The continuing controversy over the American Christian right’s connection to a new law in Uganda giving the death penalty to gays may not on its surface seem like a European issue. After all this is a America-Africa story right? But watch with amazement as I find the European connection!
There is actually a third player in this story: the Anglican church. In fact this entire episode is an illustration of the continuing conflict between American evangelicals and British Anglicans in a new “scramble for Africa” – as the former works tirelessly to replace the latter as the spiritual coloniser of that “magnificent African cake.”
The new legislation in Uganda which is about to be adopted mandates life in prison for gays, death by hanging for gays with HIV, and 3 years in prison for anyone who knows of a gay but does not alert the police. The introduction of the legislation follows the heavy infiltration of that country by American anti-gay Christian evangelical groups. They have sent missionaries to talk to that country’s parliament about the evils of homosexuality. Emissaries to Uganda to talk about the American brand of evangelical Christianity have included Rick Warren, the hugely popular American evangelist who was selected by Barack Obama to deliver the national prayer at his inauguration. They have also included Republican senators James Inhofe and Chuck Grassly.
Uganda, like much of central and southern Africa, is a Christian nation. Ugandans were converted to Christianity by British Anglicans while the country was a British colony. To this day the Ugandan Anglican church remains part of the Church of England. But these African Anglican churches have been in increasing conflict with the Anglicans of Britain and North America who are making reforms like ordaining women and marrying gays. They are at the centre of a war that could tear the Anglican church apart. 40% of the Anglican Communion’s members live in Nigeria, Uganda or Kenya.
As dissatisfaction with the wider Anglican communion has grown in conservative African churches, various religious groups have been lurking on the sidelines ready to absorb defectors into their flock, including the Catholic Church. American evangelicals have also been making a concerted effort to woo the Africans.
Rick Warren, whose book “A Purpose-Driven Life’ has now sold more copies than any book history other than the bible, recently told the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life tha int the future of evangelicalism is in Africa. “In 1900 there were only 10 million Christians in all of Africa -- 10% of the population. Today there are 360 million Christians in Africa, over half the population." Warren is right, but it is important to note that these Christians are not subscribers to Warren’s brand of evangelical Christianity…yet. For the moment, they are still Anglicans.
When Warren and others visit Africa, they use the same sermons they use in the US in waging the American culture wars. In a visit to Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya in 2008 Warren told the Africans, "Homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right.” While in the US these words are a normal part of the political debate, in Africa, where there are few out gay people and no gay rights infrastructure, they are used to justify already existing violent homophobia. Why has Warren’s book shattered these earth-shattering sales records? Because by this point it is a must-read in most African Christian churches.
What’s happened in Uganda now is clearly a case of the US evangelical right struggling to control the Frankenstein they have created. By waging the American culture wars in Africa, they seem to have been oblivious to the violent interpretations of their words some of these regimes could have. Now that some of the US media has been publicising their ties to what is happening in Uganda, these evangelical leaders are bending over backwards to distance themselves from this abhorrent legislation. But is it too late?
Archbishop of Canterbury has been uncharacteristically silent on the specific issue as far as I can tell. The reality is, though the politicians proposing this measure are technically Anglican, they are not doing it in the name of Anglicanism but rather Evangelicalism. The Anglican Church has become pretty much irrelevant in this debate, and that shows just how much influence that church has lost in Africa.
But as American evangelicals become increasingly involved in these formerly Anglican African nations, they may want to think about what they’re stepping into. As has been proven with this incident, the language they use in the American culture wars can have a very different meaning – and consequence – in a strange land across the Atlantic.