On July 1, The Economist published an article regarding Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Cleverly titled, Slain by the Spirit, the article offered some parts truth and some parts falsehood to craft a misleading narrative about the current status of the bill. For instance in a paragraph on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the writer said:
A Ugandan Pentecostal preacher, Martin Ssempa, for instance, has mined a rich seam of homophobia in Uganda to help build up his standing. He and other Pentecostals pushed for the tabling of an anti-homosexuality bill in the Ugandan parliament, which advocates spying on gays and proscribes imprisonment for sodomy.
This section is true. Martin Ssempa, Julius Oyet and Stephen Langa did push for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, prior to the bill’s introduction. However, making the narrative misleading is the following sentence.
Earlier versions of the law called for the death penalty in some instances.
There is only one version of the bill. It has not been amended. This morning, I asked Parliamentary researcher, Charles Tuhaise, if there was any truth to the rumor that the bill had been amended. He said, “To the best of my knowledge, these rumours are unfounded.” Tuhaise further elaborated that “committees have no mandate to amend a Bill, but to present their proposals to the House in a report read by the Committee Chair.” The Anti-Homosexuality Bill is currently in committee and has not been scheduled for a second reading.
Further unraveling the Economist piece, journalist Jeff Sharlet offers additional facts and fresh reporting with this guest post.
The strange moves of The Economist
The reverence with which so many upper-middle class Americans read The Economist has always puzzled me. There’s much to admire about the magazine, but it generally performs the same function as Newsweek, boiling down events into centrist conventional wisdom, facts be damned. A report in the July 3, 2010 issue, “The religious right in east Africa: Slain by the spirit,” is a case in point. I’ve been reporting on the religious right anti-gay movement in Uganda from here in the U.S. and from Kampala for nine months now, so I’m in a good position to see The Economist’s strange moves; I wonder what I’d make of the article that follows it, on Somalia’s elections, if I were as informed on that story. But one needn’t have expertise to debunk The Economist’s report; a Google search would do it, especially if you landed, as you likely would, on the well-documented blogs of gay activist Jim Burroway or evangelical scholar Warren Throckmorton.
The biggest error is The Economist’s declaration that the bill no longer calls for the death penalty. That’s propaganda put out by the bill’s defenders. In fact, as I learned by asking the bill’s author, Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati, it does. (I’ll be publishing those interviews in my forthcoming book, C Street.) Bahati acknowledges that the death penalty may drop out of the final version; but it hasn’t yet, and it’s dangerous for The Economist to say as much.
Just as dangerous — and puzzling — is The Economist’s contention that “support for the anti-homosexuality bill in the Ugandan parliament has fallen away after Mr. Ssempa and other preachers accused a rival Pentecostal, Robert Kayanja, of sodomy.” Does a plummy accent excuse Economist writers from fact checking? Ssempa and “other preachers” — most notably Rev. Michael Kyazze and Rev. Moses Solomon Male, both of whom I interviewed at length — accused Kayanja of sodomy months before the bill was introduced. Indeed, it was those accusations, and banner headline articles such as “Kayanja Reveals His Homo Secrets” in the April 29, 2009 edition of the wildly popular Red Pepper tabloid that helped drive popular support for the bill. I haven’t been in Kampala since May 2010, but when I was there, I did not meet a single person who wasn’t gay who didn’t support some variation of the bill.
What’s holding it back is international pressure, not the assertion of The Economist’s imaginary centrist norms. And that’s a more complicated story, since the international pressure does take an awfully pushy form — Germany’s offer of $148 million, for instance, if Uganda promises to shelve the bill, Sweden’s threat of an end to aid if Uganda doesn’t. And then there are the folks I write about in C Street, the American “followers of Jesus” who empowered the bill’s author, Bahati, in the first place. The passage of the bill would be a disaster for them, since they’re so intimately linked to it (Bahati is the secretary of the Ugandan branch of the organization, and its other chief backer in government, ethics minister James Nsaba Buturo, is chairman). Some of them, such as Senator Jim Inhofe and Senator Tom Coburn, both of Oklahoma, have been preaching the anti-gay gospel for so long and with such venom that it’s hard to take their disavowals seriously. Others, such as activist Bob Hunter, seem genuinely horrified by the bill. They’ve been putting quiet pressure on the Ugandan government, “behind-the-scenes,” as Hunter describes his work.
