Timothy Shah’s Ugandan conspiracy

I am posting on Timothy Shah’s Christianity Today article about Uganda as I have time. Rather than posting one long response, my schedule has been friendly to shorter efforts.

In this one, I want to point out that Mr. Shah makes some assessments of David Bahati that are not based on contact or interview with Mr. Bahati. Shah writes:

Some American groups have thus made a crusade of opposing the anti-gay bill in Uganda largely because of the mistaken belief that American evangelical groups have made a crusade of advancing it. In fact, its origins have far more to do with the idiosyncratic insecurities of David Bahati. Mr. Bahati and some of his fellow Anglicans feel themselves under enormous pressure to demonstrate their moral and spiritual traditionalism. Increasing competition from Islam and conservative Pentecostals throughout sub-Saharan Africa makes Anglicans’ associations with liberals in the West suspect. Still, the theory of the bill’s American inspiration is a useful device that enables advocates of gay rights to attack homophobia in Uganda without appearing insensitive to Ugandans or Africans.

Mr. Shah seems intent on dismissing any American evangelical influence on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and David Bahati. Instead, Shah has his own theory – “idiosyncratic insecurities of David Bahati.” Such an assessment would normally require reporting, interviewing and evidence. Not so, here. For instance, David Bahati told me late yesterday that he has not spoken to Shah. Without interviewing Bahati or citing evidence for his claims of “idiosyncratic insecurities,” we are left with Mr. Shah’s theory about religious competition among Anglicans, Pentecostals and Islam.

In fact, Bahati denies direct American influece while at the same time, disclosing secret American support for his effort. I don’t believe Americans wrote the bill, but it is surely true that there are prominent American evagelicals (e.g., Lou Engle, Molotov Mitchell, Cliff Kincaid) who have supported the effort.

Shah’s unfamiliarity with Bahati and the facts surrounding the bill lead him to a faulty narrative – one which has opposition coming only from the left and gay activists because of the black eye it gives to evangelicals. However, in fact, the real story here is the civil war among evangelicals over the bill’s intent and provisions. American Christians and gay rights advocates have found common ground in support for personal freedom of conscience, and opposition to state sanctioned imposition of religious dogma on citizens. One does not need to religiously affirm homosexual behavior to vigorously oppose this bill.

Shah’s lack of knowledge of the situation in Uganda is also revealed in the events of this week. Shah said that Ugandan religious and political leaders were repelled by the bill and that the bill had been stopped in its tracks. However, just in the past couple of days, we now hear from Parliament leaders that the AHB could be debated as early as next week. While op-eds are not hard news, they should be based in fact. Shah’s op-ed fails both as a faithful witness and informed opinion. CT should pull it yesterday.

UPDATE: Here is another Ugandan article reporting that the AHB will be debated during the short session beginning Tuesday.

Other posts on this topic:

Christianity Today author misleads on Uganda – March 15, 2011

Has Uganda’s antigay bill been stopped by Ugandan opposition? – March 16, 2011

Christianity Today’s website contradicts Timothy Shah’s CT conspiracy article – March 17, 2011

Christianity Today’s website contradicts Timothy Shah’s CT conspiracy article

Since October, 2009, there have been a number of flawed articles about Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, but none more flawed than the one currently up on the website of Christianity Today, by Timothy Shah. I have written here and here to demonstrate just a few of the problems, but I want to address some of them again with more information.

First, in reference again to this Shah authored statement:

But the legislation has received widespread attention not primarily because of its draconian provisions, whose very harshness has repelled virtually all of Uganda’s major political and religious leaders—including the President, the Catholic Bishops Conference, and a parliamentary committee that recommended the bill be thrown out as unconstitutional, effectively stopping it in its tracks. Instead, a major reason for the attention focused on the bill is that many believe it is the fruit of American evangelical homophobia.

