Opinion: Rick Warren should denounce Uganda's anti-gay legislation

NEW YORK — As the world celebrates Human Rights Day Thursday, Pastor Rick Warren should make his own contribution to human rights by denouncing Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009.

Although homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, the proposed law calls for the death penalty for people convicted of something called “aggravated homosexuality,” as well as life imprisonment sentences for being gay. If family, friends, teachers or counselors fail to report gay individuals, they too can be imprisoned.

Human rights groups around the world have condemned the bill, so why do we need Rick Warren’s voice on this?

Warren — the evangelical pastor who heads the Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, Calif. — is now one of the most influential figures in African politics. In March 2008, he traveled to Uganda to pronounce it his latest “purpose-driven” nation, saying, “My challenge to business and government leaders is to use their influence for the glory of God and partner with local churches in solving community problems.”

Warren is the author of the bestselling book "The Purpose-Driven Life," which instructs readers to ''abandon your agenda and accept God's agenda.'' Uganda is the second East African country to invite Warren to bring his purpose-driven life training to the entire nation.

The more African nations are declared “purpose-driven,” the more church leaders promote active homophobia and the more laws are proposed criminalizing all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Warren has “purpose-driven” projects in Rwanda, Nigeria and Uganda, the very countries where anti-LGBT laws grow ever more cruel. And Warren’s allies — particularly presidents like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, and Anglican Archbishops Henry Orombi of Uganda, Peter Akinola of Nigeria, Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda and Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya — are in the forefront, advocating for drastic laws against LGBT persons in their countries.

Warren’s relationship with Uganda goes back to the George W. Bush years, when he promoted “abstinence only” as the way to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS in that country. He is among those who influenced Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to reject the use of condoms in the fight against HIV/AIDS. And now, despite what Warren and his supporters say, HIV/AIDS infections are on the rise in Uganda.

Warren’s influence in Uganda extends to anti-gay activities. During his March and April 2008 visit with African religious and political leaders in the region, Warren said, “Homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right.”

That statement has echoed through Africa, and only reinforces the hideous and outrageous statements made by other conservative evangelicals who traveled to Uganda this year and fanned the flames that became the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The Uganda-based Family Life Network’s “Seminar on Exposing the Homosexuals’ Agenda,” held in March, revealed the profound influence of U.S. conservatives on the African continent.

Holocaust revisionist Scott Lively and Dan Schmierer of Exodus International, the anti-homosexuality ministry, told high-profile religious leaders, parliamentarians and concerned parents both at the conference and in other venues that a “gay scourge” is destroying families and harming children, and must be stopped.

Lively is the author of the notorious book, "The Pink Swastika," which blames gays for the Nazi regime. He echoed Warren in claiming that people who espouse “the idea that human rights serves the homosexual interests are absolutely wrong … Many of them are outright liars and they are manipulating history; they are manipulating facts in order to push their [gay] political agenda.”

Under international pressure, even Lively now says the Anti-Homosexuality Bill goes too far — though he still supports criminalizing gays. And other evangelicals, even those at Exodus International, have opposed it.

And while Warren publicly distanced himself from Martin Ssempa, the pastor of Makerere Community Church who is one of the key architects of the persecution of LGBT people in Uganda, Warren’s Saddleback Church continues to have ties with leaders across Africa who have advocated similar penalties against gays.

It is morally imperative that Warren condemn the bill. His refusal to do so raises ethical questions about his goals in Africa. He claims Uganda as a “Purpose-Driven Nation” therefore Warren has an obligation to tell the world whether he approves of what his Ugandan allies are trying to do. And any reticence he might claim about interfering in African politics is rank hypocrisy. During the tribal conflicts that rocked Kenya in 2008, he met with that country’s president and prime minister. If he saw himself as a bridge to healing in Kenya, why should he refuse a similar task in Uganda, where he has even closer relationships with political leaders — including Uganda’s first lady Janet Museveni? Is it because he still believes LGBT persons do not deserve human rights, as he stated last year?

Warren increasingly presents himself as “tolerant” on gay issues in America, but Africans believe he backs their anti-LGBT campaigns. He should understand that the bill is damaging not only to his purpose-driven projects but also to his personal integrity. So, Pastor Rick, what do you say?

Kapya Kaoma is an Anglican priest from Zambia and project director at the think tank Political Research Associates. His new report, "Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia," is available at www.publiceye.org.