U.S. exporting homophobia to Uganda – Part II

Why is an American pastor being accused of persecuting Ugandans?

Jack Rodolico By Jack Rodolico

Dictators, warlords and crooked politicians get accused of persecution and conspiracy, not ministers.

But Pastor Scott Lively of Springfield, Massachusetts stands accused of conspiring to persecute gay Ugandans. Lively’s anti-gay activism is particularly inflammatory, as described in Part I of this story.

Scott Lively (YouTube)

But conspiracy? Persecution? Since 2009, when Uganda’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill was proposed, an anti-gay fervor has overtaken Uganda. Is Lively to blame?

Lively didn’t write the bill. Nor did he approve of the bill’s harshest measures. He claims everything he said in Uganda is protected as free speech, both in the United States and the East African nation. But a Ugandan civil rights groups is suing Lively in a U.S. court. The claim: Lively provided a blueprint for persecution, a blueprint Uganda’s leading anti-gay activists are now implementing.

(Editor’s note: The organization handling the case against Lively, the Center for Constitutional Rights, has received funding for other projects from the Open Society Foundations, which also provided partial funding for this report.)

A Latitude News investigation finds that Lively, whether legally culpable or not, is only one part of a complex story that has unfolded in Uganda.

Born in the U.S.A.?

Lively made a deep impression on Jeffrey Ogwaro. It wasn’t a good impression.

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“This is a Christian who’s supposed to be preaching love,” says Ogwaro, a gay rights activist in Kampala, Uganda. “And then you come all the way and fly over the Atlantic Ocean to Africa and start preaching hate and to me that’s completely unacceptable.”

Lively made three trips to Uganda to lecture and preach on “the global gay agenda” – an allegedly sophisticated campaign to liberalize sexual norms. The first two trips were in the early 2000s, but it was Lively’s trip in 2009 that brought him notoriety back in the U.S. One month after his trip to Kampala, a Ugandan Parliamentary member introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The bill proposed draconian sentences for homosexuals, including execution and life in prison. It even called for jail time for failure to report a homosexual.

It’s never been easy to be gay in Uganda, a predominantly Christian country. Homosexuality has been illegal there since British colonial times, and Ogwaro says it’s common for gay people to be disavowed by their families.

“Many of them have been kicked out of their homes,” he says. “Some have even had to leave the country and try to seek asylum in Europe.”

American influence hasn’t helped. While many American evangelicals have traveled to Uganda to help fight poverty and AIDS, others brought their views on the ills of homosexuality and found a more receptive audience than they would in the U.S, according to Rachel Tabachnick. Tabachnick describes herself as an independent researcher who studies the political and cultural impact of the religious right.

“There’s an ability for the American religious right to try out ideas, pursue strategies in Uganda that would not be successful in the United States,” she says.

Tabachnick says one of the messages American evangelicals brought to Uganda was this: By purging sin from society, entire communities could undo poverty, famine and corruption. Over time, homosexuality was increasingly labeled as a corrupting sin. It was not only seen as against God’s will, but as a threat to children. Whether it came from Ugandans, Americans or both, a narrative formed: homosexuals were predatory pedophiles who threatened to tear families apart.

In the months leading up to Lively’s 2009 visit to Kampala, fears were growing that westerners were using money and influence to turn Ugandan children gay – a claim Lively had made in his two earlier trips to Uganda. Lively’s third visit let him reinforce this narrative in front of a highly influential audience: Uganda’s Parliament.

A Lively debate

Pastor Scott Lively doesn’t travel in mainstream evangelical circles. His Abiding Truth Ministries operates in a room of his Springfield, Massachusetts coffee shop: Holy Grounds Coffee House. He’s an independent operator who’s dedicated his life to spreading his interpretation of the Bible’s truth.

Lively’s view of homosexuals is probably best summed up by the title of one of his books: The Poison Stream: “Gay” Influence in Human History.

Lively is certainly not the only Christian to believe homosexuality is against the will of God. But few Christians endorse Lively’s specific narrative – that homosexuality is responsible for the Holocaust, for example. In Lively’s mind, gay people exist on a spectrum – on one extreme are groups of alpha personalities he calls “super-machos” and “monsters,” groups he spoke about in an address to a crowd in Kampala in 2009:

In 2009, Lively brought his narrative to Uganda’s parliament, knowing they were drafting a bill to “discourage” homosexuality. In an interview, Lively told me he encouraged parliamentarians to give gay people an option of therapy over jail and to encourage marriage to children throughout their education.

