God Loves Uganda Reveals How American Evangelicals Infected a Country

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
May 23 2014 10:30 AM

How American Evangelicals Infected Uganda

godlovesugandaposterlrsmall
Who's recruiting whom?

Detail from film poster.

For documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, Uganda is a country afflicted. But HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, and other physical ailments are not what concern Williams the most; for him, the true epidemic threatening this land and its people is far more insidious—a plague of the spirit. “I love Uganda,” intones a weary, accented voice at the opening of God Loves Uganda, which was broadcast earlier this week on PBS and is now available on iTunes and Netflix. “It’s a very loving country, a caring country. But, something frightening is happening that has the potential to destroy Uganda … and it is coming from the outside.” As images of white hands being fervently laid on dark-skinned children flash across the screen, the outside threat becomes clear: ultra-conservative American evangelicalism.

If you’ve followed the story of Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” law over the past few years, you’re probably aware that prominent American evangelicals like Scott Lively and Lou Engle have been harshly criticized for their role in introducing a strain of zealous social conservatism—including an especially vicious condemnation of homosexuality—to Africa. But media reports of this phenomenon have been mere hints compared to the dense epidemiological survey that God Loves Uganda represents. Williams’ vision of the relationship between American missionary groups—like the Kansas City-based International House of Prayer that he profiles here—and the Ugandan government and culture is one of contagion, infection. Early in the film, an animated map of the globe shows salvation spreading like a plague across the world. A little later, a young woman on her first mission trip to the country describes her goal as one of virality:

One of my greatest hopes is to deposit what I’ve kind of received at IHOP, that DNA of prayer and worship. DNA replicates itself, and so I think that everybody wants to replicate their values and the core parts of who they are.
Advertisement

And as Williams shows, the evangelical movement’s vector-teams have been successful—images of spirit-struck white people wailing and “rapid-fire” praying for Africa in Missouri transform into scenes of wild-eyed Ugandan ministers screaming at strangers in a traffic jam, of white-walled rooms full of people jumping and flailing and lifting chairs in the air, of sweat-drenched Africans speaking in tongues. Williams has created a zombie movie, only the dreaded mutation is one of hateful Christian ideology rather than cells: Call it “World War C.”

Tracing the origins of this epidemic prove upsettingly simple. “The West has been in a decline,” Lou Engle, founder of prayer rally program “The Call,” explains in the gruff, breathy, slightly crazed tone that a certain kind of minister uses to convey his fervor. “But right now I think that Africa, it’s the firepot of spiritual renewal and revival. It’s very exciting to me.” America is becoming increasingly resistant to his bigoted version of Christianity; time to find greener pastures elsewhere. And as another missionary explains, Uganda is the perfect place: “50 percent of the population is under 15 years old. … What [we] can do is limited, but we can multiply ourselves in these young people.” Add that to the strategy of tying aid and charity work to values exportation in order to ensure a captive audience, and it’s easy to see why many Ugandans so readily accept the evangelical message.

Well, that and the fact that Lively and his ilk have done a great job convincing Ugandan parents that homosexuals are out to get their children. This “recruiting” notion is as old as time and should have been discredited by now, but it seems to work particularly well in a culture that has not had much experience with sexual minorities. Of course, the irony is that it’s the radical evangelicals who are doing the recruiting here, literally whispering their lifestyle into the ears of kids—as a poignant scene at the funeral of slain activist David Kato shows, actual LGBTQ people are struggling just to stay alive.

God may love Uganda, but many of Uganda’s people have forgotten—with the eager help of Americans—how to love their brothers and sisters. Williams’ film has provided a bracing diagnosis of the problem, but fixing it seems daunting: To my knowledge, medicine has yet to produce a vaccine against hate.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
  Life
The Vault
Sept. 16 2014 12:15 PM “Human Life Is Frightfully Cheap”: A 1900 Petition to Make Lynching a Federal Offense
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 8:41 PM You’re Cut, Adrian Peterson Why fantasy football owners should release the Minnesota Vikings star.