Sunday, May 19, 2013

God Loves Uganda: Christian Reviewers Criticize, Defend Documentary

God Loves Uganda, a documentary film that screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, explores the role of American Religious Right leaders in fomenting homophobia in Uganda (more here). Given that a draconian anti-gay bill is currently under consideration in Uganda, attitudes toward LGBTQ persons in Uganda will have long-lasting consequences for sexual minorities there. While progressives have had a largely positive response to the film, one Christian commentator has harsh words for God Loves Uganda.

In a May 15th commentary at Christianity Today, John G. Stackhouse delivers a hard-hitting review of the documentary. For starters, he claims that the film blurs the distinctions between American preachers who have visited Uganda, such as Scott Lively and Lou Engle, and American evangelicals as a whole. Additionally, he accuses the film of failing to frame "a conservative Christian understanding of sexual ethics" in context, as well as demonizing charismatic Christians.
"The film in fact largely fails to give us a proper explanation for why these evangelicals do what they do. There is no attempt to explain to the audience the Biblical basis for a conservative Christian understanding of sexual ethics, and only a few statements of their more general missionary mandate. What we do get is lots of footage of their worship, especially in its more extreme modes. There is something unsettling, even creepy, about a black filmmaker depicting white (and black) charismatic Christians speaking in tongues, writhing on the floor, and otherwise acting in strange ways with no explanation at all. If a white filmmaker had shown scenes of black Africans in similar modes but dressed in native costumes, we might well accuse him of racism, or at least of failing in the primary job of the documentary filmmaker: to make his subjects intelligible, let alone sympathetic.

In fact, these people seem unfathomable—even actually mad. To depict them thus is the functional equivalent of demonizing them … but "demonizing" is precisely the crime of which they are repeatedly accused in this film in regard to homosexuals."
To be fair, Stackhouse's review acknowledges that homophobia is wrong and that Christians should reject the extremism of Lively, Engle, and their ilk. His review also raises an important question: how much of Uganda's homophobia is a western import, and how much springs from Ugandan culture itself? Stackhouse argues that depicting Ugandan homophobia as an exclusively Western import is simplistic, as it ignores anti-gay sentiments that may have already existed in Uganda.
"From first to last, the anti-homosexuality campaign in Uganda is attributed to the imposition of Western values. But anti-homosexuality is clearly not a distinctive Western value. It is rife in tribal cultures in Africa and already in the outlook of Ugandans when the recent wave of American evangelical extremists arrived."
Rev. Canon Albert Ogle penned a response to Stackhouse's review of God Loves Uganda, arguing that Stackhouse missed the point of the documentary. In a May 17th commentary at the San Diego Gay and Lesbian News, Ogle reminds viewers of the dark evangelical politics on display in God Loves Uganda, arguing that anti-gay rhetoric is having devastating consequences for Africa.
"The film portrays a shadowy side of the Christian faith, reduced to a kind of simplistic consumerism (saving souls for Jesus, one at a time in ungodly Africa). Throughout the film we are confronted with America’s lack of respect for other cultures and religions embodied in the naive young missionaries from Kansas sent forth by Lou Engle and his International House of Prayer.

Although the film presents caricatures of militant fundamentalism that most Americans would be appalled by if this was, say, an Islamic movement, we are blind to its destructive influence because it is seen as a form of Christianity and pro-American (Western and morally superior).

Stackhouse misses the point of the film that is designed to promote serious discussion, particularly among the Christian evangelical movement as to what they are hoping to achieve by missionary campaigns that see anti-gay messaging as a central tenet of their political and cultural agenda and platform of support. Is turning Africans against Africans, parents against children something Jesus really wants us to do? "
Ogle reminds readers that anti-gay Christian activism in Uganda is only the tip of the iceberg with regards to global Religious Right outreach.
"The film, however limited in its perspective, only begins to open us up to the complexity of American/African evangelical messaging and its powerful economic base in a continent still plundered by the West and more recently by the East.

Williams does not even begin to deal with the effects of larger Christian organizations who receive oodles of American public funding, way beyond the paltry budget of the International House of Prayer. Maybe this will be the subject of his follow-up film, but it is more difficult to access multi-national religious and development companies whose role in the propaganda war against LGBT people remains carefully veiled.

There has been little public criticism from more moderate evangelical leaders and organizations towards the Evangelical lunatic fringe in places like Uganda. Why the conspiracy of silence? What roles do powerful Washington networks like “the Family” have with western Christian business interests that must be quite lucrative for so much money to be pumped into these anti-gay campaigns in Africa?"
Both reviews offer food for thought. To read Stackhouse's commentary, click here. To read Ogle's response, click here.


  1. I love that his claim is that the film didn't include the biblical reason for why they are against homosexuality. It sounds like the purpose of the film is to show the negative consequences of what the missionaries are doing over there, it doesn't really matter that they think they have a good reason to do it.

    1. Hausdorff -- I'm of two minds on the matter. On one hand, homophobia in Uganda is destructive and backwards, no matter what roots it springs from. On the other hand, it can be very helpful to know why a group believes something disturbing, in order to dismantle the belief.

    2. And if you're around fundies long enough, you will certainly get an earful. It cracks me up when they think they are saying something new to people who have already heard the same worn-out lecture a million times. Besides, it's hardly a complicated "argument" that requires great explanation: "We think there are six Bible verses that condemn homosexuality. The End."

    3. Maybe I was imagining things but I'm fairly sure the evangelicals in the film REPEATEDLY explained the biblical reason for their belief that homosexuality is a sin. It's in the bible. It's unnatual. And so on. At least one girl even says something about "Gods law" being a healthier, happier way to live. What sort of "biblical reason" was Stackhouse looking for?! One that sounds reasonable and justified? Good luck.

  2. All of a sudden there's all this outrage about western influence on Uganda - of course only after the issue revolves around the homosexual community, puh-lease.

    I think its offensive that so much credit is being given to TWO extreme missionaries for turning Uganda's society upside down - are you kidding me?

    People in Africa have had strong views against homosexuality before peoples in the Eastern hemisphere were even aware America existed - Christianity has been in Africa longer than it was in Europe (see history of Ethiopia). This documentary is nothing more than one man's projections of his own family and culture upon a whole other country - and again, there was absolutely no outrage in mainstream media about western influence in this tiny country in Africa until being homosexual has suddenly become so flamboyantly embraced in the West.

    Talk about importing one's values on others - this whole video is the most hypocritical piece of propaganda I've ever heard of.


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