The passing of a bill against homosexuality in Uganda shows the enduring power of Christianity to compel evil.
Much as some of us like to look upon the dwindling of the Christian flock with faint amusement and perhaps even a smidgeon of pity, it won’t do to forget that the followers of Jesus Christ still wield great power worldwide. Charity work aside, this power is frequently used in ways that cause immense suffering (and even the charity work is very often missionary work in disguise).
In some ways, the malign influence of Christianity makes the entire planet unsafe—the alliance between US fundamentalists seeking to bring on the Second Coming and Jewish fanatics in Israel and Palestine is just one example, and it nicely demonstrates that the outsize power of America gives its many fundamentalists global reach, too. This is why they have been able to make the already-toxic Israel/Palestine conflict even more intractable. After all, who minds stoking regional tensions and increasing the risk of a nuclear confrontation if it will help to fulfill Biblical prophecy and bring Jesus back?
Last Tuesday, another sign that Christianity is unfortunately all too alive and well came from Uganda, where the parliament passed a bill criminalizing homosexuality and conflating it with pedophilia (the president still has to sign the bill, and he seems supportive of it, so it is likely to become law). This bill also imposes extraordinarily harsh sentences, including the death penalty, for homosexual acts. Merely identifying as gay is a crime under it—I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say this approaches the totalitarian. As the bill passed, legislators gleefully cheered and sung as if to congratulate themselves on their vile bigotry. Such mirth in hatred might be all too human but it is also a deep betrayal of humanity—and it is always a nauseating, and angering, spectacle to behold.
And yes, of course, the long arm of American fundamentalism is once more detectable in this absurdity and nastiness. In 2020, openDemocacy reported that since 2007, Christian fanatics from the US have spent around $54 million on promoting their hidebound ideology in Africa—over $20 million (between 2008 and 2018) in Uganda alone. Uganda was a fertile field for these bigots to till, being already a conservative and mainly Christian country.
Similar laws have been proposed in Uganda since 2009, and bigotry against gays has become more pronounced since then, too. That this coincides with the period of fundamentalist investment is no accident. In 2014, the Ugandan gay rights activist Frank Mugisha blamed the American pastor Scott Lively, who came to spread the word to Ugandans in 2009, for introducing anti-gay bigotry into Uganda. As Mugisha told The Independent:
[The idea] of a gay agenda, of recruiting people to homosexuality – that language wasn’t used in Uganda pre-2009. He made my work very difficult and was conspiring with my legislators, but [to Ugandans] he was like God himself. People were worshipping him as if he was from heaven.
Related: Scott Lively and Ruining Uganda
And now gay people in Uganda must reap what American Christian fanatics have sown. What an achievement for bigotry and reaction and hatred. What a victory for Christian fundamentalism. And it’s yet another reminder that, even as the decline of Christianity continues, the power of Christ can still compel human beings into the basest vileness and stupidity. Hallelujah.
(I should say that acknowledging the role of American fanatics in what has happened in Uganda is not at all to make excuses for Ugandan fanatics. After all, the architects of this bill weren’t forced to be bigots. So, colonial-era criminal codes and US influence aside, the ultimate blame lies with those in Uganda who chose this path. But equally, to note the great and terrible influence of American fundamentalism in Uganda is not “blame shifting”, as Iona Italia put it. In any case, the enduring and malign power of Christianity is the root cause of this evil.)
We all know what American Christianity has done to America itself of late—helped to elect and shore up support for the most vulgar and dangerous man to ever hold the office of president, Donald Trump. Christian nationalists were heavily involved in the January 6 coup attempt. And don’t forget that a slew of anti-LGBTQ bills are being introduced across the US as I write these very words (at least American Christian fundamentalists practise what they preach to others). Looking a little further back, Christianity was the core of the creationist/Intelligent Design movement, which tried its very best to inculcate American children with superstitious rubbish. Going even deeper into history, we find pietist Protestants banning alcohol, sharia-style, and the Bible acting as the bulwark of the case for slavery. And so on and so forth.
Related: Christian nationalism and the insurrection
But there is another great American tradition—the tradition of Paine and Jefferson and Madison and Douglass and Ingersoll and many others, by which I mean the American tradition of humanism and secularism and Enlightenment. (For a fuller exploration of this tradition in the context of the American founding, I recommend Mathew Stewart’s excellent book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.)
The figures in that tradition were imperfect and often hypocritical, but the ideals they embody transcend their human flaws. And yes, of course, Christianity in America had and has its better side, too. This America, the America of the Enlightenment, the America committed to human rights, is the one that must be fought for (and I speak as a non-American with great admiration for the US). And this America is the one that should be shared with the world. Instead, America has all too often chosen to uphold and export the worst of itself, and both America and the world are suffering for it. If only the immense power of America was more often used to champion the better angels of its nature, gay people in Uganda might not be facing such a hideous assault right now.
In short, those of us who value secularism and humanism ought not to be complacent about Christianity. In its senescence, or senility if you prefer, it is as dangerous as ever. And American fundamentalists are among the most dangerous of all the followers of Christ. The disgusting bill that has just passed in Uganda is a chilling reminder of these facts. It should also harden the resolve of freethinkers worldwide, American ones in particular, to recognize—and relentlessly combat—the barbarism that Christianity is still very well capable of unleashing upon the world.