Blog Theme: Civil Rights and Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill – Interview with Jeff Sharlet

Interview with author Jeff Sharlet

In this interview, we discuss our shared recollections of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009, the Netflix documentary The Family, liberty of conscience, and evangelicals in relationship to Donald Trump.

This is second in a series of interviews marking 15 years of blogging. I started blogging in July 2005. The first interview with Michael Coulter is here.

Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009

On March 2, 2009 I posted a article about an ex-gay conference in Kampala, Uganda. Three Americans, Scott Lively, Don Schmierer, and Caleb Brundidge, had been invited by Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network to speak on the topic of homosexuality. Scott Lively told the crowd that gays were behind the Nazi takeover of Germany and subsequent Holocaust. Don Schmierer told them that homosexuals were disturbed by poor parenting and that they needed therapy, and Caleb Brundidge, a client of reparative therapist Richard Cohen was there to show that the ex-gay therapy worked.

That was the first of hundreds of articles about Uganda and the effort of that nation’s Parliament to make homosexuality a capital offense (The Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009). I don’t think it is too far fetched to say that Box Turtle Bulletin and this blog became key thorns in the side of Ugandan and American proponents of the bill. Jim Burroway and I (incidentally both originally from Portsmouth, OH) wrote nearly every day about some aspect of the bill and kept the story alive.

Because of my strong opposition to the bill and the kindness of Bob Hunter (as well as other Fellowship members), I attended the National Prayer Breakfast in 2010. There, I interviewed Fellowship Foundation leader Doug Coe. That was one of a handful of interviews he granted over the course of his life. A summary of it was published in Christianity Today later that year. Coe put the Fellowship on record as opposing the bill in Uganda.

When the Ugandan members of the Prayer Breakfast movement learned of American opposition, they felt betrayed by Coe and the Americans. They persisted with their efforts to pass the bill. As Jeff and I discuss in the interview above, the Ugandan members seemed to believe American evangelicals were afraid to really speak their minds. The Ugandan proponents of the bill seemed convinced that American Christians really supported their efforts, and it was their Christian duty to set a tone the world could follow.

Despite the Ugandan’s belief, I don’t believe the American Fellowship supported the bill. At the time (December, 2009), Jeff wrote a guest post for my blog which outlined his belief that the American Fellowship opposed it. In my rare interview with Doug Coe, he made it clear that he and the Fellowship opposed the bill and criminalization for homosexuality anywhere. Furthermore, at the National Prayer Breakfast, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spoke directly to the Ugandan people and by name opposed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I don’t think the opposition could get any clearer than that.

I was in the African suite watching Obama’s and Clinton’s speeches on television when they condemned the bill at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast. It was silent in the suite as the African delegation watched. Afterwards, some were stunned, some were angry. Some still believed that some Americans had to say those things in public, but may privately support them. However, they could not deny that the American Fellowship opposed the bill.

Through years of parliamentary maneuvering, the bill moved and then stalled. Sessions ended without action, but finally it passed at the end of 2013 session. The President of Uganda Yoweri Museveni proclaimed that he would not sign the bill if scientists could convince him that being gay was innate. He claimed to want to know if being gay was a choice.

At that point, at the request of others lobbying against the bill, Jack Drescher and I wrote a letter summarizing the research on sexual orientation in layman’s terms. The letter was signed by over 200 scholars and researchers from all over the world. Museveni acknowledge the effort but also convened his own panel of “experts.” They returned a letter which allowed him to sign the bill.

In August 2014, the bill was struck down as unconstitutional by Uganda’s Constitutional court due to the fact that the Parliament did not have a quorum in place when the bill was passed. A five year story of ups and downs came to an end with that decision.

Jeff Sharlet

Jeff and I became friends as we compared notes over what American interests and influences might be at work in this Ugandan mess. As I noted in the interview, he went to Uganda on one occasion (I think he asked me to go along but I can’t be sure of my recollection on that). His report of that trip was a lengthy write up in Harper’s.

In the interview, we discussed the background of the Netflix documentary, The Family. I had the good fortune to be included in three of the five episodes of that series.

Jeff has an inspiring sense of fairness and is a captivating writer. I don’t know of anyone outside of Uganda who worked harder to expose the truth relating to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill than Jeff. I am grateful and humbled by the kind and overly generous remarks from him in this interview. Thanks to Jeff for doing it. I hope you benefit from our discussion as much as I did.

