California’s “Shoot the Gays” Ballot Initiative Serves as Permission Slip for African Conservatives

About Kapya Kaoma

The news that a Christian lawyer named Matt McLaughlin submitted a proposed ballot initiative in California that would require the execution of all LGBTQ people may sound laughable in the United States, but McLaughlin’s goal might not actually be to see the initiative signed into law. It may, in fact, be meant as a signal to countries all over the world where U.S. conservative Christians are encouraging the passage of similar anti-LGBTQ laws, essentially saying that if people in the U.S. are “considering” such a law, they should be free to do the same.

The “Sodomite Suppression Act” ballot initiative in California says, “in the fear of God, that any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method.”

Matt McLaughlin and the text of his “Sodomite Suppression Act”

 

It’s practically a foregone conclusion that McLaughlin will not succeed in collecting the required number of signatures to get his initiative on the ballot, but that doesn’t mean he’s without company here in the U.S. Just as Scott Lively received roughly 19,000 votes in his failed gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts last year, McLaughlin will have some people who share similar views, both here and—importantly—in Africa. The concern should be that while his initiative is scoffed at in the U.S., the American culture warriors who are actively pursuing legislative persecution of both sexual minorities and women’s reproductive freedom in countries like Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, and Russia will leverage the fact that it has been proposed (and therefore given the serious consideration that America’s democracy requires) in order to sway foreign leaders and communities—people who may not realize how simple it is to pay a few dollars to get a ballot initiative in California proposed.

It was not long ago that (then) little-known U.S. right-wing evangelical Scott Lively traveled to Uganda and called on their Parliament to pass extreme anti-LGBTQ laws as a strategy for protecting young people from “homosexual recruitment” and the nation from “the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Aside from being heralded in Uganda as a “Man of God,” Lively’s talking points were adopted by Africans such as Pastor Martin Ssempa, Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network, and, of course, by Parliamentarian David Bahati—recently elevated to a full cabinet position in the Museveni administration—who became the author and sponsor of the infamous 2009 “Kill the Gays” bill.

Despite the increase in violence against sexual minorities in Uganda, Bahati sees nothing wrong with the bill—something he recently told VICE Magazine. On a subsequent visit to the U.S., Bahati also told Rachel Maddow that he saw nothing wrong with executing gays for “aggravated homosexuality.” Citing the Bible, Bahati argued that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

The Anti Homosexuality Act—as it’s officially titled—was signed into law in February 2014 before getting struck down by the Constitutional Court of Uganda for technical reasons. While LGBTQ activists in Uganda deserve to celebrate this important victory, members of Uganda’s Parliament have pledged to revive it in the near future.

Because McLaughlin’s proposed initiative is rooted in (his version of) Evangelical Christianity, U.S. Christian conservative leaders have a moral obligation to oppose it. But U.S. conservative leaders are so timid to stand up against bigotry. It took months of intense public pressure and scrutiny before The Fellowship (aka “The Family”) and U.S. megachurch pastor Rick Warren were forced to denounce the “Kill the Gays” bill—the legislation Warren himself exported on his 2008 visit to Uganda, during which he rejected sexual minorities’ rights as human rights. U.S. conservatives claim that militant homophobes like McLaughlin and Lively are not representative of their positions—that they are merely fringe characters. Yet when such militant actors use the name of Christianity to export ideologies that hurt our fellow human beings, these same so-called “moderate” Christian conservatives keep quiet (while simultaneously demanding that every U.S. Muslim should denounce Islamic Fundamentalists!).

McLaughlin’s initiative may be extreme, but it clearly illustrates how American culture wars ride on religion. The dangerous fire of religiously-sanctioned homophobia and sexism is currently burning across African nations in the name of God. The legislation pushed for and created by U.S. conservatives in Uganda and Russia now serves as models for other nations—similar laws have subsequently passed in The Gambia and Nigeria, and unless all U.S. people of conscience immediately begin working here at home to contain these homegrown culture warriors, their spread of anti-human rights poison abroad will only increase.

Christian leaders of all traditions and faiths must stand up against homophobia—they must condemn any promotion of hatred in the name of religion. Like McLaughlin, Edward Onwong’a Nyakeriga of Kenya’s Republican Liberty Party wants execution by stoning or life imprisonment for sexual minorities. Under the premise of “protecting” traditional family values, Nyakeriga argues the law is necessary to stop “sexual rights activists” from imposing “their values of sexual promiscuity on the people of Kenya.” As McLaughlin reveals (again), these words are taken directly from U.S. conservative talking points.

But conservative talking points have bodies—U.S. anti-human rights Christian conservatives are actively exporting their ideologies to Africa, where they are unquestioningly received as scientific truths. Depending on how the Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriages next month, U.S. Conservative ideologies may soon be history. Due to the number of losses Christian conservatives have suffered—and continue to suffer—in U.S. courts, accompanied by their failure to sell their anti-human rights agenda to young evangelicals, American culture warriors know they are fighting a losing battle. But this does not mean they will be out of business soon—their campaign is already globalized, and their talking points have found an eager market in Africa.

As eyes are set on the U.S., well-known and little-known U.S. conservatives such as Warren, Lively, and Sharon Slater have been waging anti-human rights battles on foreign grounds for many years. We all know that Pastor Warren (reluctantly) opposed the “Kill the Gays” bill when speaking on U.S. soil, but when is he going to condemn homophobia while he is visiting Rwanda? Hence, as long as the U.S. Right continues to dump its expired arsenal of homophobia and sexism on African soil, sexual minorities and women will be the direct victims of the same.

On a continent where over 90% of the population identifies as religious, African homophobia is covered in religiously coded messages. The efforts of human rights defenders alone won’t put out the fire of homophobia and sexism—religious leaders must also play a part. American evangelical religious leaders and para-church organizations operating in Africa—from World Vision to Pastor Warren’s PEACE Plan to Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse—have a moral obligation to speak out against religiously sanctioned violence directed toward sexual minorities and women. Their voices will determine who lives and who dies. These groups may claim to be oblivious to the persecution of sexual minorities and women in Africa, but religiously sanctioned homophobia and sexism continues to destroy and claim lives there.

While evangelical Christians of good conscience need to oppose anti-human rights positions advocated for by U.S. Christian extremists both at home and abroad, they also have the duty to demand that all evangelical organizations operating in Africa denounce homophobia and sexism. Keeping silent when lesbians are raped and gays are arrested and killed across the continent is not Christ-like—it is shameful and a betrayal of our biblical faith and family values. Mr. McLaughlin provides Pastor Warren and all evangelical pastors and scholars with an opportunity to honor the sacred humanity of all persons by denouncing his initiative as un-Christian.

 

Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma served as PRA's Senior Religion and Sexuality Researcher from 2008-2018. 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.