By Ruth Conniff
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One may think that the bad old days of colonialism in the developing world are over, but nobody bothered to tell that to the missionaries at the Kansas City-based International House of Prayer (IHOP).
According to director Roger Ross Williams, these overzealous American evangelicals have picked up where imperial poet Rudyard Kipling's "white man's burden" left off, spreading their strange concept of "Christianity," with an obsessive focus on homophobia, throughout Uganda. And thanks to Williams' efforts, now there's a film to document their bizarre and appalling crusade: "God Loves Uganda."
In Uganda, these dubious disciples stepped into a power vacuum created by the ouster of strongman Idi "V.D." Amin's regime. But instead of bringing kindness and love for one's neighbor to Ugandans, as some Christians would, they turned the entire nation into a laboratory for America's religious right.
Following "born again" President George W. Bush's lead, they run "educational" campaigns about the dangers of AIDS in which they do not advocate the use of condoms. Then IHOP missionaries stand up in front of crowds of Ugandans and rail against the wickedness of sex and homosexuality. Their efforts, ongoing for many years now, have led to an increase in AIDS and homophobia across the country and a new law that imposes life in prison simply for being gay or advocating for LGBTQ rights. Prior to the law's passage, its sponsors sought to impose the death penalty.
The homophobic hysteria thees American meddlers have whipped up has also predictably resulted in hate crimes, notably the bludgeoning death of LGBTQ advocate David Kato. Not content with murdering the activist, the hate-mongers dared to disrupt his funeral, too.
IHOP's sex-obsessed cast of Christian crazies includes individuals who, by their own confession, have their own sexual demons that they believe Jesus Christ (who they rarely seem to mention in the film) has set them free of. IHOP leader Lou Engle, who injected himself into the anti-gay Proposition 8 struggle in California before inflicting himself upon Uganda, admits he was a porn addict. Reverend Jo Anna Watson, a fixture on the front lines of the Uganda crusade since 2002, confesses to having experienced same sex attraction when she was an actress. Jason and Rachelle Digges, who operate a training camp in Uganda and frequently visit America to raise funds from fellow evangelicals, married when they were only 18 years old. And Pastor Scott Lively, whose testimony before Uganda's parliament inspired the so-called "Kill the Gays" bill, is being sued to stand trial in U.S. federal court for inciting the persecution, torture and murder of gays in Uganda, in a case the Center for Constitutional Rights brought on behalf of Sexual Minorities Uganda.
The film's often-young missionaries and their followers are repeatedly seen displaying bizarre behavior, including vigorously writhing, weeping and speaking in tongues. They proclaim their distorted vision of "the good news" while risking their necks amidst Kampala's congested traffic. One doesn't have to be Sigmund Freud to suspect a correlation between their weird habits and the sexual repression they preach. As one might expect, these self-righteous meddlers are mostly white.
"God Loves Uganda" also points out that IHOP's Ugandan allies are royally cashing in on their crackpot version of Christianity. Robert Kayanja, pastor of Kampala's biggest churches, just happens to be one of Uganda's five richest men. Pastor Martin Ssempa, an arch-proponent of the "kick sodomy out of Uganda" movement and legislation that supports it, divides his time between his homes in Kampala and Las Vegas.
But Williams' film shows that not every man of the cloth in Africa is infected with IHOP's virulent strain of homophobia. In addition to the hate-exporting missionaries and their local collaborators, "God Loves Uganda" also featured clergymen who believe love is the central tenet of Christ's teachings. After Reverend Kapya Kaoma spoke out against homophobic zealotry in Uganda, the Zambian Anglican priest was forced to flee that country. Similarly, the Archbishop of the Church of Uganda revoked Bishop Christopher Senyonjo's titles because of his heroic defense of LGBTQ rights. And when Kato's funeral was disturbed, Senyonjo boldly delivered an impromptu graveside oration, declaring: "God created you, god is on your side." For preaching tolerance and a god of love, Senyonjo was awarded the Clinton Global Citizen Award in 2012.
"God Loves Uganda" is the best up-close look at the dangers of the religious right since 2006's harrowing "Jesus Camp." If Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's unsettling look at a religious summer camp revealed what flimflam fanatics perpetrate upon American youth, then "God Loves Uganda" discloses what these self-anointed "Christian" conservatives are up to in Africa -- bringing religious colonialism to the developing world by making Uganda a safe haven for homophobia.
Therein lies the biggest feat of Roger Ross Williams' documentary. "God Loves Uganda" will make American audiences ponder how the right went so wrong.
Watch the trailer:
"God Loves Uganda" will be screened at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles at 10:15 p.m. on Feb. 12 and 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 13.
Ed Rampell is The Progressive's man in Hollywood and author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book," available now.