From Uganda to Florida: An Introduction to the Christian Right’s Facism Through LGBTQ+ Scapegoating
Edited to add 5/30/23: Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, has signed the bill into law. Please read on for how such a thing came to be.
On Tuesday, March 21st, 2023, all but 2 members of Uganda’s 389-member parliament voted to pass a bill making homosexual acts (sexual activities as well as “recruitment, promotion, and funding” of such “activities,” whatever that means) punishable by death, including the death penalty and life imprisonment. In a video from the parliamentary session, one MP stated this bill is “to make sure homosexuals have no space in Uganda.”
The bill now goes to President Yoweri Museveni, who can veto the bill or sign it into law. In a 2016 CNN interview, Musevini called homosexuals “disgusting,” and nearly a week ago, he referred to homosexuality as a “deviation from normal” behavior. The United Nations and Amnesty International have urged Musevini, who has led Uganda since 1986, to veto the bill, but he is expected to sign it.
Homophobia in Africa
It has long been understood that homophobia in Africa is largely a colonialist import to the continent. In June 2020, a Botswanan judge, Michael Leburu, overturned ‘colonial-era’ laws that criminalized homosexuality. Writing for Stonewall, a pro-LGBTQ+ charity in the UK, Leah Buckle reports Judge Leburu’s words: “the anti-sodomy laws are a British import,” developed “without the consultation of local peoples.”
It’s important to remember that Christianity, itself, is not totally an import to Africa. The Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church was officially founded in 328 AD, but many believe it started in the early years following the death of Christ, as told through the Acts 8 story describing the Ethiopian Eunuch in the Christian New Testament. It is, factually, one of the few sub-Saharan African churches that existed prior to European colonization. However, it is difficult to know if Ethiopia’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws would be what they are today without colonialist influence on the country’s religion and politics. Outside of Ethiopia, Christianity was largely a colonial effort in sub-Saharan Africa.
Beyond the impact of British colonialism, which you can explore further in Buckle’s article, US evangelicals have reinforced homophobia in countries across the continent. In 2020, OpenDemocracy investigated the impact US evangelical groups have had on Africa. Between 2007 and 2020, more than 20 Christian groups working on legislation targeting LGBTQ+ people, abortion, sex education, and contraceptives, had spent at least $54m on the continent. Twenty-eight groups have spent more than $280m across the globe, impacting public opinion and policy on sexual and reproductive rights.
Sylvia Rosila Tamale was the first woman to serve as dean in the Law Faculty at Makerere University in Uganda. She is a feminist and human rights activist, and I encourage you to read her thoughts from 2014 on the introduction of homophobia to Africa. “It is legalized homophobia, not same-sex relations, that is alien to Africa.”
If the Ugandan bill sounds familiar, that’s because in 2009, a similar bill was being considered in the country. An anti-homosexuality bill did pass in 2014, without the death penalty. It might also sound familiar, because over the last decade, discussion about Chick-fil-A’s financial contributions to groups pushing these anti-LGBTQ+ laws became a hot topic.
The WinShape Foundation, which is closely related to Chick-Fil-A and shares a founder in late Truett Cathy, has funded the National Christian Foundation. That foundation has then funded anti-LGBTQ+ rights projects in Uganda. While this analysis from Snopes is out of date in regard to the death penalty provision, it does illustrate the complexity of corporate and foundational giving. While WinShape/Chick-fil-A has not given to NCF in over a decade, they did fund the organization between 2008–2011 when these bills were written and had their first modern conception. NCF has, in recent years, funded anti-Equality Act efforts in the United States.
Larger Evangelical Influence
Between 2008 and 2018, The Fellowship Foundation sent $20m to Uganda. The secretive Christian group’s Ugandan associate David Bahati wrote the 2009 legislation known colloquially as the “Kill the Gays” bill. Readers might recognize The Fellowship by another name, “The Family.”
In August 2019, Netflix debuted a series entitled The Family, based on Jeff Sharlet’s book by the same name. Sharlet is a journalist and former ‘member’ of The Family, which he says “believes in defending political power at any cost.” They believe powerful men are chosen to lead with unwavering support, and they work to introduce those men to Jesus and influence their leadership across the world. Bahati’s character appears in episode 4 with a storyline illustrating the “kill the gays” bill’s conception. Bahati cites many well-known Republican politicians, darlings of the evangelical Right, with whom he has connected through The Family. When they started to receive political pushback, those same leaders abandoned Bahati with the bill they helped orchestrate.
The Family is also known as The Fellowship, The Fellowship Foundation, and the International Foundation. Up until 2023, this group was the host of the National Prayer Breakfast, wherein the power of the Family was demonstrated for 3500 guests including members of Congress and international leaders. As of 2023, Congress has taken over as host of the event under the moniker, the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation..
The influence of white, western evangelicalism has been so successful that some African leaders are willing to work with known white supremacist groups. At least ten of the twenty U.S. organizations active in Africa are members of the World Congress of Families, which has outwardly denigrated Africans and, yet, hosted the African family and sustainability summit. According to Ugandan, pan-African feminist, Jessica Horn, this is because these leaders believe they align as conservatives in addition to the possibility of financial gain: “Lots of clergy [in Africa] are willing to partner with them, partly because they share conservative views, but also because they’re being opportunistic about the money.”
Money from the US and the Christian Right have a long, tragic history in Africa. Consider President Bush’s 2005 “President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), in which two-thirds of the funding went to fund issues supported by these far Right groups, such as abstinence. Two-thirds was approximately $1.4b, and there is no evidence to support it helped with AIDS interventions — abstinence education is scientifically ineffective — and some of that funding went directly to support anti-LGBTQ+ leadership
Back to the United States
As these Christian organizations continue to build and wield power on the continent of Africa, their influence is being felt in Europe and the United States (see chart and map at the bottom of the article) in the dramatic, recent uptick in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and cultural scapegoating.
Organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Heritage Foundation, and others are hard at work limiting the rights to abortion, contraception, and for LGBTQ+ people to live peacefully. Their reach goes further than we can comprehend at this time. Consider the fact that the Heritage Foundation has partnered with “radical feminists” to further marginalize transgender people, despite the Heritage Foundation’s use of money and power to influence other anti-feminist causes.
Mother Jones obtained a “trove” of emails illuminating the anti-trans network of organizations and politicians, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, that has worked to push this dangerous, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Ultimately, we know this isn’t just about LGBTQ+ people or abortion. This is about the effort to uphold Christian nationalism, white supremacy, and global power. LGBTQ+ people are just an easy scapegoat, a group easily made into a religious problem so that devout people must join in the effort. And for groups like the radical feminists, for which the religious argument might not work? Trans people are a threat to women and womanhood. This dangerous movement will grow by attempting to turn every movement against LGBTQ+ — especially transgender — people, until it’s just trans people, standing alone and facing the wolves. CPAC 2023 was a prime example. When they are done with transgender people, they will chip off every group they don’t like to be the new scapegoat. It’s international fascism, and it brings to mind the famous words of German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller.
With all this backchannel networking, underground dark money and power, and use of religion to influence, it feels like those of us who fight for LGBTQ+ rights and social justice causes are up against a powerful army who has been preparing for this moment for a long time. They are well-funded, well-connected, and clearly powerful. Still, we can not allow them to scare us away from the fight. Whether they like it or not, they are the minority, and if the rest of us join together our knowledge, resources, and collective power for the purpose of shared liberation, and if we refuse to surrender any part of our whole, we can win. We will win.