Sin is the evil that most entices and which one most fears … and most threateningly enjoyed by others. In the long troubled history of Western Christianity, particularly in the U.S., evil is most feared as sexual pleasure. No wonder the devil has long been identified with the temptations of the flesh. This fear is often externalized onto others, those often-deemed sinners, perverts or deviants.
A century ago, women wore ankle-length dresses with corsets, masturbation was decried, intercourse was for procreation not pleasure, birth control prohibited, abortion a crime, interracial sex a hanging offense, pre-marital sex forbidden, pornography an obscenity and homosexuality a sin. Over the last century, these and other sexual values have changed. Yes, today sexuality in America has been irreversibly transformed … and there is no going back.
American religious moralists, faced with failure to suppress sexuality in the U.S., have decided to take their campaign overseas. However, they are smart enough to know not to challenge secular society at its heart, in the Europe that reared Christianity. The American right knows that this is the same Europe that expelled 17th century Protestant fundamentalists and that church-going Christianity today is on its deathbed. Fighting over sexual morality in Europe is a battle not worth fighting.
Internationalizing the Christian moralist campaign poses still other significant challenges. The Middle East is overwhelmingly Muslim; Asia and South Asia is overwhelmingly Communist, Buddhist and Hindu; and Latin America is overwhelmingly Catholic. In these territories, Evangelical Christian missionaries persist plowing barren fields.
However, sub-Sahara Africa is another story. Christian moralists have targeted some of the weakest nations on the weakest continent to impose their moral order. Four centuries ago, fundamentalist Puritans sought to found a New World that would embody Jesus’ city on the hill. Citing Matthew 5:14, they invoked Jesus’ call, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Today in African, Christian fundamentalists are promoting a war of moral repression, the city on the hill has become a jail cell.
Like Kurtz and the African colonialists of the late-19th century made famous by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, today’s Christian conservatives are foreigners in a foreign land. These 21st century African colonialists are post-modern American missionaries. Like colonists of old, they work closely with the most reactionary elements of government, military and police authority in the countries they occupy. And like colonists of old, they seek to impose their own priorities, insensitive to local realities. They have ushered in a new era of African colonization.
The Political Research Associates (PRA) recently released an invaluable report, “Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right Is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa.” It details how a network of U.S.-based Christian conservative groups is actively seeking to impose their values on a handful of central African countries. Most troubling about these groups is that they are promoting policies that are incompatible with accepted American values, thus undermining the efforts of the U.S. State Department. The U.S. Christian right is at war with its own nation.
Another valuable study, “Nowhere to Turn: Blackmails and Extortion of LGBT People in Sub-Saharan Africa,” was released in 2011 by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).
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PRA’s study, “Colonizing African Values,” is a follow-up report to an invaluable 2009 study, “Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia.” The very knowledgeable Rev. Kapya John Kaoma is the author of both studies. The new volume is really two studies in one – one about Africa and how religious colonialism works, the other about the U.S. and how the pernicious Christian right works.
The Christian right’s sex war in sub-Sahara Africa is being waged on two fronts – against homosexuality and a woman’s right to control her pregnancy. It is spearheaded by an informal coalition of right-wing Roman Catholic, Mormon and Protestant evangelical groups that few have heard of.
Foremost is the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), originally founded by Pat Robertson; led by right-wing evangelicals, it operates two centers in Kenya and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, encouraged the ACLJ to open an office and assist in drafting the constitution to reflect “Christian values.”
Other groups promoting Christian intolerance in Africa are the Family Watch International (led by the Mormon activist, Sharon Slater), the Human Life International (a Roman Catholic group) and the World Congress of Families (an umbrella group promoting “pro-family” values).
Leaked documents from the National Organization for Marriage reveal just how pernicious these Christian right colonialists can get. The documents outline a well-conceived strategy to mobilize U.S. African-American ministers and congregants in opposition to the civil rights of LGBT people in the U.S. and Africa.
These groups cohere in a loose network of charismatic Christians called into what is known as the Transformation Movement or New Apostolic Reformation.
In 2009, the Uganda parliament began debating an Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Faced with mounting criticism from political leaders around the world, including President Obama, the bill outlawed homosexuality but the most extreme punishments, life imprisonment and the death penalty, were dropped. Most recently, the Ugandan government announced plans to ban at least 38 nongovernmental agencies it says are promoting gay rights … and recruiting children into homosexuality. One of these groups is the Human Rights Network Uganda.