I asked to write a rebuttal but CT declined. About an hour ago, I posted this comment:

I encourage readers of Timothy Shah’s article to read the articles provided by Christianity Today on page three. Although incomplete, these articles accurately contradict several of the claims made by Shah. For instance, Shah says that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill repelled “virtually all of Uganda’s major political and religious leaders…” However, on CT’s website, Ugandan Bishop David Zac Niringiye told Sarah Pulliam Bailey:

How are Ugandan Christians generally responding to this legislation?

This is not just a Christian response. I can certainly say the objectives of the bill have the total support of most of Uganda, not just Christians, but also Muslims and Roman Catholics. It would not be right to talk about how Christians feel. They’re all agreed on the objectives. There will be a difference of opinion on the details of the bill. Space does not permit a detailed fact-based rebuttal which is why CT should allow one.

Bishop Niringiye’s response is linked after the Shah article and can be read here. He adds as if to make the point clear (but not clear enough for Timothy Shah):

Bailey: Do you know how Christians are responding to the penalties in this bill?

Niringiye: The point I’m making is that Christians in the country, including other people in the culture, really support the objectives of the bill. When it comes to the issue of the death penalty, there is as much debate over the death penalty as there are different Christian persuasions. The discussion on the death penalty [in this bill] needs to be separated from, Is the death penalty [ever] an acceptable sentence? I am sure there are American Christians or others in the world who will say the death penalty is an acceptable sentence. There will be Christians in Uganda who will say the death penalty is an acceptable sentence. There will be Christians in Uganda who will say no, the death penalty is not an acceptable sentence for any offense.

The CT website also has articles which demonstrate the division among American Christians over the issues raised by the AHB. For instance, this one by Sarah Pulliam Bailey notes that American Christians were troubled by the bill and took various positions on criminalization. Shah reduces the narrative to a left versus Christian conflict, ignoring the opposition among Christians around the world to what most Ugandan leaders were supporting in the name of Jesus.

Shah completely ignores that David Bahati told the media that he did indeed have evangelical supporters in the US. He declined to name them but I named a few here. Moreover, Lou Engle went to Uganda in May, 2010 and told the Ugandans alongside religious and political leaders that Uganda was “ground zero” in the culture war. He later acknowledged favoring the criminalization of homosexuality. Bahati, Nsaba Buturo and Julius Oyet all felt supported by Engle’s visit. The left did not make that up.

Shah’s vision is woefully inadequate to suggest that  American opposition was triggered solely by perceptions of “American homophobia.” What completes the picture is to understand that the American opposition was not exclusively from the New York Times (which actually came late to the issue) and the left, but also with vigor from American evangelicals contending with Ugandan and other American evangelicals that the AHB was wrong.

Shah mentions the Fellowship, the evangelical group which David Bahati aligns with in Uganda, but fails to examine the significance of the fact that the Fellowship’s American leadership condemned the AHB. The platform used by both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to condemn the AHB was the National Prayer Breakfast in February, 2010. The National Prayer Breakfast is organized by the Fellowship.

I was in the African Suite at the Washington Hilton watching the speeches by Obama and Clinton. After the NPB ceremonies were done, a spirited discussion broke out in the room involving myself and the Ugandan delegation. Only one Ugandan spoke against the bill, while three were vigorous in their support for it.

In his attempt to make a case for a conspiracy, Shah comes too close to engaging in one. He clearly wants to beat up on Jeff Sharlet, who incidentally helped get the Fellowship’s Bob Hunter on the Rachel Maddow Show to condemn the AHB, but makes an irresponsible claim to do so. Shah writes:

He [Sharlet] further suggests that American “fundamentalists” such as Rick Warren harbor a genocidal “motive” because they aim at the “eradication of homosexuality” and so countenance the murder of open homosexuals such as David Kato.

