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How Deep Is the Republican Christian Right's Connection to the Anti-Gay Bills Sweeping Sub-Saharan Africa?

As the horrific "kill-the-gays" bill resurfaces in Uganda, Republican politicians deny connections, but their rhetoric is frighteningly similar.

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All of my sources agree that there are many US groups advocating for the violent persecution of gays and lesbians in Africa. But the problem, as they see it, is that they have learned to operate quietly.

None of the people I talk to envision a top-down conspiracy emanating from US elites. Instead, they believe that a number of Christian groups have begun converging around this same issue in different places on the continent. They may interact casually, but the Family is not bankrolling the New Apostolic Reformation is not bankrolling Americans for Truth Against Homosexuality, and so on.

Still, there are some indications that the groups are becoming savvier organizers. Throckmorton says he thinks the  Foundation for African Heritage, set up to look like an indigenous African organization, is a front backed by right-winger Don Feder’s World Congress of Families.

And Burroway suggests that the connections may run much deeper, and are not necessarily relegated to far-right fringe groups. Throckmorton says that Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa, a major bill supporter, made inroads among many moderate evangelical Christians in the US before the bill to “kill the gays” was born.

He says Ssempa initially promoted Uganda’s “ABC” AIDS prevention plan, which stressed abstinence, being faithful and condoms, “though he really deemphasized the condoms… The other thing [he said] you could do is to curtail ‘homosexual behavior.’”

Moderate American evangelicals like Rick Warren were enamored of his push for abstinence, and generally agreed with his condemnation of homosexuality. Warren, the megachurch pastor who came to national prominence when he was chosen to deliver Obama’s innaugural prayer in 2009, saw no reason to write Ssempa off as an extremist for quite some time.

Like many evangelicals, Ssempa understood homosexuality as a “sin,” but Throckmorton says this wasn’t really “his calling card.” And he certainly didn’t start out calling for death to LGBT people by hanging.

In the beginning, Ssempa told American supporters and colleagues that the bill only penalized people who abused children. Throckmorton says he confronted leaders at Las Vegas’s  Canyon Ridge Christian Church who supported Ssempa. He says he read portions of the bill to them, but they refused to listen. In fact, they insisted on believing Ssempa “until it started to hurt” – that is, until it created public relations problems for the megachurch. That’s what “finally made them read the bill,” he says, and it sunk in that their man “Ssempa was really behind an effort to kill gays.” So, they backed away from the pastor.

Still, Burroway says it’s impossible to know for sure whether or not the support has ended. Without access to financial records, there is no way to be certain. Rick Warren, the Family, Willow Creek and Canyon Ridge megachurches and others have publicly disavowed Ssempa’s ideology. But unless they open their accounts in full, we will never really know where they stand. They don’t do this, largely because they are not legally obliged to divulge specific expenses on their tax forms.

Such evangelicals have tried to stake out a claim to a moderate evangelicalism, and they prefer not to be associated with fundamentalists like  Bryan Fischer, who openly call for gay criminalization even in the United States. It’s the hardcore fundamentalists – representatives of the Family Research Council, World Congress of Families, Liberty Council, New Apostolic Reformation and others – who air their goals in the open. And even they are smart enough not to talk about financial support provided to anti-gay legislators and pastors in sub-Saharan Africa.

Burroway suspects that some of these groups may be funneling money into political campaigns to advance their causes. Contributions to candidates for public office from religious organizations are prohibited in the United States. Citizens who suspect that an organization is violating laws that protect the separation of church and state can file a complaint with the IRS. 

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