When I was 18 and in my first year in college in Boston, a mutual friend helped me score a lunch date with a beautiful, sophisticated older woman. Since I was neither beautiful nor sophisticated, she suffered through our meal, until I revealed, in an unwise bout of autobiography about my Italian-Irish upbringing, that I was a believing Catholic.
This, at least, amused her. In fact, as an Italian-American herself, she found it hysterically funny. When she’d almost finished laughing, she offered me a last patronising piece of advice: “There’s this Irish band you might like: they’re Christians too.”
I walked out of that restaurant determined to lose my faith, and to ignore “Bono Vox” and company. Neither project was an unqualified success, but I have generally managed to stay out of the church and U2 gigs. And U2, for their part, were able to shed some of the contempt ladled over “Christian rock”, as through the years the band became less visibly associated with its faith, wihout ever letting it go.
For some reason, though, this Tuesday Bono took to the media on both sides of the Atlantic to speak directly and at considerable length about his religious beliefs, in interviews taped in the last few weeks. In America, he spoke to the reactionary president of the evangelical Focus on the Family, Jim Daly, for a syndicated radio show. Bono talked to Daly like a would-be-trendy Sunday School teacher about David as a blues singer and Jesus as a punk rocker.
Meanwhile, on Irish television’s ‘The Meaning of Life’, we had Bono being interviewed by mercifully retired broadcaster Gay Byrne, to speak about God. “The three most unpopular people in Ireland,” a friend quipped.
In fact, whatever about Gay and God, Bono came out of it looking pretty smart and decent, if just a tad dull and inclined to fall back on his most familiar soundbites. He also risked triggering Ireland’s well known aversion to piety. On US Christian radio, he had no such worries, and he was among old friends.
Despite his more conspicuous association with secular actors ranging from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Facebook and Monsanto, and his dubious claims to purely fact-based activism, Bono has enjoyed the US evangelical right as a consistent ally reaching back about 13 years to when, lobbying in Washington for debt relief, he claimed to move Jesse Helms to tears. “I started talking about Scripture. I talked about AIDS as the leprosy of our age.” The senator’s eyes began to well up as Bono explained that “married women and children were dying of AIDS…” Married women, Senator.
When Bono interviewed presidential candidates from both parties in 2007 for his special “Africa” edition of Vanity Fair, the one who seemed most enthusiastically on-board with his agenda was not the Kenyan-American Barack Obama but rather the Arkansas preacher Mike Huckabee. Huckabee has continued to stand by his man, praising the singer in his speech at last year’s Republican national convention.
There’s nothing objectionable per se about Bono’s religious faith or religious friends. Mike Huckabee, for example, strikes me as, on balance, a more decent and less dangerous character than the agnostic Bill Gates, whose foundation is the main sponsor of Bono’s ONE campaign.
But as a man who confesses to a well developed messianic streak, Bono boasts of having played a crucial role in ushering the US Christian Right into Africa. And that achievement is double-edged, for sure.
Bono has depicted his efforts at convincing conservative Christians to work on AIDS as a one-man act of Old-Testament-style prophecy, telling ’60 Minutes’ a few years ago: “I was very angry that they were not involved more in the AIDS emergency. I was saying, ‘This is the leprosy that we read about in the New Testament, you know. Christ hung out with the lepers. But you’re ignoring the AIDS emergency … How can you?’ And, you know, they said, ‘Well, you’re right, actually. We have been. And we’re sorry. We’ll get involved.’ And they did.”
But when the Christian Right boarded the Bono AIDS bandwagon, they didn’t leave their sexual morality at home. Bono had appealed to them precisely by emphasising the sexual innocence of so many of Africa’s HIV-positive people (‘married women and children’). The aid, when it came through George W. Bush’s Pepfar program, included, as the New York Times put it, “a requirement that one-third of prevention funds go to programs promoting abstinence and sexual fidelity, stringent restrictions on the use of condoms and even a demand that groups receiving funds must formally oppose prostitution”. The Economist called it “too much morality, too little sense”.
The Bush AIDS funding said condom use should be limited to ‘at risk’ groups, meaning gay men and prostitutes. On the ground in Africa, organizations perceived the Americans as hostile to condoms, and stopped promoting them entirely in the hope of attracting and keeping US funding.
Bono’s emphasis on ‘innocent victims’ may also have been counter-productive for advancing the cause of the less photogenic millions of people with AIDS outside Africa. That meant predominantly (as the subtitle of Nancy Stoller’s 1997 book on AIDS politics calls them) the ‘queers, whores and junkies’ who had built a global movement in the face of devastating prejudice in the first two decades of the disease’s spread. Even in Africa, gay men are far more likely to be HIV-positive than straight men, and the American evangelical Christians that Bono encouraged into Africa are affecting sexual politics in several countries on the continent, with homosexual and reproductive rights under threat.
Recently I was in New York, where I met lawyers who help LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants in their struggles with the US legal system. Sure enough, those lawyers are finding more cases of people seeking asylum from sub-Saharan African countries, where the evangelical tide, the one that Bono claims to have personally set in motion, threatens to sweep away sexual minorities.
In one case, at least, the link between Bono’s work and right-wing Christian activity in Africa is direct and overt. Bono and his wife Ali have a clothing company, Edun, that has partnered with the rather loopy NGO Invisible Children in a farming project called the Cotton Conservation Initiative Uganda. Indeed, the fee from the notorious Louis Vuitton advertisement that Mr and Mrs Hewson posed for on the African plains was donated to that very project. Invisible Children, when it’s not conserving cotton in Uganda, busily produces videos to encourage US military intervention in central Africa, and its evangelical roots and connections have been well established.
If this is faith-based activism, then give me rock ‘n’ roll.
In fact, I wish Bono showed a little more faith in the power of his chosen art-form, popular music. For me, the most offensive moment in his recent media offensive came in the course of a long interview with Charlie Rose on US television. Not once but twice, Bono cited as one of his favourite songs, one of the tracks most emblematic of what he loves about music, ‘Baby, I Love You’ by, he said (twice!), Diana Ross and Supremes.
Much as I hate to cast doubt on another man’s beliefs, I’ve got to say, with all the love in my heart: that song was by the Ronettes, and later the Ramones, not the Supremes. Any music-lover who can’t keep his Motown straight from his Spector is not someone that I can rely on in matters of faith.