I have the book C-Street and also asked Sharlet if he has ever suggested that “fundamentalists such as Rick Warren…countenance the murder of open homosexuals.” It is not in the book and Sharlet tells me that he has never linked fundamentalists with the murder of David Kato. In his book, Sharlet says Bahati and Warren both believe homosexuality is wrong, and in that sense favor the eradication of homosexuality, but he notes that Warren’s approach is religious and curative while Bahati’s bill proposes darker ends. Sharlet does not say Warren wants gays killed and it is irresponsible to suggest it.

There is much more to say, but a read of the CT website on Uganda will quickly reveal how problematic it is. I will pick this up in another post soon…

Has Uganda’s antigay bill been stopped by Ugandan opposition?

In this post, I want to unpack a bit more the claims of Timothy Shah made in a Christianity Today op-ed posted yesterday (Go to the first reaction here). Overall, I think it was a mistake for Christianity Today to publish an article making so many factual claims without sourcing or evidence. I have been following this story since March, 2009 and do not recognize the narrative advanced by Shah.

In this post, I want to address this paragraph:

But the legislation has received widespread attention not primarily because of its draconian provisions, whose very harshness has repelled virtually all of Uganda’s major political and religious leaders—including the President, the Catholic Bishops Conference, and a parliamentary committee that recommended the bill be thrown out as unconstitutional, effectively stopping it in its tracks. Instead, a major reason for the attention focused on the bill is that many believe it is the fruit of American evangelical homophobia.

Shah claims the bill was “stopped in its tracks” due to opposition from “virtually all of Uganda’s major political and religious leaders.” There are two fact problems here. One, the bill was not stopped and two, bill was not opposed by all of Uganda’s political and religious leaders.

As I have documented, the bill is still alive and may be considered before the end of this Parliamentary session in May. While the committee chair, Stephen Tashobya has expressed some uncertainty about the fate of the bill, he has refused to say that the bill is dead.

Shah says “virtually all” religious and political leaders were repelled by the bill. This is about as uninformed as statement as an observer could make. Going back to April 29, 2009, David Bahati asked the Ugandan Parliament for permission to introduce his private member’s bill. According to the minutes of Parliament, his request was approved without substantial concerns.

At the time, in the gallery were several religious and political leaders:

THE DEPUTY SPEAKER: I am aware of the matter and it is very important. I am going to give you time. There is a matter he wants to raise concerning the community and I am going to give him time. Let us have that motion quickly, get rid of it and get back to the statement. Afterwards we can stay here till midnight and talk about East Africa and all the other things. I am appealing to you.

Let us hear from hon. Bahati. In connection with the motion he is moving, we have in the gallery Apostle Julius Peter Oyet, Vice-President of the Born Again Federation; Pastor Dr Martin Sempa of the Family Policy Centre; Stephen Langa, Family Life Network; hon. Godfrey Nyakaana; the Mayor of Kampala City Council; Julius, a young boy who was sodomised, and his mother. His story has been in the press. They are all here in the gallery. Please, let us deal with them so that they can leave. There is also George Oundo who came out to speak against homosexuality. Please, let us balance the public good and our good since all of them are important. We shall do them all very quickly. Hon. Bahati.


MR DAVID BAHATI (NRM, Ndorwa County West, Kabale): Thank you, Madam Speaker, for the opportunity to move a motion seeking leave of Parliament to introduce a Private Members Bill moved under Rule 47, 105 and 106. Some of the few copies available are going to be circulated in a minute. I beg the indulgence of Members that I move on.

The only way Mr. Shah can be correct is to dismiss Martin Ssempa, Julius Oyet, and Stephen Langa as religious leaders. How about the mayor of Kampala’s city council? Reading the minutes, it is abundantly clear that no MP offers more than procedural concerns. The Parliament had copies of the bill and gave Bahati permission to introduce it.

When Bahati did finally table his bill on October, religious leaders came out in support. For instance, Martin Ssempa told me that the bill had his “total support” and that he hoped it would pass. The day after I posted Ssempa’s views, Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Nsaba Buturo publicly expressed support for the bill in an article on the official government media website with the headline, “Government Vows to Fight Homosexuality.”

