The Fellowship (aka The Family) Opposes Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill: Guest post by Jeff Sharlet

[Author Jeff Sharlet’s appearance on National Public Radio elevated the story of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill to an important level of public awareness. One controversial element of Jeff’s reporting was his connection of the Ugandan legislators who introduced the bill to the Fellowship Foundation (aka The Family). I followed up that broadcast corresponding with Fellowship Foundation grantee, Cornerstone Development in Kampala and learned that Cornerstone had no input into the bill. In this guest post, Jeff Sharlet updates the NPR reporting, completes the picture and reveals for the first time that the Fellowship opposes the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Thanks to Jeff for posting this news here and thanks to Bob Hunter for his candor.]  

The Fellowship Opposes Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

by Jeff Sharlet

Add one more very important name to the growing international list of those opposed to Uganda’s proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill: Bob Hunter, the man who helped build Uganda’s relationship with the Family, aka the Fellowship, the international movement of “followers of Christ” – some reject the term “Christian” that also includes several U.S. politicians with ties to Uganda: among them, Senator James Inhofe, Senator Sam Brownback, and Representative Joe Pitts.

Bob has been active with the Fellowship, as he prefers to call the network of organizations he says can be fairly described as a movement,* since coming to Christ in the late 1970s. But Bob’s faith wasn’t simply a salve; it led him into a relationship with a missionary hospital in Uganda and then with Ugandan political leaders. Bob worked as a private citizen, but he brought to his pursuits the experience and insights of a distinguished career, as a federal insurance administrator for Ford and Carter and a longtime consumer advocate. In Uganda, he established relationships with members of all factions, and, eventually, a friendship with President Yoweri Museveni. Later, he would go on to help Museveni establish the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast.

Today, his work in Uganda focuses less on high-level politicians and more on those whom he calls “the nail” – that is, not the people in the official portraits, but the people who do the real day to day work of keeping a country running. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s important – maybe never more so than now. Because it’s those relationships that matter most when legislation such as the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is at stake. And Bob has been quietly working through those relationships to stop the bill. His influence may matter more than all the petitions signed by gay rights activists around the globe. And Bob has been brave about using that influence, speaking to his friends in Uganda, and gently pressuring the Fellowship’s associates on Capitol Hill to take a stand against the bill. Bob even agreed to sit down with me.

That took some courage, since I’m the author of a book about the Fellowship called The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, a critical analysis of the Fellowship in which I described Bob’s initial outreach to Uganda as linked to U.S. government interests in the region. Several weeks ago, I was a guest on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in which I made the same point. I based my characterization on a widely circulated account from Fellowship leader Doug Coe of Bob’s work, two documents in the Fellowship’s archive, “A Trip to East Africa—Fall 1986,” and “Re: Organizing the Invisible,” and a review of tens of thousands of documents in the Fellowship archives that present a portrait of the organization up to that point. I attempted to contact Bob, but failed. I wish I had contacted him: Bob was very forthcoming with details that present a more complicated, and, frankly, hopeful picture. Bob wrote a response to the broadcast that he shared with “Fresh Air” and with some associates in Uganda. He raised a number of important concerns and offered more detail on his involvement. But rather than duke it out, Bob invited me to his Arlington, Virginia home and spent the better part of an afternoon discussing my interpretation of events and his experience of them. We agreed that the first step was a statement making clear Bob’s opposition to the bill. Moreover, Bob adds “I know of no one involved in Uganda with the Fellowship here in America, including the most conservative among them, that supports such things as killing homosexuals or draconian reporting requirements, much less has gone over to Uganda to push such positions.”