If such pressure can prevent the genocide that’s been proposed in Uganda — the bill’s backers describe it as a first step toward the eradication of homosexuality altogether — I think it’s justified. But democratic? Not exactly. Of course, it’s in response to the anti-democratic style that has long defined American and European relations with postcolonial Africa, the purchase of policies amenable to the West with foreign aid, with few questions about who actually benefits from those funds. Usually, those policies have to do with the extraction of resources, the location of military bases, or “coalitions” (the terrible bombing that just killed 74 in Kampala was in response to Uganda’s role as a proxy force for the U.S. in Somalia and its troops in Iraq). Sometimes, it has to do with what in the West are called “socal issues,” i.e., basic public health, such as the pressure put on Uganda by American politicians to de-emphasize condoms as a response to HIV. This time, the pressure is on over a bill that is murderous — in the service of a homophobia that all sides in this debate admit didn’t exist in Uganda before America’s exportation of its culture wars.
Not so, according to The Economist which sniffs disapprovingly at the tacky Pentecostals. “The influence of the American Christian Right is often overstated,” it declares (true, but it’s still enormous).”Then there is the question of class… The cabal of civil servants, soldiers and businessmen who dominate the golf and social clubs of Nairobi and Kampala… are mostly Anglican and Roman Catholic and are unlikely to be swayed by the casting out of demons.” There is indeed a class issue, but it’s not as simple as that. The bill’s main backers, Bahati and Buturo, are Anglican, and their extremely anti-gay pastor is Archbishop Luke Orombi, linked to Falls Church Episcopal, one of the upper crustiest churches in America. Bahati and Buturo (both elites in every sense) both told me they believe in demons and connect them to homosexuality. If that doesn’t square with the Church of England familiar to Economist writers, perhaps they’d better do some more reporting before they declare that all is essentially well with the good men of golf clubs in charge.
CORRECTION – 7/20/10:
“three and a half years ago The Falls Church abandoned The Episcopal Church, attaching themselves to the Anglican Church of Nigeria over issues of Biblical Authority and Sexuality… in the process, they kicked out several of their members who wished to remain Episcopalian, and thus my congregation, The Falls Church (Episcopal) continued on in exile (worshipping across the street in a Presbyterian Church, waiting for a major property dispute to settle). They are currently referring to themselves (somewhat inaccurately) as The Falls Church (Anglican), though the Archbishop of Canterbury and other “Anglican” groups have not recognized them.”
Thanks to Jeff for allowing me to post his reaction to the Economist article and this insight into the religious background of the backers of the bill. I should note that on some of the issues here, I have no settled opinion (e.g., Falls Church Episcopal) but agree with Jeff that the Economist article is irresponsible in suggesting that the death penalty has been removed from the bill. When I visited the National Prayer’s Breakfast’s African suite in February, several Ugandan backers of the bill told me that the death penalty would be removed when Parliament resumed session in the Spring. They mocked my concerns over it saying that the bill would be amended and that the bill would be softened. However, nothing has changed.
The focus on the death penalty is unfortunate. While the existance of the death penalty in the bill gets attention, exaggerated rumors of it’s removal lull bystanders into a sense that the situation is improving and all is well. Canyon Ridge Christian Church is a prominent illustration. Because Martin Ssempa says he no longer supports the inclusion of the death penalty, they view him now as if he never supported it, even though he did. Also, by touting Ssempa’s confusing stance as justification for maintaining their support for him, they imply that 20 years in a non-existent rehab facility is reasonable and humane improvement.
While I have no personal experience with Falls Church Episcopal, I should note that it, like Canyon Ridge Christian Church is a Willow Creek Association member church. Given the relationship between Luke Orombi and many American Episcopal churches, some of which are Willow Creek Association members, it becomes even more important that the WCA take a position on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The public position would not be to try to influence a foreign government. Providing leadership to member churches would be sufficient.
Prior posts by Jeff Sharlet: