The President of Uganda has just signed into law extreme anti-gay legislation. In addition to imprisoning anyone who counsels or reaches out to the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender community in Uganda, the law establishes a crime of “aggravated homosexuality” which include acts where one person is infected with HIV, “serial offenders,” and sex with minors. “Aggravated homosexuality” is punished with life in prison. A previous version of the law, amended after worldwide protests, proscribed the death penalty.
The legislation was written and promoted by David Bahati, a member of the Ugandan Parliament. According to scholar and writer Jeff Sharlet, Bahati—who has said he wants to “kill every last gay person”— is a core member of a secretive network of American evangelical Christians called “The Family.” The Family sees its aggressive, worldwide evangelism embodied in the saying, “Jesus didn’t come to take sides; he came to take over.” The organization has also referred to itself—proudly—as “the Christian Mafia.” For over 75 years, its goal has been the “consecration” of America to God. But facing defeat in the American culture wars, The Family and its ilk looked elsewhere—including to Uganda.
The Family organizes the National Prayer Breakfast in the U.S. Bahati organized the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast—as well as overseeing a student leadership program in Uganda to which The Family has contributed millions of dollars. According to documents about The Family’s work in Africa, the organization’s strategy is “a Congressman and/or Senator from the United States will befriend the leader of another country and tell him/her how Jesus and His teachings will help his country and its poor … and to teach them how to live, what to think and what to say.” Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is The Family’s missionary in Uganda.
Sen. Inhofe has traveled to Africa at least 20 times since 1999, at a cost of at least $187,000 to taxpayers (not including the cost of military aircraft) for what the Senator described as “a Jesus thing.” In Uganda, Inhofe attended Bahati’s Ugandan prayer breakfasts and invited Bahati to the United States three times. Inhofe, who once boasted of being “proud” that there was not a single gay relationship in the “recorded history of our family,” also boasted that he “adopted” Uganda. And yet Sen. Inhofe has denied knowing Bahati and, eventually, reluctantly, condemned the country’s anti-gay law.
Just after Parliament passed the law in December 2013, Bahati posed for a picture with Martin Ssempa, a Ugandan pastor who was another leading force behind the anti-gay law. Ssempa had been a leading force in the abstinence-only push in Uganda, funded aggressively by the Bush Administration, which had the perverse (but not unsurprising) effect of reversing Uganda’s early progress in stemming the spread of HIV. Ssempa, who has spoken out against condoms, once said, “We are promoting abstinence because Uganda is under attack from an agenda driven by homosexuals and Western experts”—thus linking all his crusades. One of Ssempa’s key mentors? Pastor Rick Warren, leader of the evangelical Saddleback mega-church in California. Until recently, Ssempa was a frequent guest at Warren’s church, including at a 2005 conference on AIDS where Warren had Ssempa lead a seminar on AIDS prevention as well as deliver a keynote speech. A year later, at another Saddleback AIDS seminar, Warren’s wife introduced Ssempa, saying, “You are by brother, Martin, and I love you.”
Rick Warren, who has personally said gay marriage is “equivalent” to incest, pedophilia and polygamy and said that gay people are “evil” and have “Christ-o-phobia,” after significant pressure eventually severed ties with Ssempa and spoke out against Uganda’s anti-gay law.
In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama appeared in a forum hosted by Warren at Saddleback Church, in which Obama denounced marriage equality. Obama also said, “I love the ministries that are taking place here at Saddleback.” After his election, President Obama sparked outrage when he invited Rick Warren to deliver the convocation at his first inauguration. Last week, President Obama released a statement opposing the Uganda bill.
Dozens of members of Congress, several Fortune 500 CEOs, generals and at least one Supreme Court Justice are members of “The Family,” the right-wing evangelical mission supporting Bahati as well as Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni. Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) among others have lived in what’s known as “C Street,” The Family’s subsidized lodging in Washington, DC. Hillary Clinton has been active with Family prayer groups since she was First Lady. In her memoir, Living History, Clinton described The Family leader Doug Coe as “a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God.”
When the anti-gay legislation was first introduced in Uganda, the New York Times wrote, “You can’t preach hate and not accept responsibility for the way that hate is manifested.” James Inhofe and Rick Warren not only preached anti-gay hatred with their own words but wrapped their political and institutional arms around David Bahati and Martin Ssempa and others who have taken hatred to its ugly, but foreseeable, conclusion in Uganda. Inhofe and Warren are responsible for the way that hate is manifested. Moreover, American political figures who have proudly associated with The Family and with Rick Warren are culpable as well. They cannot feign ignorance at the end of a journey that was ugly all along.
Uganda’s anti-gay law is not just an international disgrace. It is an American disgrace. And the American religious and political figures who played a role in spreading vicious homophobia in Uganda, whether actively or by turning a blind eye, should do more than just denounce the country’s law. They should denounce their own role in facilitating it.