President Barack Obama didn't mince words last week during his visit to Kenya. “The state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation. I’m unequivocal on this,” the president said at a joint press conference with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Obama’s statement was pretty bold, especially for a man who needed four years in office, and a second bid at the gig, to come out publicly in support of marriage equality in his own country. But while the Obama administration has become the new champion of international gay rights, a very different kind of American export is having a more profound and deeply detrimental effect. If Obama really wants to make a difference abroad, he should look a little closer to home.
The president has spent a couple of high-profile days in Africa. But, as researcher Kapya Kaoma points out, powerful, rich Christian groups have spent years cultivating exactly the kind of sentiment that the president is opposing. Kaoma is an Anglican priest from Zambia who now lives and works in the United States. Since 2008, he’s been researching, as he puts it, “how American right-wing evangelical groups have unceasingly attacked and undermined LGBTQI rights and reproductive justice in the name of Christianity.”
The evidence is widespread. Most well-publicized is the case of Uganda, where American megachurches like the International House of Prayer have spent millions cultivating huge followings and pushing an explicitly anti-gay agenda. This is coupled with the influence of charismatic church leaders like Scott Lively: According to filmmaker Roger Ross Williams (who tells much of this story in his incredible documentary God Loves Uganda), Lively was allowed to “address the [Ugandan] parliament for five hours, and his hate-filled message led directly to the anti-homosexuality bill.” Remember that bill? The one that, before it was toned down, would have imposed the death penalty on queers? Yeah, that one.
In South Sudan, the story is pretty similar. There, the American Centre for Law and Justice did their best to get homophobia written into the fledgling country’s constitution. In 2011, they met with South Sudan’s president before the country was officially independent to discuss “a full rewrite of South Sudan’s constitution.”
In Kenya, the ACLJ has been actively campaigning against gay rights for years. According to Mother Jones, “[in 2010] ACLJ's African offices went to work ensuring that constitutional reforms in Zimbabwe and Kenya enshrined Christian positions such as outlawing abortion and homosexuality.” Although they didn't succeed in permanently etching homophobia into the Kenyan constitution, the ACLJ promised to “carry out further civic education to warn people of the dangers of homosexuality and abortion in Kenya.” Apparently it’s working—a 2013 Pew study found that 90 percent of Kenyans thought homosexuality shouldn’t be accepted by society. Little wonder that President Kenyatta wasn’t having it regarding Obama’s statement: In Kenya, he said, “gay rights is really a non-issue.”
(And if you had any doubt about how powerful the ACLJ is, Jeb Bush recently appointed its founder and head homophobe, Jordan Sekulow, as his “liaison” with religious conservatives. Ready for 2016 yet?)
Unfortunately, this evangelical colonialism is not just a problem in Africa. American Christian groups are more ambitious globetrotters than Carmen Sandiego. The Alliance Defending Freedom is another multi-million-dollar Christian group that's been behind almost every religious freedom bill and marriage equality ban nationwide. Thwarted at home, the ADF has gone south: A recent report from Political Research Associates describes how the ADF has developed “a keen interest in Latin America,” supporting conservative and often homophobic legal action from Costa Rica to Chile.
These right-wing zealots have realized that they’ve lost the war stateside. So instead of waving the white flag, groups like the ADF and ACLJ have taken their agenda elsewhere, to countries where their values are easy to sell—especially when packaged with millions of dollars in development aid. To countries from Russia to Zimbabwe where they can support corrupt leaders in making scapegoats of queers and other minorities in order to distract from the dirty politics going on behind closed doors.
This week, Uganda will be celebrating Pride. Last year, the parade had a special significance because the "Kill the Gays" bill, which American evangelicals helped enact, had just been struck down. This year, the parade promises to be bigger than ever. But still, the event is also a reminder of the long, hard struggle activists have faced against the power of American evangelism.
So while I applaud President Obama’s words in Kenya, frankly it’s not enough. If the president is truly committed to spreading ideals of equality and freedom worldwide, he needs to look a little deeper at what’s going on in his own backyard. As fraught as the debate over religious liberty might be, these groups need to be stopped from exporting home-grown homophobia to everywhere from Kingston, Jamaica, to Kampala, Uganda. We need to close the loopholes that let them raise millions of tax-free dollars to influence leaders and legislators. And we need to do it now, before another law appears that would see gays sent to the gallows.