Since 2009, the war against homosexuality intensified in Africa.
As the PRA report documents: anti-gay protests and policies increased; incidences of homophobic arrests and violence increased in Zimbabwe as well as in Senegal, Malawi, Liberia and Ghana; anti-gay legislation has been adopted in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe; in December 2010, the Malawian Parliament amended the country’s penal code to outlaw same-sex relations between females (the country’s new president, Joyce Banda, has refused to honor the law) and, in January 2011, the Ugandan human rights activist David Kato was found murdered in his Kampala home.
Anti-homosexuality laws are on the books in more that 35 African countries. They prohibit “carnal knowledge against the order of nature.” Welcome back to 17th century Puritanism. In February 2012, a new “Kill the Gays” Bill was introduced in Uganda. Similar bills had been introduced in other countries and anti-gay measures were passed in Burundi in 2009, Malawi in 2010 and Nigeria in 2011.
On the second front, abortion is considered to be wrong among a significant majority of people throughout sub-Saharan Africa. While largely outlawed in many countries, there are a good number of exceptions. As the PRA study finds, Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria and Tanzania permit abortion to save the life of a woman; Kenya and Zimbabwe also permit it for a woman’s health, broadly defined; and Liberia specifies a woman’s mental health as a reason for an abortion. It is a parallel campaign to that waged by Christian conservatives in the U.S., but with vengeful teeth.
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For four centuries, America has been a battleground over the boundaries of acceptable sexual pleasure. The forces of moral rectitude, lead by Christian conservatives, have fought – and repeatedly lost – the sexual pleasure wars. People have successfully fought for a more pleasurable, sensuous sexuality.
And with their defeats, the boundaries of pleasure have fundamentally shifted; once shamed indulgences have become part of the contemporary sexual vocabulary. In simple dollars-and-cents terms, porn is a $14 billion industry and sex-toy sales bring in $15 billion annually. Yet, the temptations of the flesh remain so threatening to some that they persist in their campaigns to sexually repress both themselves and everyone else.
(The Other Sex War: Porn, Sex Toys & Consensual Adult Get-Togethers, CounterPunch, June 15-17, 2012.)
The Christian conservatives have lost the historic sexual pleasure wars. Nevertheless, they persist with their repressive campaigns on two fronts – a woman’s right to determine her pregnancy and same-sex intimacies. Today’s Christian “warriors” struggle valiantly to hold onto the shreds of a long dead value system, one anchored in the ancient fictions of Biblical allegory.
In the wake of the failure of the Christian conservatives to achieve victory through moral suasion, the truth of their message, they have turned to the tyranny of the state to impose their values. Not unlike the temperance movement of the early-20th century that culminated in Prohibition, today’s Christian conservatives are waging last-ditch battles over abortion and homosexuality. Not unlike fundamentalist religious movements throughout the world, these saintly warriors represent a rear-guard effort, a holding campaign to preserve patriarchy authority – a moral authority that is oppressive, harmful yet very powerful.
The inability of Christian conservatives in the U.S. to repress modern sexuality, a sexuality driven and deformed by commodity capitalism, has led many moralists to internationalize their campaign. Astute Christian conservatives recognize their role as handmaidens of capitalism. They know that their domestic battle against sexual pleasure is doomed as long as consumer spending is tied to the commodity spectacle, the sexualized sale.
Christian conservatives seek to contain the tensions between two of the most powerful forces of modern life: sex and money. Their post-modern puritanism is modernized by the prosperity gospel, the belief that faith in Jesus will bring person wealth and salvation. In this rereading of the Jesus myth, Jesus becomes the entrepreneur, welcoming the moneylenders into the synagogue.
PRA’s “Colonizing African Values” is a sobering study. Once colonists could be immortalized as with the story of the explorer, H. M. Stanley, who famously asked the oft-quoted question, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Even as late as Camelot, President Kennedy could promote the missionary work of the Peace Corp. as the good conscious of the military-industrial state.
Those days are over. Today, no myths of bettering the “primitive” peoples of African can mask the moral imperialism at the heart of the American Christian colonists anti-sex campaign. They are morally corrupt … and they know it.
David Rosen is author of Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming; he writes the Media Current blog for Filmmaker. Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.