Only Fools Believe? Pastor Rick Warren and Global Homophobia

About Kapya Kaoma

Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma is PRA's Senior Religion and Sexuality Researcher. He was the original researcher to expose the ties between U.S. right-wing evangelicals and the anti-LGBTQ legislation in Uganda, and has testified before Congress and the United Nations. He is the author of "Globalizing the Culture Wars" and "Colonizing African Values," and appears as an expert voice in the 2013 documentary God Loves Uganda. He received his doctorate in Ethics from Boston University.
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Pastor Rick Warren

Pastor Rick Warren

The recent passage of highly punitive anti-LGBTQ legislation in Nigeria, Uganda, and Russia has brought renewed media scrutiny to certain conservative American evangelicals known for campaigning against homosexuality abroad. Pastors Scott Lively and Rick Warren – in particular – have been called out for creating the conditions that led to Uganda’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act. That law imposes long jail sentences (up to life in prison) for being LGBTQ and criminalizes anyone who dares to speak out in defense of the human rights of sexual minorities. Thanks to Lively, Warren, and a number of other American culture warriors, there is a wave of politicized homophobia burning its way through villages, cities, and parliaments in Africa. Were I in Uganda today, I could be arrested just for writing this.

Although documentation of the involvement of right-wing American campaigners (including by this writer) is ample, the current media scrutiny has brought forth predictable denials of responsibility. We’ve seen this movie before. When things get hot, as they did when Uganda’s Parliament considered a death penalty provision for its Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the likes of Lively and Warren attempted to deflate the public’s anger at their involvement by issuing statements distancing themselves from the very events they set in motion. Now again, there appears to be a dedicated PR campaign to whitewash the history of right-wing evangelical involvement in exporting their U.S.-style anti-LGBTQ and reproductive freedom campaigns abroad.

In Lively’s case, a U.S. federal judge has determined that there is sufficient evidence of his direct involvement in committing crimes against humanity that the Springfield, Mass., pastor now awaits a civil trial here at home for persecuting Uganda’s sexual minority community. Key evidence for the case comes from Lively himself, who has a habit of boasting about his influence in Uganda and Russia, among other places. When asked about the original death penalty provision of the Uganda bill, Lively said it was not his preferred methodology, but pushed for the bill’s passage anyway, saying, “I think the lesser of two evils is for the bill to go through.” It seems Lively is such an unrepentant believer in the evil of homosexuality that he can’t help but remain outspoken – even when it brings him public condemnation.

But what of Baptist megachurch pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren? Yes, he campaigns against same-sex marriage and promotes creationism, but Warren also cultivates a much more moderate image than the fire-and-brimstone Lively. Warren delivered the invocation at President Obama’s first inauguration and aspires to a prominent role in American public life. (Lively presumably gave up any hopes of mainstream acceptance when he co-authored a book blaming the Nazi Party and Holocaust on homosexuals.)

On March 2 of this year, Warren responded to the renewed public criticism of his promotion of homophobia abroad in with a post on his Facebook page under the heading, “Only fools believe everything they hear!” Warren says that he “publicly opposed [Uganda’s bill] nearly 5 years ago,” and argues that he’s been wrongly associated with the measure ever since MSNBC host Rachel Maddow “falsely accused” him of supporting it back in 2009.

It is true that Warren publicly criticized the bill in December 2009, calling it unjust “and un-Christian.” But his denouncement came only after intense and sustained pushback when Americans learned of his public statements in Africa condemning homosexuality, and about his close relationships with the Ugandan politicians and pastors who had taken up their American colleagues’ call to “defend” their children, families, and nation from homosexuality. When Pastor Warren visited Uganda in 2008, he supported and encouraged Anglican Archbishop Bishop Henry Orombi’s boycott of the Lambeth Conference (the worldwide gathering of Anglican Bishops every 10 years) where tolerance of sexual diversity was encouraged. Warren told the African press that “homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right. We shall not tolerate this aspect at all.” Pastor Warren left Uganda, but his powerful condemnation remained, recirculated in the Uganda media for years.

Pastor Warren’s words and actions helped pave the way for the bill in the first place. But he has never acknowledged any of this, and has instead depicted himself as an innocent bystander to the whole affair who nonetheless had the courage to speak out against the measure. Warren fails to acknowledge his statement denying the human rights of LGBTQ people. Further, before he tried to distance himself from the “Kill the Gays Bill,” he responded to early criticism of his involvement by saying, “[I]t is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations.”

My 2009 report, Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches & Homophobia, was widely cited by Warren’s critics. The study examines the interference of various right-wing U.S. groups and individuals in African political and church affairs, and it addresses Pastor Warren’s influence in Africa and his 2008 denouncement of homosexuality in Uganda.

Eventually the pressure grew too strong for Warren to avoid public comment. But his much-cited denunciation of the bill also provoked a reaction from his previous allies in Uganda. Martin Ssempa – a Ugandan pastor trained by conservative American evangelicals and one of the most ardent champions of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill – responded with an open letter to Warren, accusing the Saddleback pastor of failing to stand up for his own words and values. Ssempa’s criticism of Warren was not merely for standing in opposition to himself and the Uganda legislation, but for saying one thing in Africa, and another in the United States. Ssempa reminded Pastor Warren that when he went “to Uganda on Thursday, 27 March 2008, he condemned homosexuality.” Ssempa also wrote of how Pastor Warren taught Ugandans that “the Bible says evil has to be opposed. Evil has to be stopped. The Bible does not say negotiate with evil. It says stop it. Stop evil.” The underlying theme of the Ssempa letter is a charge of betrayal.

As part of his denial of association with the campaign to persecute sexual minorities, Warren says he wrote to then-Anglican Archbishop of Uganda Henry Orombi voicing his opposition to the death penalty provision of the bill. (He says Orombi wrote back saying that “he, too, was opposed to the death penalty for homosexuals.”) Pastor Warren’s letter to Archbishop Orombi is not in the public record, but until he stepped down as Archbishop in 2012, Orombi was consistently one of the most influential leaders supporting the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Like Ssempa, Orombi advocated replacing the death penalty with severe prison sentences, as happened with the final version signed into law by President Museveni.

Pastor Warren laments that “lies and errors are never removed from the internet. False information on the internet is global, searchable, and permanent.” While that is true, truth and history also remain online. The Internet is where I found Warren’s on-camera endorsement of California’s anti-LGBTQ Proposition 8, and his claims that same-sex marriage was consistent with incest, pedophilia, and polygamy (all statements he later claimed he never made).

So when Pastor Warren laments the outcry over his involvement in the persecution of African sexual minorities, one has to consider the source. And when one reads Warren’s 2009 statement about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, one has to consider the context. We are still waiting for Warren to publicly acknowledge his role in fostering anti-LGBTQ hysteria in Uganda. Meanwhile, Warren’s global outreach continues to grow. While his public relations machine in the United States promotes his “Daniel Plan” diet book, he is pursuing an ambitious plan to open Saddleback Churches in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Manila, Ghana, and Moscow. Will that prove to be the next stepping stool for attacks on freedom and human rights? What do you believe?