Additional Reading

Scientific Consensus Statement

History of Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill – NPR

My Salon series about a Nevada church who dropped support of a Uganda missionary over the bill

Straight Man’s Burden – Harpers

The Bill Inspired by American Evangelicals – The Atlantic

All of my posts about Uganda

All of my post about the Fellowship Foundation (aka The Family) and the National Prayer Breakfast

All 15 Years of Blogging Interviews

 

Image: Jeff Sharlet’s Twitter Page

Ecumenical National Prayer Breakfast Tribute to Jesus

At least that what Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) says about it.

Rep. Hice remembered to say the gathering was bipartisan but he gave away the fact that the NPB isn’t an ecumenical meeting. It is not a multi-faith event. It is all about portraying a tribute to Christianity by Congress and the Executive branch.

Today, in a move that should shock no one, Trump used the event to tout his acquittal.

In essence, Trump and all of the politicians there get to use religion for political purposes. Trump has a very specific purpose but even the Democratic pols conflate political power with Christianity by their presence and support. I can’t see how either Christianity or government is served well.

This is a good time to point you to the Netflix documentary series on the organization who puts on the NPB – The Fellowship Foundation. While I do believe the organization does and has done good philanthropy, I think the NPB should be halted or modified to make it transparent that Congress doesn’t host it.

UPDATE: Part of Trump’s speech turned out to be a campaign rally of sorts.

Trump will use any opportunity to exalt himself and the Fellowship Foundation smiles and looks on. Everybody pretends to be unified in Jesus.

Jesus wept.

Netflix Documentary The Family: Response to a Christian Critic

Last Friday, I ended the week with a list of reviews and reactions to the Netflix documentary The Family. As promised, I now want to respond to one of the critics in the Christian Post article.

Southern Baptist leader Denny Burk was quoted in the Christian Post as follows:

Since its release, the documentary series has garnered its share of critics. Denny Burk, president of the Commission on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, labeled the series “one of the most outrageous pieces of anti-Christian propaganda that I have ever seen.”

“There will be millions of viewers whose opinion of evangelicals will be distorted by this film. It catechizes viewers to be suspicious of Christians and to regard us as a clear and present danger to democracy,” he said.

I think irony is the right word to describe Burk’s overreaction. During the founding era, Baptists were fierce advocates of separation of church and state. Jefferson’s letter containing the phrase “wall of separation” was sent to the Danbury (CT) Baptists.  The Southern Baptists have strong statements of doctrine calling for the separation of church and state. In 1804, Baptist John Leland wrote:

Experience, the best teacher, has informed us that the fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than all the persecutions ever did. (source)

and in 1790, he wrote:

The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [Muslims], Pagans and Christians. Test oaths and established creeds should be avoided as the worst of evils. (source)

In my view, The Family documentary raises a strong warning against entanglements of church and state. Although no legal challenge has been made to the National Prayer Breakfast, I believe a case could be made. The NPB is not multi-faith; it is all about Jesus. When I attended, it appeared to me that at least two branches of the U.S. government had established the worship of Jesus as the state religion.

Necessary Catechism

To quote Leland, evangelicals shouldn’t want the “fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity.” The Family seeks such fondness as a means of operation. When Christians call on government leaders to give aid to the worship of Jesus, the Baptists should be the loudest in complaint. As a Baptist, Burk should be more troubled by the church-state entanglement than by the exposure of it.

I think Burk’s reaction is emblematic of how far Baptists and conservative evangelicals more generally have gotten away from the bedrock principle of church-state separation. I agree with Madison that religion and government both flourish when they are separate:

I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.

Practically speaking, the Fellowship Foundation could continue doing their many good works without the National Prayer Breakfast. The development of the NPB was set in the cold war period and may have served a purpose during that time. However, as we can see in the age of Trump and the emergence of court evangelicals, Christianity and political power damages the simple faith of Jesus and ultimately makes it unrecognizable.

Reviews of Netflix Documentary The Family: Required Reading

I planned to write a review/reflection on the Netflix documentary The Family by today. However, it didn’t happen. Others were more diligent than me and so I will close the work week with links to three reviews and two articles.

