In 2004 the members of St. James Church in tony Newport Beach, Calif., voted to secede from the Episcopal Church of the United States. Like dozens of other conservative Episcopal churches at the time, St. James found the theology of its denomination insufficiently orthodox (and the consecration of a gay Episcopal prelate unbiblical). So it, and others, sought—and found—protection among the conservative Anglican bishops of Africa. For administrative and theological purposes, St. James became an African church. It submitted to the authority of an African bishop and paid dues to an African diocese.
Church members were thrilled about their new connection. The church of the global South "is growing and exploding because we took the Bible to those countries, and they believed it," explained a St. James lay leader to a PBS news reporter in 2005. "They have seen the power of the Bible … and we wanted to be part of that."
The prelate who took St. James under his wing was Henry Luke Orombi, the archbishop of Uganda, a man who campaigns relentlessly against homosexuality. And though the spiritual head of the Anglican church, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, has condemned the anti-homosexuality bill now before Parliament in Uganda—which proposes the death penalty for gays in some cases—Orombi has not. In a statement, the rector of St. James, Richard Crocker, reminds us that his church now belongs to the recently established, L.A.-based Diocese of Western Anglicans, though it continues "to engage" with the Ugandan churches. "We do not condone the excessive sanctions in the legislation being considered by Ugandan politicians," he says. "Criminalizing homosexuality is unjust. God's love and compassion for humanity is not reflected in this bill."
American culture wars are kindergarten play compared with those in places like Uganda, where democracy is a sham and tolerance rare. And American conservatives who insist on romanticizing Africans for the purity of their Christian belief must guard against escalating those wars and endangering lives—intentionally or not—by giving support and money to Christian leaders with insufficient regard for human rights. "The culture war which has been fought in the U.S. has been exported to Africa," says Ochoro Otunnu, a Ugandan human-rights lawyer based in New York. But, he adds, there's a big difference. "In America you can have an open debate about homosexuality knowing full well you have an array of legal and constitutional protections. Those protections don't exist in some of the African countries—Uganda being a case in point. When this debate is conducted in public you can actually endanger an entire minority community."
More than 30 African countries have laws against homosexuality. Gays in many of those countries are frequently ostracized, beaten, or raped. In 1999 Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni said he told his police department to "look for homosexuals, lock them up, and charge them."
Naiveté is not the worst quality in the world. A healthy dose has always accompanied do-gooders on their missions to heal the sick and care for the poor. And to be fair, Christian conservatives in America have almost universally condemned the proposed legislation. Last week President Museveni urged caution when considering the bill, citing the disapproval of important friends in the West; some news reports suggest he may withdraw it altogether.
But Otunnu and other human-rights activists believe the political war against homosexuals in Uganda is a direct result of the legions of evangelists who landed in his country during the Bush administration, determined to fight HIV/AIDS with Christian rhetoric about abstinence and marital fidelity. "Africa, like Latin America and parts of Asia, is culturally very conservative. But within Uganda there has never been an ideology on how to criminalize this act. This is the impact of the evangelical movement." The international controversy over the antigay bill in Uganda must serve, then, as a warning: even soulmates can disagree. For an American—even one seduced by the passion and orthodoxy of the African church—principles of democracy and tolerance should always come first.