That’s very, very good news. The Fellowship prefers to avoid the limelight; Bob has forsaken that to make clear his position and that of his American associates: The Fellowship, AKA the Family, opposes the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

Bob also asked me to clarify – and correct – some misperceptions. I’m glad to do so. First, Bob was troubled by my identification of him on “Fresh Air” as a former Ford official, which he felt implied right-wing affiliations. I didn’t think so – Ford hasn’t exactly gone down in history as a right-winger, and I mentioned it only to establish that Bob was not just some ordinary businessmen, as Fellowship leader Doug Coe’s account of his work** suggests (inaccurately, as Bob gladly concedes). It would have been better to say a former government official, or a former Ford and Carter official. Even that might have been selling Bob short – his career as a consumer advocate is long and impressive. While the Fellowship has historically been majority conservative, it has – as I note in my book – always included liberals. Bob is in that tradition. Over the course of the afternoon he shared with me his experience working with the Fellowship in Burundi, Rwanda, and South Africa. While I may take issue with the Fellowship’s behind-the-scenes approach, there’s no denying that in each of these cases Bob and his associates were working toward extremely admirable ends, and that in the case of Burundi Bob’s efforts helped make the difference that brought a truce to that country’s warring factions. Bob did what he did with the best of intentions, and, in several instances, achieved the best of outcomes.

Second, Bob wants it to be clear that “I had no connection to the US government on my Uganda trips.” Bob traveled as a private citizen, at personal expense. His initial trips were to work with the Mengo Anglican hospital, a Ugandan effort for which Bob arranged support in the U.S. Bob continues to work with and support the hospital to this day, and it’s a tribute to the nature of his feeling for Uganda. He did not meet Museveni until his fourth trip. Bob took particular issue with my statement that he went “at the behest” of the U.S. government. When I pointed out that he’d traveled with U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, Bob explained, “I did not go with senators at their behest, they came at my behest.” Moreover, he reports, the U.S. State Department scarcely believed his reports. Bob went as a private citizen, motivated by faith to support reconciliation between warring parties in Uganda.

Third, Bob writes: “I did help put the first Uganda National Prayer Breakfast together in 1991 (not the late 1990s) but it was a Ugandan’s (B. K. Kyria, a friend of Museveni and cabinet member) idea and he led the effort.   I only gave periodic advice from our US National Prayer Breakfast experience.” I reported on “Fresh Air” that Bob had helped in the late 1990s because this year marked the 11th annual Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast, and my math skills led me back to 1998. I relied on Christianity Today’s “Men of Integrity” magazine, which in 2005 offered an adapted excerpt from evangelist Luis Palau’s book, “It’s a God Thing”:

“President Museveni asked Bob [Hunter] to help organize a prayer breakfast for Uganda. People of every tribe, religion, and station attended. Speakers admitted the hate they’d held for others, and told how much they’d been changed by God.”

This work began in 1991, not the late 1990s.  

Last, but not least at all: The question of the relationship between Bob, the Fellowship, and Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Bob argues that any connection at all is “absurd.” He takes particular issue with my statement that the situation in Uganda is “a perfect case study in the export of a lot on American, largely evangelical ideas about homosexuality exported to Uganda.” Bob is now on record expressing his active opposition to the bill, and many of his Fellowship associates are on record expressing a passive opposition to the bill. That’s what matters most here. The question of cultural influence is more complicated. I’ll say this: The member of parliament most strongly associated with the bill, David Bahati, has, as Bob points out, been associated with the Fellowship. Other Fellowship sources say that Bahati floated the idea at a private event linked to the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast; one source says 2008, Bob thinks it was 2009. What’s most important is that all sources say Fellowship associates politely expressed opposition. Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity James Nsaba Buturo, another strong supporter of the bill, is also linked to the Fellowship (though possibly not as closely as Buturo believes)  and an organizer of the Ugandan National Prayer Breakfast. And President Museveni, a longtime Fellowship associate, has given implicit support to the extreme stigmatization of homosexuality, declaring, “European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa.” Other scholars have noted that Museveni’s anti-gay rhetoric has grown strongly over the years, a period during which Uganda has experienced a great religious revival rooted in the years before Museveni took power. One needn’t take anything away from the very real virtues of that revival – it helped overthrow a dictatorship — to condemn its ugly baggage: an inflammation of anti-gay rhetoric, violence, and now new legal measures on top of Uganda’s existing anti-gay laws, antiquated regulations dating back to British colonialism.***

