From Kansas to Kampala

The plague of evangelical Christianity and its role in fueling homophobia in African countries like Uganda.

Still from 'God Loves Uganda.' International House of Prayer Meeting in Kampala, Uganda Photo Credit: Roger Ross Williams

A few years ago, the documentary film Darwin’s Nightmare, told the chilling story of the social and environmental destruction wrought in Central Africa as cargo planes from Europe delivered load after load of heavy arms to the region, before heading home filled with the choicest fillets of Nile perch. But there’s another destructive cargo that regularly gets carried to Africa from the US. I witness it every time I fly from New York to Johannesburg, Nairobi or Entebbe: the group of missionaries that’s always on the plane.

Young adults, bright eyed and rosy cheeked, bubbling with excitement as they prepare to bring Africa the good news — the good news that is very bad news for gays and lesbians, transgender people, and anyone else who doesn’t conform to their strict brand of sexual morality.

God Loves Uganda, which opened in New York this week, tells the story of this plague of evangelical Christianity and its role in fuelling homophobia and inspiring the Anti-Homosexuality Bill that if passed, will impose the death penalty on gays and lesbians in that country.

The film starts out in Kansas, at the International House of Prayer (IHOP), an enormous hall of worship where bands play and people sing and clap and praise the Lord, and plan to take over the world for Jesus. For some reason, they have made Uganda the epicenter of their ambitions. According to head pastor Lou Engle, as the ‘Pearl of Africa’, Uganda has somehow been selected by God as the place where great things will happen. Engle is a frightening character, eyes blazing with fanaticism as he gushes about his calling. We also get to see a clip of the promo video for an initiative he leads, called The Call – which is a truly frightening piece of fascist propaganda.

The film then follows a group of young missionaries from IHOP as they head to Uganda to begin evangelizing. Once there, they travel the countryside, accosting anyone and everyone with their carefully selected Bible verses, and insisting people accept Jesus “as Lord and Savior.”

It’s a bit puzzling as to why Uganda needs more Western missionaries. The film makes very clear there are plenty of local ones – dozens of lowly street-side preachers declaiming the gospel in the middle of traffic, and a handful of very rich ones who preach in their church-palaces, and divide their time between mansions in Las Vegas and Kampala, funded with American money and the tithes of their congregations.

American or Ugandan, they’re all obsessed with homosexuality. They denounce it at every turn. And none is more outspoken than Scott Lively, who has made it his life’s mission to fight the ‘homosexual agenda’ (nothing less than the destruction of society as we know it), and who works audiences up into a fury by exhibiting stills from hardcore fetish porn as examples of what gays are up to everywhere, all the time.

The missionaries, all very affable and friendly, claim to be motivated by love for Ugandans. It’s interesting though that their language is the language of war. They are an army for God, equipped with spiritual weapons. They even engage in what they call ‘rapid-fire’ prayer. They want to make converts to save souls from hell. It seems illogical then, that they would advocate a law that would send so-called sinners to their deaths, unsaved. But then again, rationality is not a strong point. There is scene after scene of people (in Kansas and Kampala) blabbering in ‘tongues’, falling over, lying on the ground shaking and crying uncontrollably. Truth is not found through reason, but is revealed as God speaks to individuals directly. One American woman, a long-term missionary in Uganda, says one day she received a message from God, via a friend, that she was supposed to marry a black man. She interpreted that to mean that she’s married to the entire nation of Uganda. (We later learn the reason she may not have wanted to marry an actual man – she confesses to having been ‘saved’ from her own lesbian tendencies. We also learn why she may not have wanted to marry an actual black man – her racism slips out as she describes the Ugandans as children, who will face her anger should they fail to take her lessons to heart.)

When asked directly how they feel about the anti-homosexuality Bill, the missionaries are wide-eyed, claiming ignorance of the details. All they are doing is bringing God’s message, and God is happy that Uganda is taking a stand. They haven’t read the Bill, but they believe all the fuss is just a storm in a teacup stirred up by the Western media. The irony is sickening.

The film contrasts these evangelicals with two very different religious figures. There’s the voice of reason in the form of Zambian Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest who lives in the US after he had to flee Uganda while researching the inhumane treatment of LGBT people. Kaoma’s hidden-camera footage exposes the origins of the anti-homosexuality Bill, in a meeting between Scott Lively and a number of Ugandan MPs.

The voice of compassion is Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, who was excommunicated from the Anglican Church of Uganda for his affiliation with LGBT groups. Senyonjo comes across almost as Uganda’s Desmond Tutu, the elder-statesman clergyman who does not use war-talk, but keeps asking, ‘what is the most loving response?’ Senyonjo’s humility and modest means stand as silent rebuke to the strutting celebrity preachers, one of whom is the 5th richest man in the country.

The film doesn’t really offer any new information to anyone who has been following this issue, but it does a great job of showing just how crazed these evangelists are. This is the same bunch that denies climate change and evolution, and just managed to shut down the US government —  because God is also against giving people health care they can afford.

It also focuses a much needed spotlight on the pernicious influence of American church money in Uganda (and by extension in many other countries). I hope it will also inspire horrified Americans to advocate for greater scrutiny and legislative oversight over all this cash. What I would have liked to know, though, is how much are we talking about? The folks at IHOP are shown praying to raise a trillion dollars, but there’s no indication of how much they really have. It would also have been useful to hear some reflection on why there seems to be such obsession with Uganda in particular.

The other thing is that the voices of Ugandan gays and lesbians are mostly absent from the film. That’s probably because they are the focus of ‘Call Me Kuchu’, released in 2012. These two films are probably best viewed together – even though there is some overlap of characters (Bishop Senyonjo in particular) and footage (such as TV news coverage of the heartbreaking funeral of gay activist David Kato, where the officiating minister starts a rant against sodomy, followed by incredibly moving scenes as Bishop Senyonjo steps in and buries Kato with blessings and the dignity he deserves).

Call Me Kuchu follows David Kato and several of his fellow activists as they organize, socialize, and attempt to live their lives in the wake of the anti-homosexuality Bill, persecution by the church, and the publication of many of their faces, names and addresses in the local tabloid newspaper Rolling Stone. Or fail to live their lives – as the warm, courageous and beloved Kato is killed partway through the filming, and then his funeral is hijacked by bible-thumping homophobes.

While there is no shortage of homosexual-obsessed evangelists in Call Me Kuchu, the real villain here is the editor of Rolling Stone, Giles Muhame. He smiles and laughs as he talks blithely about violating the privacy and endangering the lives of people in the so-called ‘public interest’. Like the responsible citizen he is, he opposes vigilante violence against gays. In his view it is the government that must hunt them down and kill them.

It is in “Call Me Kuchu,” though it was made first, that we see the ultimate consequence of the IHOP’s mission and the money that comes with it. As the formidable Dr Sylvia Tamale points out in the film, it is not homosexuality that is un-African – but rather the virulent homophobia that continues to be imported from the West.

Further Reading