The documentary film God Loves Uganda by Roger Ross Williams explores the relationship between American evangelicals and LGBT rights in Uganda. Organizations such as the International House of Prayer, The Call, and Abiding Truth Ministries have been working in the country for some time, bringing with them their ideology. This ideology includes not just the Christian gospel but also an anti-gay stance which, Williams believes, was the inspiration behind the infamous 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The bill requires prison time for known homosexuals and requires capital punishment for repeat offenders.
The film is quite useful for exploring the issue, but I felt as if the conflict mapping and analysis of the documentary falls short in a few areas. This hinders its use by activists to convert conservative evangelicals to our cause. Being raised in a relatively evangelical home and then growing up in a town in Ohio that is dominated by the evangelical right, I am actually quite familiar with some of the organizations that the documentary mentions. Because of this, after seeing the film God Loves Uganda, I was disappointed because I doubt its ability to open the eyes of hard-line “turn or burn” conservatives.
A failure to assess the situation hurts any movement’s cause. Williams spends much time following the right-wing religious personality Lou Engle, who William’s portrays as the leader of the International House of Prayer. In reality, though Engle served as a senior leader, the founder and current leader of the organization is a man named Mike Bickle. The film fails to even mention Bickle who, like Engle, has his own controversies. Engle serves as the leader of a separate organization entitled The Call. Though the two organizations have connections and some similar goals, they are still technically two different organizations. The film jumps back in forth between the two without informing the viewer. To someone involved in these organizations, the film’s portrayal seems somewhat sloppy.
Taking one step back, the film also fails to make the distinction between The New Apostolic movement (of which The Call and IHOP are part of) and organizations that are leftovers of the Moral Majority. For example, the documentary reports on the activities of Scott Lively in Uganda and portrays him as if he is part of the same movement that Bickle and Engle are part of. Being familiar with both, I can tell you the demographic of the audience of the two is completely different. What makes the New Apostolic movement both unique and scary is that the vast majority of their membership is in their twenties. Most would describe themselves as Christians who are “spiritual but not religious” and reject the disciplinary and ecclesiastical mechanisms that most denominations have; thereby allowing room for the ultra-charismatic beliefs that even have theologically conservative Protestants up on their guard.
One of the common mistakes that activists make when working in the third world is to blame everything on colonialism, which is undoubtedly the main problem. Though the anti-gay message these missionaries bring to Uganda is indeed a large component of the problem, there is still the issue of the highly patriarchal nature of the Ugandan society that is listening to their message. Even homophobes like Scott Lively thought that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill crossed the line:
“My advice to the parliament was to go the other direction from what they did to actually go on a proactive positive message promoting the family, promoting marriage, etcetera, through the schools, and that if they were going to continue to criminalize homosexuality that they should focus on rehabilitation and not punishment. And I was very disappointed when the law came out as it is written now with such incredibly harsh punishments.”
This is not to excuse Lively’s behavior but activists need to realize that what is going on is a “perfect storm”. Namely, the anti-gay rhetoric expressed by these missionaries is being received from an already patriarchal society. Simply, limiting the influence of missionaries will do little to curb the plight of homosexuals in Uganda.
The film also follows the former Anglican Bishop Christopher Ssenyonj who the film says was excommunicated for his support of homosexual rights. There is little reason for Ssenyonj to lie, but the documentary fails to explore the ordeal that resulted in him being excommunicated. To a religiously conservative critic of the film, this could be seen as a deliberate omission. Regardless of which side is right, the failure of the film to explore this hinders its effectiveness as a tool for activists. The official position of the Anglican Church of Uganda is that he was defrocked due to starting his own denomination while serving as bishop:
“After following due canonical process, I was forced in January 2007 to depose him [Christopher Ssenyonjo] as a Bishop in the Church of Uganda for presiding at the consecration as bishop of a Church of Uganda priest under discipline for moral failure who was being consecrated in a denomination of his own called Charismatic Church of Uganda. One of the bishops assisting in the consecration is the also-defrocked Church of Uganda Bishop from N. Mbale – defrocked because he took a second wife.
“Of course, we do not approve of Christopher Ssenyonjo’s support for the organization Integrity, nor do we support his teaching on homosexuality. But, that was not why he was deposed. He was deposed because he set himself up as an Archbishop and recruited a defrocked Ugandan Bishop as a co-consecrator to consecrate a morally compromised man as a bishop of an independent church.”
The climax of the film is the murder of gay activist David Kato, but Williams’ exploration of showing the face of violence against homosexuals in the country ends here. No figures are given throughout the whole film. It fails to answer the question “how much violence is being done to homosexuals is Uganda?” Kato’s death is more than tragic, but the rest of the homosexual community in Uganda deserves more than this. By the end, the theme of the film feels more to the tune of anti-westernization rather than showing the face of violence against homosexuals.
All in all, the film is quite enlightening but I doubt its effectiveness as a tool for activists. It glosses over its analysis of American evangelicals, it oversimplifies Christopher Ssenyonjo’s excommunication, and it doesn’t do justice to the extent of violence which homosexuals in Uganda face.