“I made my pitch,” he said, “and then they did what they wanted.”

Enforcing the bill

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was shelved shortly after it was proposed. However, the anti-gay fervor that has overtaken Uganda since 2009 is best described as a witch-hunt. A tabloid publicly outed 100 gay Ugandans under the banner “Hang them.” Jeff Ogwaro hid in a hotel for three days after two men, one carrying a gun, showed up in his office looking for him.

“Let me put it this way,” says Ogwaro, “before the bill it’s not to say there was no discrimination or harassment. There was. But the bill – there are people who think that the bill is already a law. There are even people in government enforcing the bill.”

Just this spring, police, under the direction of the Ethics Minister, have shut down LGBTI workshops and NGOs, declaring them illegal. (LGBTI stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex.)

But most critically – civil society has grown far less civil towards homosexuality. Take, for example, Pastor Martin Ssempa, one of Uganda’s most influential religious leaders. In 2010, Current TV filmed this press conference in which Ssempa tells the press how – he thinks – gay men have sex:

In the lawsuit accusing Lively of persecution, Ssempa is listed as one of Lively’s four Ugandan co-conspirators, all of whom declined to be interviewed for this story.

American evangelicals do some soul searching

As Jeff Ogwaro worries about being stoned, and Scott Lively prepares for his day in court, the American Evangelical community is confronted with a decision: Where do you come down on Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill?

This is more than a philosophical debate, according to Warren Throckmorton, a professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Grove City is a Christian school, and Throckmorton is an evangelical. On his blog, Throckmorton has at least 20 posts systematically eviscerating Lively’s claims about homosexuality. Yet since 2009, Throckmorton has watched some American evangelicals ramp up their rhetoric in the wake of the Ugandan bill.

“I don’t think evangelicals here in the U.S. understand,” he says, “that when you encourage [homophobic rhetoric] because of your particular moral view of homosexuality, you’re encouraging a great evil.”

He points to someone like Molotov Mitchell, a video columnist on an ultra-conservative website called World Net Daily, as an example:

On the other hand, Throckmorton says extremists like Molotov have forced mainstream evangelicals to do some serious soul searching.

“I see evangelicals as saying no, [homosexuality] should not be criminalized, and I think we’ve probably mistreated them and let’s stop bullying them,” he says.

Persecution or lies?

Scott Lively hasn’t changed a bit, though. He doesn’t consider himself a bully or a hater. As to the lawsuit against him, he considers it “political theater.”

“I’m not afraid to debate the issue,” he says. “I articulate the truth of scripture.”

Whether that “truth of scripture” will stand up in court is yet to be determined.

I asked Lively what he thought about a specific accusation in the lawsuit, one that’s been leveled against him time and time again: that, whether he intended to or not, his work in Uganda led to the persecution of LGBTI people.

“That’s baloney,” he said. “Homosexuality has been illegal in Uganda for many years. Nothing has changed there except attention from the west. It’s just a lie. They’re just not honest. The activists of the gay movement are the most dishonest people on the planet. When you see this issue reported by the liberal media, it’s always wrong. It’s all filled with misrepresentation and lies. It’s breathtaking.”

Jeff Ogwaro sees things differently. He says Lively’s narrative “spread some kind of paranoia.”

These two Christians – separated by worldviews as far apart as Springfield and Kampala – seem to simply have different ways of defining “persecution.”

“The mere fact that someone is trying to pass a law that will criminalize my whole being,” says Ogwaro, “that is the greatest persecution.”

Links for further reading

Scott Lively’s description of his 2009 trip to Uganda

Journalist Jeff Sharlet’s investigative piece on connections between prominent American and Ugandan evangelicals

Talk2Action, where Rachel Tabachnick is a contributing blogger

Rachel Tabachnick on WHYY’s Fresh Air

The U.S. State Department’s pledge to defend persecuted LGBTI individuals around the world

Warren Throckmorton’s series of posts discrediting Scott Lively’s book, “The Pink Swastika – Homosexuality in the Nazi Party