Religion News Service – Veteran religion writer Bob Smietana interviewed author Jeff Sharlet and producer Jesse Moss. This is a good inside look at their thinking on some key questions.

Washington Post – Friend and Messiah College historian John Fea reviews and recommends (with some reservations) the documentary. Read his reasons, pros and cons.

Christian Post – Reporter Michael Gryboski cites me in a balanced report about the documentary and provides a statement from the Fellowship Foundation which I haven’t seen anywhere else. I will have more to say about some of the criticisms leveled in this report next week.

The Atlantic – Is the group as powerful as Sharlet and Moss make it out to be? This reviewer wonders if it matters.

Political Research Associates – This is a favorable review from a social justice oriented group.

Annotated Twitter Thread by Jeff Sharlet – Jeff makes notes on the series.

See other reviews or articles about the series? Leave links in the comments.

For trailers and promotional information, go to the Netflix page for the series.

The Family: Doug Coe’s 1989 Sermon to the Navigators – Jesus Demands Total Commitment

Throughout the Netflix documentary The Family, clips of Family leader Doug Coe preaching a sermon to a Christian audience are played. The clips come from his sermon to the Navigators, a Colorado based Christian mission group, on January 16 1989. This sermon — titled Jesus Demands Total Commitment — had not been available online until 2010 when Coe sent the video to me to post on YouTube. He felt his words had been taken out of context and wanted the entire sermon posted.

The video doesn’t include Coe’s introductory remarks about George Bush and is also cut short. Bruce Wilson has the entire audio available which does have several minutes of Coe praising Bush for his Christianity and asking the audience to pray for him. One thing that is typical of Coe in those remarks is that he doesn’t ask for the audience to pray for Bush to pursue certain policy goals (e.g., end abortion, appoint judges), but instead to make godly decisions. While Coe might have had preferences, he did not seem as interested in specific policy outcomes as the current crop of evangelical leaders surrounding Trump.

I believe this is the only posted video of the event which begins just after the sermon begins. Given YouTube guidelines at the time, I had to break it up into four parts.

More on Doug Coe.

Remembering Doug Coe

With the advent of The Family documentary mini-series (based on a book by Jeff Sharlet) on Netflix starting next Wednesday August 9, there will be renewed interest in Doug Coe. Coe was the leader of the Fellowship Foundation for many years before his death in 2017. Although he wasn’t the founder, he did as much as anyone to shape the Fellowship into the organization it is today.

In 2009, I emerged as a vocal opponent of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill and more broadly criminalization of homosexuality worldwide. Author Jeff Sharlet initially made the connection between the bill and the Fellowship. Because Ugandan members of the Fellowship and Prayer Breakfast movement were the main supporters of the bill in Uganda, the Fellowship leaders in the U.S. had to decide whether to take a public position on the matter.

Although there were many U.S. influences on the Ugandan legislators, the Fellowship leaders were divided about how to oppose the bill. Some wanted to quietly persuade the Ugandan people to withdraw, while others favored a more active, vocal opposition. However, taking a public position meant increasing public awareness of the organization. This went against the organization’s historical pattern.

For awhile, those favoring more transparency won out and I was invited to interview several Fellowship members including Ambassador Andrew Young, Representative Tony Hall, and Coe.  My write up of the Coe 2010 prayer breakfast interview where he condemned the bill and criminalization was published by Christianity Today.

David Bahati, the parliamentarian who co-introduced the Ugandan bill, later said that the American leaders betrayed him and really wanted the bill to succeed. I think Bahati interpreted the initial silence of some Fellowship leaders as support. However, I believe Doug Coe and other Fellowship leaders were sincere when they spoke with me at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast.

The series begins next Wednesday August 9. Over the five episodes, I will post more information I have about the Fellowship including links to speeches of Coe’s which he allowed to upload to my Youtube account which had not been previously posted.  The trailer for the series is below.

The Family: A Documentary Series on the Fellowship Foundation Starts August 9 on Netflix

On August 9, Netflix will roll out a documentary series based on Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. I was interviewed for this series and will appear in one of the episodes. My part of the picture relates to my work against Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill from 2009 to 2015. You can watch a trailer of the series below:

As part of my efforts against the Ugandan legislation, I attended the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast at the invitation of The Family (Fellowship Foundation). While there, I conducted one of four interviews with Fellowship Foundation leader, the late Douglas Coe. It was published in 2010 in Christianity Today.