In late October, 2009, Parliament’s Presidential Affiars committee held hearings on the bill and included religious leaders. Those leaders objected to the death penalty but did not call for the removal of the bill or a reduction in the sentence of life in prison:

Homosexuals should not be killed but instead imprisoned for life, religious leaders have suggested.

Making their input in the Anti-homosexuality Bill 2009 yesterday, the clergy said the clause on death as a penalty for homosexuality be scrapped.

“If you kill the people, to whom will the message go? We need to have imprisonment for life if the person is still alive,” said Rev. Canon Aaron Mwesigye, the provincial secretary of the Church of Uganda.

These religious leaders did not like the death penalty but were not repelled by the rest of the bill. Then in December, a coalition of religious leaders (including the Roman Catholic church) led by Martin Ssempa expressed strong support for the bill.

The first recorded opposition to the bill by President Museveni was on December 18, 2009 in a AFP report. According to that article, Museveni assured the US of his opposition.

The top US diplomat for African affairs said the bill, if passed, would not only violate human rights, it would also “undermine the fight” against HIV and AIDS by stigmatizing homosexual acts.

He added that it is premature for US government to consider withdrawing aid from Uganda because Museveni himself said he does not support the legislation and the battle is not yet lost.

However, Museveni did not address the bill directly until January, 2010 when he spoke to his party conference about the bill. Museveni did not express direct opposition but advise a dialogue, saying

So therefore, I strongly advise you that you agree to the idea that the cabinet sit down with Bahati, a subcommittee, and see how best to handle this issue because…because… it is a foreign policy issue. It’s not just our internal politics. It is a foreign policy issue, and we must handle it in a way which does not compromise our principles, but also takes into account our foreign policy interests.

This statement is not opposition but rather direction to his party about how he wanted to handle deliberation on the bill.

Then, on March 15, 2010, a small cabinet committee headed by Minister of Local Government, Adolf Mwesige issued a report critical of the AHB, saying it was redundant and that it might have been introduced illegally. However, the committee recommended keeping some of the good portions of the bill, namely the provisions on penalizing promotion of homosexuality.

I have just scratched the surface of this topic. There is so much evidence of the support for the bill from many religious and political leaders over the life of this bill that it is stunning that anyone could seriously claim otherwise. Shah paints a picture that is just untrue. Reading this article, one would come to the conclusion that the AHB was stopped by Ugandan opposition. One might think that Bahati’s bill was widely criticized by religious and political leaders.  Although some concerns have been raised, opposition to the death penalty is not the same as being repelled by the bill. The burden is on Mr. Shah to provide evidence for this narrative. I do not believe he can.

As far as I can tell, Shah’s conspiracy theory relies on demonstrating that Ugandans killed the bill. He needs to show this so that he can blame the uproar on something other than the real need to oppose an unjust proposal. Instead of finding some evangelicals involved in supporting what turned out to be a draconian bill, the whole reason Uganda is in focus is because the left loves to bash evangelicals. If only.

Another fact Shah has to ignore to make his case is the existence of a strong reaction from evangelicals around the world to the Ugandan proposal. Opposition to the AHB has not come solely from the left. Readers of this blog will surely attest to that. Shah’s article is not simply misleading, it ostracizes and marginalizes the persistent and growing evangelical opposition to the AHB and criminalization of homosexuality which has grown over the last 2 years. I will return to this point in my next post.

UPDATE: Watch this video for the opposition from Cyprius Lwanga, Archbishop of Kampala. This took place in December, 2009. Note at 1:44, the narrator says that “many conservative religious leaders” support the bill. Lwanga was virtually on his own. And then not long afterwards, Martin Ssempa represented a coalition of religious leaders which called for the removal of the death penalty but still encouraged the passage of the bill. The Roman Catholic church in Uganda was listed as a signer of that statement.