The author of this blog, Warren Throckmorton, has reported extensively on the links of several American Christian conservative groups – all of them considerably to the right of the Fellowship — to that rhetoric. I’d add that through the Fellowship, a number of anti-gay American politicians have involved themselves with Ugandan affairs, most notably Senator James Inhofe, who has spoken of having “adopted” Uganda and who has been a guest at multiple Ugandan National Prayer Breakfasts. I don’t believe James Inhofe told David Bahati to push this legislation. I believe Inhofe when he says – under pressure – that he’s opposed to it. But the fact is, these powerful politicians, representatives of the most powerful nation on the world and its foreign aid generosity, are clear and candid in their opposition to homosexuality. That’s their right. But I believe they should therefore be even more clear and candid in their opposition to its criminalization. Theirs is a personal, religious position.  They should extra precautions to make clear that these positions are in absolutely no way linked to the relationships between the United States and foreign aid recipients. Not only have they not done that, they resisted even condemning the bill.

Bob did not. Indeed, he has been bold about opposing it. Bob and I spoke not just about the details of his African work, but also about the big concepts behind the Fellowship. One of the most powerful points he made, I think, was about the tension between access and accountability. On the one hand, if you want to influence the influencers – with the best of intentions – you need access to them. On the other, as a follower of Christ, you must hold yourself and your brothers and sisters accountable. As Bob notes, the Fellowship doesn’t always get it right. But Bob has a better track record than most of us.

Then there’s the question of the meaning of words like “power” and “love.” Bob says the Fellowship is motivated by love, and takes issue with my description of its beliefs as a sort of theology of power.  There’s a level at which this is a question of intentionality vs. functionality: Bob’s intentions in Uganda have been nothing but good by anybody’s standards, liberal or conservative, believer or unbeliever. I have questions about some of the effects. Yoweri Museveni has remained in power since assuming office in 1986, a period in which by everybody’s account, including Bob’s, he’s grown less and less democratic. In the case of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and on other important matters, Bob has always come down on the side of accountability; but over the years, a number of Fellowship associates appear to have sacrificed accountability for access.

I say “appear” because it’s hard to know what they’re doing. Indeed, some of Fellowship associates, such as Representative Joe Pitts, now deny any knowledge of the movement. Others, such as Senator Inhofe, are admirably candid about their involvement, but feel no obligation to explain to the public the particulars of that involvement. The group has long sought to avoid publicity, a policy Bob says he personally disagrees with. But he also takes issue with my book for relying on what he calls “ancient” documents, the nearly 600 boxes of papers housed at the Billy Graham Center Archives. Because of that reliance, he says, I’ve missed a lot of the Fellowship’s good works.**** I’m very glad to hear that. Bob has agreed to keep talking with me. I’ll take far more pleasure in reporting good news than in bringing the bad.  My afternoon with Bob gave me some truly good news to report, the Fellowship’s opposition – active, on Bob’s part – to the criminalization of homosexuality.

Notes: 

 * I use the term “the Family” for the movement to distinguish it from the Fellowship Foundation, which is just one of several nonprofits that are part of the movement and which does business as the International Foundation. There’s also the C Street Center, the Wilberforce Foundation, the now-defunct Ambassadors of Reconciliation, former incarnations such as International Christian Leadership, and projects funded through these entities. Fellowship/Family leader Doug Coe introduced the phrase the Family as a catch-all for the movement in the early 1970s, and it has been used interchangeably since, as noted not just by me but also by World, a prominent Christian conservative magazine. I mean no slur by it; indeed, that’s how it was spoken of to me by Doug Coe when I lived for a short period in a house for Ivanwald, a communal home for young men just up the street from Bob Hunter’s. As I type, I’m looking at a recent Family pamphlet provided me by a former associate of the movement titled, aptly, “The Family.” It is an admirable document: “[W]e as a family are learning to become better citizens, not only as part of our own nation but also as citizens of the world…. We call ourselves brother and sister according to the command of Jesus.”