Coe died last year and there has been some struggle for leadership. The Fellowship has been in the news  to due to their connection Russian agent Maria Butina. I will add  on the series as it progresses.

Prior articles on the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill can be viewed here. 

More recent articles on the Fellowship Foundation, including the case of Russian agent Maria Butina can be viewed here and here.

Has the National Prayer Breakfast Become a Partisan Event?

Often titles with questions are ways of saying something without committing to it. In this case, I really don’t know the answer to the question.

Today is the annual National Prayer Breakfast, an event facilitated by the Fellowship Foundation but one with the feeling of government sponsorship due to the involvement of numerous Representatives and Senators as well as every president since Eisenhower. Trump will speak today.

Of late, TYT Network’s (The Young Turks) Jonathan Larsen has been doing extensive reporting on the operations of the Fellowship Foundation. In a story out Tuesday, Larsen sited a 2018 blog post in which I noted that Fellowship volunteer leader Doug Burleigh seemed unusually partisan toward Donald Trump.

Larsen reports evidence that those now leading the Fellowship Foundation fund Republican political causes and are strongly in Trump’s court. If this becomes a wide spread perception around the world and in Washington, I think the Fellowship’s influence will decline. Being perceived as non-partisan was a value of the late Doug Coe and accounted for the success of Coe in attracting an impressive array of political figures from both parties to their list of supporters.

In a previous article, Larsen also reported that the Fellowship implemented new rules designed to make clear the Fellowship’s opposition to use of the NPB for influence peddling. For those interested in the NPB and the work of the Fellowship, I recommend that article and a review of those new rules which the Fellowship supplied to Larsen in full.

 

National Prayer Breakfast Russian Spy Maria Butina Admits Guilt

Surrounding the 2016 election, the Russian government was quite busy in the U.S. One component of their efforts was an effort to infiltrate the Republican party via the National Rifle Association. Alex Torshin and Maria Butina were point people on that effort. Today, the plea agreement with Butina was released by the Department of Justice. Butina has been in custody since her arrest in July.

My interest in Butina’s arrest was due to a minor aspect of the story. Butina also infiltrated the Fellowship Foundation and the National Prayer Breakfast. You can read my posts on Butina’s involvement in the NPB via the links at the end of the post.

The one mention of the NPB in the plea agreement is below:

The NPB is a perfect place to meet people of political influence. Making friends at the NPB is a first step toward making deals of all sorts. Butina hoped to make many friends for her bosses in Russia.

Although Fellowship leader Doug Burleigh joked about “Russian collusion,” it is now clear that the Russians were using the NPB for their aims. After the Butina plea agreement, there shouldn’t be anymore scoffing about the seriousness of the Russia investigation.

The NRA and Alleged Russian Operative Maria Butina

The Fellowship Foundation’s Doug Burleigh Jokes About Russian Collusion with Jesus

National Prayer Breakfast Organizer Doug Burleigh Predicted Trump and Putin Would Become Friends

 

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The Fellowship Foundation’s Doug Burleigh Jokes About Russian Collusion with Jesus

In March of this year, one of the organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast Doug Burleigh joked about Russian collusion with Jesus prior to delivering a sermon at a church in Tacoma, WA.  Then last week, in a federal indictment, it was alleged that Russian national Maria Butina used her connections with the NPB to carry out conspiracy activities. Although the prayer breakfast organizer was not named in the indictment, Mr. Burleigh is the NPB member responsible for coordinating with the Fellowship’s representatives from Russia.

Prior to his sermon, Burleigh told his audience that MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough found out the number of Russians attending the NPB in 2018. However, Burleigh dismissed any concerns about that as “fake news.”

