In recent weeks, there's been an international outcry against the viciously anti-gay legislation currently making its way through the Ugandan parliament. Homosexual sex is already illegal in Uganda, but under the new legislation, it would be punishable by life in prison or, in some cases, the death penalty. Gay-rights advocacy would be criminalized and carry a sentence of seven years in prison. Anyone who knows a gay person would be obliged to turn them in or face three years incarceration themselves. The governments of the United States, France, and Canada have condemned the bill; Stephen Lewis, the U.N.'s former special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, recently called it "a veritable charter of malice -- [it] has the taste of fascism."
But celebrity American evangelist Rick Warren, a man with enormous influence in Uganda, has so far refused to condemn the bill. When asked, he gave Newsweek this non-response: "The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator. However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations."
Warren's silence has repercussions beyond Uganda. Draconian anti-gay legislation is appearing throughout the continent, often closely tied to the explosion of American-style evangelical Christianity. Warren has been a crucial part of that explosion and has tremendous clout with conservative African clergy and with many politicians. "If Warren wants to present himself as someone who cares about human rights, he should be condemning this vigorously," says Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.
This spring, Burundi passed a law making gay sex punishable by two years in prison. Legislation is pending in Rwanda, which neighbors both Burundi and Uganda, that would carry a five- to 10-year prison sentence for anyone "who practices, encourages or sensitizes people of the same sex, to sexual relation or any sexual practice." As Long points out, this law would seem to criminalize gay-rights groups and human-rights defenders as well as gay men and women. According to Long, the Ugandan bill was widely discussed in Rwanda when this law was put forward. If either passes, there's a real danger that they will further serve as an example to others.
Warren is very close to both the Ugandan and the Rwandan leadership. He counts first lady Janet Museveni, who has spoken at Warren's Saddleback church, as a personal friend. During a visit to the country last year, Warren lent his voice to the anti-gay stance of Uganda's Anglican bishops. "Dr Warren said that homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right," reported one Ugandan newspaper. "'We shall not tolerate this aspect at all,' Dr Warren said."
Both Museveni and Warren have been patrons of Martin Ssempa, the American-educated Pentecostal pastor who is one of Uganda's leading anti-gay activists. Ssempa, a vigorous supporter of the pending legislation, has published lists, replete with photographs and contact information, of gay and lesbian Ugandans on his Web site and led anti-gay marches through the streets of Kampala. Last year he won an award from the National Fellowship of Born Again Churches in Uganda for his work against homosexuality. (The headline in Uganda's New Vision newspaper read, "Ssempa Rewarded for Anti-Gay Crusade.")
Warren did much to elevate Ssempa to his current position, giving him a prominent pulpit at Saddleback Church, where he's preached several times. As Max Blumenthal reported, in 2005, Rick Warren's wife, Kay, praised Ssempa from the church's stage: "You are my brother, Martin, and I love you." In October, perhaps realizing that his association with Ssempa is bad PR, Warren publicly broke with him, though he didn't explicitly mention Ssempa's fierce homophobia.
As influential as Warren is in Uganda, he's an even bigger man in Rwanda. Declaring Rwanda the world's first "Purpose Driven Nation," he's made it the center of his humanitarian work, and he's close to the country's president, Paul Kagame. Two weeks ago, a story in Rwanda's New Times newspaper began, "Renowned American pastor, Rick Warren, founder of Saddleback Church, yesterday delivered a special sermon at a prayer breakfast with a cross-section of Rwandan leaders, in which President Paul Kagame was chief guest." (Only in the last paragraph did the article mention that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair attended as well.)
A few words from Warren would do a tremendous amount to halt the anti-gay juggernaut in East Africa. But Warren's international fame is very much tied to the spread of far-right evangelical Christianity around the world, so he plays a sort of double game, pretending at moderation at home while riding the tiger of extremism abroad.
By doing so, Warren keeps a foot in both of Christianity's power centers. As the religion scholar Philip Jenkins wrote in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity , in terms of sheer numbers, Africa is quickly becoming the center of the faith. By midcentury, Jenkins writes, "there will be more self-described Christians in Uganda than in nations like Germany or Britain."
The Christianity that dominates in Africa is often a hyperbolic version of American Pentecostalism. In the churches of the global South, writes Jenkins, "prophecy is an everyday reality, while faith-healing, exorcism, and dream-visions are all basic components of religious sensibility. For better or worse, the dominant churches of the future could have much in common with those of the medieval or early modern European times. On present evidence, a Southernized Christian future should be distinctly conservative."
Homophobia is an essential part of that conservatism. It's a way for pastors to compete with Islam's claims to moral purity, scapegoat a powerless minority for Africa's seemingly insurmountable problems, and feel superior to the West while bonding with powerful Americans.
Conservative African clergy frequently speak of homosexuality as a prime symptom of Western enervation. This is the great irony of anti-gay politics in Africa: It appropriates quintessentially American culture-war rhetoric in the name of fighting Western influences. Like Hamas repurposing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Africa's anti-gay demagogues channel their biases into an American narrative about a sinister international homosexual "agenda" that must be combated in order to preserve national vitality.
When it was first circulated, the Ugandan bill came with a preamble that seemed lifted from the American right, its language utterly irrelevant to a country where homosexuality is already illegal. "The Republic of Uganda needs comprehensive and enhanced legislation to protect our cultural, legal, religious, and traditional family values against the attempts of sexual rights activists seeking to impose their values of sexual promiscuity on Uganda," it said. "There is also [a] need to protect our children and youths who are made vulnerable to sexual abuse and deviation as a result of cultural changes, uncensored information technologies, parentless child developmental settings and increasing attempts by homosexuals to raise children in homosexual relationships through adoption, foster care, or otherwise."
The ludicrous idea that gays and lesbians are imposing their values on Uganda -- or that gay adoption is even on the table in that country -- demonstrates the way American rhetoric pervades that country's anti-gay politics.
Rick Warren helped bring the language of the American religious right to Africa. His kind of Christianity, at once puritanical and magical, resonated strongly with people who've been angered, frightened and discombobulated by rapid social change. He, like many conservative American pastors, has developed a symbiotic relationship with his African counterparts. In this relationship, the Americans get adulation, a sense of being at the forefront of the faith, and the kind of voice-of-the-downtrodden authenticity that used to belong to liberals alone. The Africans get money, access, and a satisfying sense that they're now the leaders of their religion, ready to save the West instead of vice versa.
Anti-gay politics are absolutely crucial to this bond. There's no reason to think that Warren would risk severing it just to do the right thing.