Opinion: A globalization of the culture wars

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.

How should religiously inclined people who are committed to justice approach this gathering storm? First, clearly religion is not the only source of anti-gay attitudes. Gay pride marches were banned in Jerusalem, but they were also banned in China, hardly a hot bed of piety.

Americans should learn from our own excesses that it is important to preserve civil discourse wherever possible. And we should be careful not to overlook the importance of genuine cultural differences. For example, we should not confuse a pressing concern for human rights with the vexed dispute over the effectiveness of condoms.

Pope Benedict was widely condemned when he suggested that abstinence — not condoms — is the answer to fighting the spread of AIDS in Africa. And yet the pope's view appears to be supported in a recent book authored by Dr. Edward Green of the Center for Population and Development Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. The book, "Rethinking AIDS Prevention: Learning from Successes in Developing Countries," documents how approaches that promote abstinence in countries, such as Uganda, have had a more significant effect in lowering the rates of AIDS than many countries where condom use is promoted. This argument is also supported by Martin Ssempa, a prominent Ugandan AIDS activist, who has gone further to suggest that pharmaceutical giants have promoted condoms in Africa to increase their profits.

The jury is still out on this global dispute, but it suggests that religious groups approach this issue with a mixture of delicacy and firmness. They must speak out clearly against an atmosphere of hate and hostility toward gays, while at the same time avoiding taking a religiously endorsed position on which AIDS prevention programs are actually more effective. This is a matter to be settled by medical science, not by theology or ideology.

Still, Pope Benedict XVI missed his opportunity to balance these two points in a recent welcoming letter to the Ugandan ambassador to the Holy See, Francis K. Butagira. Even though the Vatican’s legal attache, Rev. Philip Bene has gone on record saying that the proposed Ugandan bill would institute “unjust discrimination,” the pope himself merely thanked the ambassador for the welcome his government has extended to the Catholic Church in matters of education and health care. He did not mention the noxious bill. He should have.

In addition to speaking out, religious groups would do well to set an example. The recent decision of Rev. M. Thomas Shaw III, the Episcopal bishop of eastern Massachusetts to authorize priests in that diocese to solemnize marriages of “all eligible couples,” regardless of gender represents an important advance. “Christian marriage,” he wrote, “is a sacramental rite that has evolved in the church." He added that marriage must be open to all as a means of grace, and that all marriages, regardless of the gender of the parties, must be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, and the “holy love which enables spouses to see in one another the image of God.”

Bishop Shaw’s courageous action will do little to cool the simmering tensions between American and African Anglicans. Still, he did the right thing. And his decision points to what may be a distant, but not unattainable future, one in which the cultural warriors might see that encouraging gay marriages, rather than condemning them, might do more to nurture “family values,” reduce promiscuity and combat sexually transmitted diseases than anti-gay crusades.

At the moment this idea amounts mainly to a hope. I do not expect Pope Benedict or the majority of American evangelicals to embrace it tomorrow. But it is not just an idle hope. It could one day become a reality.

Harvey Cox, author of "The Future of Faith," is Hollis Research Professor of Divinity, Harvard University.