Burleigh told the group that he had 61 Russians and 52 Ukrainians at the event this year. Then at 1:02, he said:

Thursday was the breakfast, the 8th of February, and I started getting texts from all over the country. ‘What’s the deal with the Russian collusion?’ Well, I’m going to personally share with you a little fake news okay that I ran into is the morning guy on MSNBC who hates Trump Joe Scarborough, he goes, ‘I hear that there’s more Russians than have ever come to the prayer breakfast before and that’s true. But what he didn’t know is that a lot of them were young professionals we invited to lift up Jesus and we had six wonderful times with them. He said, ‘there must be collusion, obviously there’s something going on, so I got friends from around the country going what’s the deal with the Russian collusion. And I said, ‘boy there’s big time collusion: it’s the Russians and Jesus, that’s the collusion.

In the July 14 indictment it is alleged that in 2017 two of the Russians who were supposed to be “colluding with Jesus” at the prayer breakfast were Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin. In fact, both Butina and Torshin may have been working the religious group on behalf of the Russian government. Because Butina asked, according to the indictment, the NPB organizer offered to give Butina 10 Russian spots for the 2017 event. It is not clear if that happened or if there were any requests for the 2018 event.

His Tacoma speech wasn’t the first time Burleigh expressed a dim view of the U.S. media. At a Russian prayer meeting in May 2017, Burleigh spoke to a group affiliated with the American Fellowship. After the meeting, he spoke to writer Andrei Tyunyaev.

At about 2:25, Tyunyaev asked Burleigh a question:

Tyunyaev  – The fact that you are present here after a few years of a going down relationship between Russia and America and growing tension and so just for us it’s a good thing so what’s your impression, what’s your hope for the future?

Burleigh: I’m very hopeful. The reason I’m hopeful is Mr. Trump is a relational person. He’s a negotiator. He’s going to sit down with Putin and they’re going to talk. And I think, we have an expression in America – win-win. I think he wants a win-win situation. I’ll bet Mr. Putin wants a win-win situation. In other words, both sides win. So how’s that going to happen? When they get together and talk. You know in our country, it’s always strange to in divorces, the attorneys tell the husband and wife not to talk to each other. How can you possibly reconcile with somebody you can’t talk to? The real estate agent tells the seller not to talk to the buyer. You know why that is? He’s worried about losing his commission. He doesn’t care about them getting the best deal they can get.

So the reason I’m hopeful is I think our president really wants to talk to your president. I think they’re both intelligent people. Neither of them wants war. I know that. People always tell me Americans want war. No we don’t. And the reason I know you don’t is I’ve been coming here for 52 years. War to an American is going to Vietnam or Afghanistan. War to a Russian is the tanks coming down the streets of your house. You understand war far better than we do. And I tell my American friends that all the time, you don’t want war. So I’m hopeful.

By the way, some of my best friends are Russian. They’re loyal, faithful and loving. So some of my best friends are American, and they are loyal, faithful and loving. So we just gotta get them together.

Tyunyaev: So when we learned after the prayer breakfast that Mr. Trump would become the president of America, we were pretty cheerful and supportive of that fact. We can see the difficulties that he has to overcome to change the structure. We believe in Mr. Trump’s intelligent and smart approach to the issues, walking toward each other and not away from each other.

Burleigh: Yeah, and the problem in our country is press hates Trump, okay? And I think the press is so biased that you don’t get a true story from them. Let me give you an example from last week is the president said he would be honored to meet with the president of North Korea. I thought, ‘that’s the first time anybody’s ever said that.’ All the press could focus on was the word ‘honored.’ He said he be honored to meet with him!?

Tyunyaev: That’s a step of friendship

Burleigh: Of course it is. He went the extra mile to affirm him. What’s wrong with that?

National Prayer Breakfast: Non-Partisan?

Those close to the Fellowship Foundation that I have spoken to insist that the organization is non-partisan. In fact, one recently told me that if the Fellowship and NPB were perceived as pro-Trump (or pro anybody), the “group would self-destruct.”

In contrast, Burleigh portrays a positive stance toward Trump in these and other public statements. His criticisms of the press are startling and parrot the Trump talking points. In fact, the press coverage of Trump’s announcement in May 2017 about meeting Kim Jong-un was straightforward and only reported what Trump said. In reaction to Trump’s words, many pundits and experts criticized Trump which the press also reported. Furthermore, some raised the observation that conservatives criticized Obama when he offered to meet with our enemies without preconditions.

Has the Fellowship taken a pro-Trump, pro-Russia position? While I doubt it given some of the people still involved in it, I wonder what might happen over time now that leader Doug Coe has passed.

 

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