Guest Post – Right-Wing Evangelicals in Uganda: Telling the Whole Story

Guest Post By Peter Montgomery

Peter Montgomery

Peter Montgomery

American Religious Right groups have spent years promoting anti-gay attitudes and policies overseas.  As Political Research Associates, People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch, and others have documented, American right-wing evangelicals have pushed for laws criminalizing homosexuality, banning marriage equality, and suppressing pro-equality advocacy in many parts of the world, including Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Conservative religious activists in the U.S. have praised anti-gay laws in Russia, Nigeria, and Uganda.

The consequences of these efforts by conservative American Christians have been devastating for many LGBT people. Which is why it was so frustrating to read this Religion News Service story by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, which suggests that American evangelicals are being unfairly associated with Uganda’s law.

The story quotes some evangelical leaders who opposed and have criticized Uganda’s law, including Rick Warren and Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. And that’s fine as far as it goes: it is important to have Christians speaking out against harmful anti-gay legislation, and they should not be unfairly accused of backing it if they didn’t.

But the RNS story falls short by ignoring the reason American Christians are associated with the law: because American evangelicals traveled to Uganda, cultivated and financially supported anti-gay clergy and politicians there, and helped ignite a wave of homophobia. In the documentary God Loves Uganda, one pastor marvels to an interviewer that his financial support from Americans tripled once he started focusing on homosexuality. The fact that anti-gay politicians also had their own domestic political calculations in mind doesn’t mean American support has not played a significant role in stoking the flames of homophobia sweeping across parts of Africa.

In a twitter exchange, Bailey said she knew of nobody with a constituency who supported the Uganda law. Bryan Fischer is a spokesman for the American Family Association, one of the biggest Religious Right groups in America, and has a show on the AFA’s radio network. Fischer celebrated the signing of the Uganda law, connecting it to the controversy over Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson: he tweeted, “Uganda stands with Phil. Makes homosexuality contrary to public policy. It can be done.” Fischer regularly gets politicians on his show. He has addressed the Values Voter Summit. Doesn’t he have a constituency? It’s also worth noting that when the Obama administration criticized the Ugandan bill, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins told the U.S. to back off, calling the legislation an effort to “uphold moral conduct.”

And what about Scott Lively, who blames gays for the rise of the Nazi Party and the Holocaust? Lively is a discredited and marginalized figure in the U.S., where a federal judge has rejected his efforts to dismiss a lawsuit charging him with promoting anti-gay persecution. But he has been criss-crossing the globe, telling legislators and other public officials that gays are a threat to children and families. He has bragged about the role he played in pushing Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law, which is being used to punish journalists and activists. He believes other countries should embrace laws that similarly suppress free speech when it comes to advocacy for LGBT equality.

In the RNS Story, Lively says he is not responsible for the Ugandan law. Maybe it depends on what the meaning of “is” is. Certainly Ugandan members of parliament and President Yoweri Museveni are responsible for the law. But Lively has played a major role in fanning anti-gay sentiment and arguing for the urgency of legislation aimed at stopping moves toward equality. In 2009, he helped organize a rally supporting the bill, at which another American evangelical, Lou Engle, told participants he had been called to Uganda to support the church there in its stand for righteousness.

In the RNS story, Lively says he has “mixed feelings” about the law and doesn’t support its final form. In a recent press conference, Lively was more explicit, saying that while his goal isn’t to put people in jail for being gay – as long as they keep their sexuality behind closed doors and don’t try to influence society –he thinks governments have a duty to discourage sex outside the law. More specifically, he said that if he had to choose between the Uganda law and complete freedom for “the homosexual agenda” he would take the law. That is not the impression left by the RNS story.

Any article that quotes Scott Lively, particularly a story that seemingly purports to exonerate him, owes its readers a fuller picture of his anti-gay activism, which explicitly includes support for laws that suppress the free speech of pro-equality advocates, as those in Russian, Nigeria, and Uganda do. And it is definitely worth noting that Lively has recently created a new coalition designed to push anti-gay policies overseas. Why is such a group needed now, when there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of anti-gay activism in the world? Because, Lively says, too many conservative leaders are afraid to denounce homosexuality itself and not just marriage equality. Among the many who have signed up for Lively’s new bigotry-spreading campaign are the American Family Association’s Tim Wildmon and Bryan Fischer and Liberty Counsel’s Matt Barber.

The Southern Baptists’ Russell Moore told RNS he knows no evangelicals who would support legislation like Uganda’s. Perhaps we can make some introductions.

Peter Montgomery is a Washington DC-based writer. He is a senior fellow at People For the American Way and an associate editor at online magazine Religion Dispatches.