and vice president of the Interdenominational Council of Evangelical Ministers in Brazil (CIMEB), mobilized thousands to march through the capital city of Brasilia against a bill that would have extended protections to cover sexual orientation. After the Pride parade the same year, Rev. Malafaia, a family friend of the Sekulows and Coelhos, told listeners of his television show that the Catholic Church should “beat [literally ‘stick’] down those gay activists” for using saints’ images on posters.
Facing language like this, for 11 years Brazil’s LGBTQ movement has unsuccessfully promoted an anti-homophobia bill that would make discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity an aggravating factor in hate crimes and speech. Evangelicals perceive this as a threat to their “religious liberty” to preach on national television that homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of God. When Rev. Malafaia, who calls himself “public enemy No. 1 of the gay movement” and leads “crusades,” asked his audience in 2009 to vote against the anti-homophobia bill, in a poll posted on the Senate’s webpage, there were half a million “no” clicks in less than a week. His Twitter followers number close to half a million.
Televangelists like Rev. Malafaia and ACLJ founder Pat Robertson access large audiences and wield influence in Africa and Brazil. Jay Sekulow appears as a regular guest on Robertson’s 700 Club on the Christian Broadcasting Network, an enterprise Robertson founded that is watched across sub-Saharan Africa. (A 2010 survey found that 74 million people in Nigeria, one of the largest audiences, watched at least one CBN show in the past year.) In Brazil televangelists own communications empires that include print, radio and television, often hosting American evangelical leaders (like Jordan Sekulow) promoting books and DVDs, encouraging people to join the church or warning of a “new threat” to the family, tradition or religious liberty.
In April 2011 Rev. Malafaia asked his TV audience for about $50,000 to help broadcast his show all over the country and abroad. He got it. Later he told Piaui Magazine, “People in Brazil think all evangelicals are poor and stupid. Evangelicals are donating BRL [Brazilian real] 100,000, people don’t have a clue of what’s going on within the evangelical world.”
The ACLJ typically hires local staff for its international offices to mask the U.S. origins of their assault on LGBTQ and reproductive rights, while hypocritically using that façade to attack human rights advocacy as a neocolonial enterprise imposed on the country in question. Coelho demonstrated this tactic when he told PRA that Brazilian activists witnessed the LGBTQ rights movement in America and “imported” its tactics to Brazil (conveniently ignoring BCLJ’s own outside origins). While in the U.S., Coelho says he heard a lecture about how homosexuals want to become the new blacks in society, with similar legal protections. He explained, “[H]omosexuals are trying to treat homosexuality as if it were a race, while it is really an attitude, a behavior.”
Alleging attacks on “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” is a long-time popular argument among the Christian right in the U.S. (addressed in a forthcoming Political Research Associates report, “Redefining Religious Liberty”): “If you are a God-fearing Christian, then powerful forces in our culture say YOU are the dangerous radical that needs to be censored, chastised and even punished!” writes Jay Sekulow in a 2009 direct mail appeal providing an “Anti-Christian Bigotry Alert.” “It is as if ‘open season’ has been declared in the courts on Christians.”
Rev. Malafaia and Jay Sekulow both talk about freedom of expression and religious liberty from a conservative Christian frame that often means a right to discriminate, and Brazilian televangelists share a common message: the defense of life, traditional values, freedom of expression and religious freedom. Coelho joins other conservative evangelicals in seeing a threat to these areas. While democracy is not yet being menaced, he says, the anti-homophobia bill “may” move in that direction:
Let’s say I hire someone to work in my house as a nanny or a maid, and let’s suppose I find out she’s homosexual, and she’s taking care of my baby girl all day. So I think I have the right to decide who to have inside my home. Let’s say I find out she’s homosexual, and I tell her I don’t want her to work within my family anymore. I can be arrested because of that. So there’s no more freedom of expression; in your own home you have to be careful.
During the 2012 election cycle, Rev. Malafaia voiced his lofty political goal to “make one Assembly of God’s alderman in every city of the country” (about 5,600). This ambitious agenda provides a strategy to empower the evangelical community and build, region by region, the base for an evangelical candidate in national elections. Coelho revealed to Political Research Associates that CIMEB is tapping another family friend, Rev. Everaldo Dias da Silva, co-founder of the evangelical caucus in Parliament, to run for president in 2014.
Prof. Maria das Dores Campos Machado of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, who researches religion and politics in Brazil, explains evangelicals’ increased focus on using politics and legal battles to take back social arenas. “When you have problems at home or in your personal life, you look for a judge or lawyer … but no longer a priest,” she said to PRA. “More and more, even the moral regulators within communities are judges rather than priests or pastors. … It’s a search for an institutional space for the church in modern society.”
The American Center for Law and Justice and its affiliates epitomize this new focus on using legal means to assert a right-wing Christian control of society. Its specific goals shift in correspondence with the audience it faces, or rather what it can get away with; in the U.S. opposing same-sex marriage is a prominent goal, while in Africa the center can further assault human rights and argue for the criminalization of homosexuality. Conservatives, moderates and liberals alike in the U.S. should find these global actions by an American group appalling.