What’s so fascinating about the fresh-faced American missionaries in God Loves Uganda, the Roger Ross Williams documentary that premiered at Sundance this year, is that they exemplify a particular brand of goodness. They think of themselves as a force of light and progress, and it would be churlish to deny them the claim.
After all, they truly want the economically less fortunate to rise up and live better. These Africa-bound missionaries make considerable sacrifices in time and money to provide not just spiritual growth, but tangible and important infrastructure improvements like new schools and medical clinics.
And what’s wrong with that? At first blush, these are the kinds of Christians that any non-believer would be proud to associate with.
But scratch the surface, and murkiness intrudes.
Religion Dispatches has more:
Filmmaker Williams was given remarkable access to leaders and missionaries affiliated with the International House of Prayer (IHOP) movement based in Kansas City, and he makes the most of it. Dominionist Lou Engle describes Africa as a “firepot of spiritual renewal and revival,” and be believes Uganda has a special prophetic destiny. Engle has tried to distance himself somewhat from the infamous “kill the gays” bill that is pending in Uganda’s legislature, but here he is on film, at his TheCall rally in Uganda, standing with speakers calling for passage of the bill. [emphasis added] …
The film also includes footage of Engle’s pro-Prop. 8 rally in California at which he warned that allowing same-sex couples to get married would unleash “sexual insanity” and a spirit “more demonic than Islam.”
God Loves Uganda also features
…a pastor [who] marvels that aid from U.S. evangelicals increased threefold when they started attacking homosexuality. Churches’ financial success brings added clout to anti-gay pastors like Martin Ssempa — who drives his congregation into a frenzy by showing explicit and extreme gay pornography — and the politicians allied with them, like David Bahati, the sponsor of the kill-the-gays bill.
And then there’s evangelical Scott Lively, an oily, nauseating Christian propagandist who
…blames homosexuals for the Nazi movement and Holocaust. In the U.S., Lively is a marginalized and discredited figure, but in Uganda, he has not only had the platform of Martin Ssempa’s TV show, he was invited to speak before the Parliament. Lively has been working for years to convince people in Uganda and other countries that gay people are out to recruit their children and destroy their societies.
OK, fine, but these are just the bad apples, right? What about those fresh-faced young missionaries we’ll gladly break bread with, the love-filled sharers who just want to do good? Religion Dispatches‘ Peter Montgomery has their number, too:
The film follows one young missionary, Jesse Digges, and his wife Rachelle. At one point the filmmaker asks them about the anti-homosexuality law. Their smiles stiffen, and they say they don’t really know what’s in the law. Whether or not you believe them, their lack of concern, or willful ignorance, comes across as shameful. They portray controversy over the legislation as a Western media creation. But the documentary’s footage of anti-gay histrionics at churches, rallies, and on the floor of the parliament make it clear that the threat is all too real.
Uganda is part of the Commonwealth, an organization of 54 states; homosexuality remains illegal in 41 of them.
Penalties range from the death sentence in parts of Nigeria and Pakistan to 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia.
So what’s there for the Christian Right? American anti-gay evangelists are drawn especially to sub-Saharan countries for two main reasons that I can see.
One is that the Western fingerwaggers are increasingly realizing that their message of bigotry is doomed in the U.S. and Western Europe, but likely to find a warm reception in poor countries where gay people are still forced to be closeted.
The second reason is that the population of sub-Saharan Africa is astonishingly young. Some 40 percent is 15 years or younger; in Uganda, that pearl in the neo-colonialist crown, it’s about 50 percent. Young people are almost by definition not only more impressionable and easily led; they can also provide a long lifetime of fervent service to their adopted ideals. “They can reach multitudes; they can reach nations,” as one of the Christian aid workers exults in the movie trailer above.
Mitch Potter buttresses my point in today’s edition of the Star, a Canadian newspaper.
Nowhere is the global battleground as heated as Africa, where a widening inter-denominational network of right-wing Christian groups has brought America’s culture war into play, helping to engineer legislation like Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill.
Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest from Zambia, in a new Political Research Associates report titled “Colonizing African Values,” describes a series of new fronts in Africa, with U.S. churches, including the Pat Robertson-founded American Centre for Law & Justice, opening offices in Kenya and Zimbabwe to advance anti-gay theology in the corridors of African power.
Kaoma acknowledges that U.S. Christian activists backed away after an international furor surrounding the first tabling of the 2009 Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill.
But Koama adds:
“While these leaders backed off, key institutions of the U.S. Christian Right stepped up their efforts to bring their style of persecuting sexual minorities — and opposing reproductive rights — to the continent.”
The result goes beyond the sort of intolerance we still see occasionally in the West — the kind now mostly confined to nasty taunts and heated rhetoric. In the thousands of African towns and villages where the Christian Right has established its beachheads, there’s a new boldness in the air, expressed through
…harassment, discrimination, persecution, violence and murders committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
We should respect anyone, religious or not, who helps others obtain clean drinking water, better medical care, and education.
Nevertheless, we also ought to reserve the right to cast a very wary eye on religious do-gooders and their ‘Have Bible, Will Travel’ mindset. These days, they know enough not to make their tangible offerings contingent upon the recipients also embracing the spiritual ones. The harm they do arrives in different shapes than the human damage outlined in, say, The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s exegesis of 1960s missionary zeal; but it is harm nonetheless, all the more nebulous and frustrating for containing sweet bits of benefit and benediction.