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Opinion: A globalization of the culture wars

Religious groups should lead the way of civil discourse and tolerance in gay rights debates.

(Photo by Reuters)

BOSTON — As globalization proceeds at warp speed, the various world religions are also becoming more global by the day. Pagodas rise in Los Angeles and minarets in Detroit. The majority of the world’s Christians now live outside Europe and the United States. But as this happens, the American culture war is also becoming a worldwide conflict.

On the one hand, religion can stir compassion and generosity, but it can also spark hatred and division. One area in which the divisive element becomes particularly ugly involves the violations of the human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Last year, for example, a group of American evangelicals flew to Uganda to preach fiery sermons against gays. Their message was that the “gay agenda” aims to abolish traditional marriage and institute a global regime of sexual permissiveness. This rhetoric contributed to the drafting of a draconian law decreeing that anyone convicted of having gay sex will be subject to the minimum punishment of life imprisonment.

If the accused is HIV positive, or a “person of authority” over the other partner, or if the “victim” is under 18, a conviction will result in the death penalty. It also mandates three years imprisonment for anyone who fails to report within 24 hours someone perceived to be gay or lesbian, or who supports the human rights of such persons. Any Ugandan breaking the new law abroad will be subject to extradition requests.

(To hear from the gay community in Uganda, watch this video.)

Uganda is not alone. Two-thirds of African countries now outlaw consensual same-sex acts, and even those without such laws often fail to protect their citizens. Recently a South African black lesbian was gang raped and stabbed to death, while nine Senegalese men who worked in HIV prevention were sentenced to eight years in prison for “engaging in acts against the order of nature.” There can be little doubt that this alarming trend in Africa is due in part to European and American missionary activity and to the growth of Muslim radicalism there.

The Ugandan MP who sponsored the bill, David Bahati, calls himself a born again Christian. He is said to belong to an international religious organization known as “The Family” that includes high government officials and NGO executives from a number of countries. One of its activities is sponsoring national “prayer breakfasts,” here and abroad. Its adherents are overwhelmingly conservative politically, but the group also enlists other high profile figures in its public events. Tony Blair was the most recent American prayer breakfast speaker. The group obviously has a global reach.

The role of religious movements in anti-gay activities is why it came as good news that last week the leaders of 46 American religious organizations sent a letter to every member of Congress. The signers included Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups. In the letter they decried the “alarming increase in human rights violations targeting sexual orientation and gender identity, including, most recently, the anti-homosexuality legislation now under debate in Uganda.”

The letter was also sent to President Barack Obama and to President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. The evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren, who pronounced the invocation at Obama’s inauguration, phoned the Ugandan president to urge him to oppose the legislation. Welcome news, yes, and some people might well respond to it with “well, it’s about time.” But what all this suggests is that the religiously inspired culture war that has wreaked such havoc in America is spreading. It could wreak havoc internationally.