By Jeff Sharlet
The reverence with which so many upper-middle class Americans read The Economist has always puzzled me. There’s much to admire about the magazine, but it generally performs the same function as Newsweek, boiling down events into centrist conventional wisdom, facts be damned. A report in the July 3, 2010 issue, “The religious right in east Africa: Slain by the spirit,” is a case in point. I’ve been reporting on the religious right anti-gay movement in Uganda from here in the U.S. and from Kampala for nine months now, so I’m in a good position to see The Economist’s strange moves; I wonder what I’d make of the article that follows it, on Somaliand’s elections, if I were as informed on that story. But one needn’t have expertise to debunk The Economist’s report; a Google search would do it, especially if you landed, as you likely would, on the well-documented blogs of gay activist Jim Burroway or evangelical scholar Warren Throckmorton.
The biggest error is The Economist’s declaration that the bill no longer calls for the death penalty. That’s propaganda put out by the bill’s defenders. In fact, as I learned by asking the bill’s author, Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati, it does. (I’ll be publishing those interviews in my forthcoming book, C Street.) Bahati acknowledges that the death penalty may drop out of the final version. But it hasn’t yet, and it’s dangerous for The Economist to say as much.
Just as dangerous — and puzzling — is The Economist’s contention that “support for the anti-homosexuality bill in the Ugandan parliament has fallen away after Mr. Ssempa and other preachers accused a rival Pentecostal, Robert Kayanja, of sodomy.” Does a plummy accent excuse Economist writers from fact checking? Ssempa and “other preachers” — most notably Rev. Michael Kyazze and Rev. Moses Solomon Male, both of whom I interviewed at length — accused Kayanja of sodomy months before the bill was introduced. Indeed, it was those accusations, and banner headline articles such as “Kayanja Reveals His Homo Secrets” in the April 29, 2009 edition of the wildly popular Red Pepper tabloid that helped drive popular support for the bill. I haven’t been in Kampala since May 2010, but when I was there I did not meet a single person who wasn’t gay who didn’t support some variation of the bill.
What’s holding it back is international pressure, not the assertion of The Economist’s imaginary centrist norms. And that’s a more complicated story, since the international pressure does take an awfully pushy form — Germany’s offer of $148 million, for instance, if Uganda promises to shelve the bill, Sweden’s threat of an end to aid if Uganda doesn’t. And then there are the folks I write about in C Street, the American “followers of Jesus” who empowered the bill’s author, Bahati, in the first place. The passage of the bill would be a disaster for them, since they’re so intimately linked to it (Bahati is the secretary of the Ugandan branch of the organization, and its other chief backer in government, ethics minister James Nsaba Buturo, is chairman). Some of them them, such as Senator Jim Inhofe and Senator Tom Coburn, both of Oklahoma, have been preaching the anti-gay gospel for so long and with such venom that it’s hard to take their disavowals seriously. Others, such as activist Bob Hunter, seem genuinely horrified by the bill. They’ve been putting quiet pressure on the Ugandan government, “behind-the-scenes,” as Hunter describes his work.
If such pressure can prevent the genocide that’s been proposed in Uganda — the bill’s backers describe it as a first step toward the eradication of homosexuality altogether — I think it’s justified. But democratic? Not exactly. Of course, it’s in response to the anti-democratic style that has long defined American and European relations with postcolonial Africa, the purchase of policies amenable to the West with foreign aid, with few questions about who actually benefits from those funds. Usually, those policies have to do with the extraction of resources, the location of military bases, or “coalitions” (the terrible bombing that just killed 74 in Kampala was in response to Uganda’s role as a proxy force for the U.S. in Somalia and its troops in Iraq). Sometimes, it has to do with what in the West are called “social issues,” i.e., basic public health, such as the pressure put on Uganda by American politicians to de-emphasize condoms as a response to HIV. This time, the pressure is on over a bill that is murderous — in the service of a homophobia that all sides in this debate admit didn’t exist in Uganda before America’s exportation of its culture wars.
The Economist finds that hard to believe, sniffing disapprovingly at the tacky Pentecostals it can’t quite believe have replaced the old British empire. “The influence of the American Christian Right is often overstated,” it declares (true, but it’s still enormous).”Then there is the question of class… The cabal of civil servants, soldiers and businessmen who dominate the golf and social clubs of Nairobi and Kampala… are mostly Anglican and Roman Catholic and are unlikely to be be swayed by the casting out of demons.” There is indeed a class issue, but it’s not as simple as that. The bill’s main backers, Bahati and Buturo, are Anglican, and their extremely anti-gay pastor is Archbishop Luke Orombi, linked to Falls Church Episcopal, one of the upper crustiest churches in America. Bahati and Buturo (both elites in every sense) both told me they believe in demons and connect them to homosexuality. If that doesn’t square with the Church of England familiar to Economist writers, perhaps they’d better do some more reporting before they declare that all is essentially well with the good men of golf clubs in charge.
CORRECTION: Jeff Sharlet writes:
In “The Economist’s Strange Moves,” I made a clumsy move, myself, identifying Falls Church (Anglican) as an Episcopal congregation. It was, when I visited in 2002. But my friend the Rev. Michael Pipkin, Priest-in-Charge of the current Falls Church (Episcopal), writes:
“three and a half years ago The Falls Church abandoned The Episcopal Church, attaching themselves to theAnglican Church of Nigeria over issues of Biblical Authority and Sexuality… in the process, they kicked out several of their members who wished to remain Episcopalian, and thus my congregation, The Falls Church (Episcopal) continued on in exile (worshipping across the street in a Presbyterian Church, waiting for a major property dispute to settle). They are currently referring to themselves (somewhat inaccurately) as The Falls Church (Anglican), though the Archbishop of Canterbury and other “Anglican” groups have not recognized them.”
I recognize the irony of my mistake in a piece taking The Economist to task for its lack of fact checking. Sorry, Falls Churches. But the two main points stand unaltered: 1. The Economist’s suggestion that Anglicans don’t engage in spiritual war as culture war is absurd; 2. I was just writing a quickie blog post; The Economist is a major international magazine, and should have gotten it right the first time.
Ok, now I’ve made my correction. How about yours, Economist?
Jeff Sharlet is founder and former editor of The Revealer. He is the author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, 2008), a national bestseller, and the forthcoming C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. In 2010, he joined the English Department of Dartmouth College.
This article is cross-posted at Warren Throckmorton’s website.