** Here’s how I reported Coe’s account, in my book and originally in Harper’s in 2003. At the time, Harper’s fact checkers contacted the International Foundation for verification. The International Foundation did not respond to queries. Bob told me Coe’s account, a sort of fable, has been a sort of a “curse,” because it’s so inaccurate (among other details Coe got wrong, says Bob, is that of the bet: there was none). Neither Bob nor I believe Coe misrepresented Bob with any ill intentions. Rather, it seems, the story worked better simplified. Bob says Coe got the essence of the story right – he prayed, which led to deep involvement in Africa, and many wonderful outcomes.  Bob says the real, more complex story is even better than Coe’s abbreviated version.  What I had to go on was this story and two documents in the Fellowship’s archives, “A Trip to East Africa—Fall 1986,” and “Re: Organizing the Invisible.” I’m glad to have the additional details provided by Bob here. To be clear: Coe’s account below is not correct. I based my statements on “Fresh Air” and in the book on this account, that of Christianity Today’s “Men of Integrity” magazine, and the documents I had available to me. But that account was not complete and thus led to inadvertent misstatements, which I regret.

There was a man he knew, [Doug Coe] said, who didn’t really believe in prayer. So Doug Coe made him a bet. If this man would choose something and pray for it every day for forty-five days, he wagered God would make it so. It didn’t matter whether the man believed or whether he was a Christian. All that mattered was the fact of prayer. Every day.  Forty-five days. He  couldn’t lose, Coe told the man. If Jesus didn’t answer his prayers, Coe would pay him $500.  

            “What should I pray for?” the man asked.

             “What do you think God would like you to pray for?” Doug Coe asked him.

             “I don’t know,” said the man. “How about Africa?”

             “Good,” said Coe. “Pick a country.”

             “Uganda,” the man said, because it was the only one he could  

            remember.

           “Fine,” Coe told him. “Every day, for  forty-five days, pray for Uganda. ‘God, please help Uganda. God, please help Uganda.’ ”

 On the  thirty-second day, Coe told us, this man met a woman from Uganda. She worked with orphans. Come visit, she told the man, and so he did, that very weekend. And when he came home, he raised $1 million in donated medicine for the orphans. “So you see,” Doug Coe told him, “God answered your prayers. You owe me five hundred dollars.”

There was more. After the man had returned to the United States, the president of Uganda called the man at his home and said, “I am making a new government. Will you help me make some decisions?”

“So,” Doug Coe told us, “my friend said to the president, ‘Why don’t you come and pray with me in America? I have a good group of friends—senators,  congressmen—who I like to pray with, and they’d like to pray with you.’ And that president came to the Cedars, and he met Jesus. And his name is Yoweri Museveni, and he is now the president of all the presidents in Africa. And he is a good friend of the Family.”

*** Bob and other Fellowship sources emphasize that neither Bahati nor Buturo are close to the Fellowship. Buturo, adds Bob, largely inherited his relationship when he took office as Minister of Ethics and Integrity, a position previously occupied by a much closer associate. Other Fellowship sources point out that Buturo has not met Fellowship leader Doug Coe and has only traveled to one other Fellowship event, in Germany. When a colleague of mine contacted Buturo several weeks ago to ask whether he was attending the Fellowship’s U.S. National Prayer Breakfast, Buturo said “Yes, I am hoping to attend, but must do further consultations.” Bahati has also indicated that he would be attending. But Bob clarifies that neither man has been invited yet, because nobody has been invited. Indeed, the Ugandans must nominate first and then a process here leads to an invitation and there is not even nominations as of today, much less invitations. That decision, he adds, is “strategic,” and those who have attended before, as Bahati has, are often not invited again, since the idea is to build new friendships, not simply revisit old ones. Speaking on the Rachel Maddow show, I said that the Fellowship might “disinvite” Bahati and Buturo. Bob points out that that term is incorrect, since they have not yet been invited.

****For what it’s worth, some critics have accused me of trying to gin up controversy to make money selling books. If only it were so! I’d love to make some money. Writing this book put me deeply in debt. I even had to borrow money to pay for an appendectomy! To date I haven’t made a dime in new royalties on The Family. Chalk it up to the vagaries of publishing contracts, the deep discount pricing policies of book sellers, or my obscurity as a journalist when I signed on to do the book. The fact remains that the only man who gets paid when The Family sells is Rupert Murdoch, the owner of HarperCollins. And say what you will about the man, he’s no lefty conspiracist.

For all of my posts on Uganda, click here.