Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Obama's First Gift to Africa: Rick Warren

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

If you want to foster AIDS, and kill queers in Africa, Rick Warren's the man for you. While Warren's characterization of queers (and Jews and Muslims) as godless perverts fuel bigotry in the U.S., the real effects of inviting Warren to preside over Obama's inauguration will be felt in sub-Saharan Africa.

He has missions all over the place, and he's rolling in dough and influence built on the best P.R. campaign I've ever seen. He hobnobs with Bono and Melissa Etheridge while liberal journalists regurgitate his press releases, crowning him a moderate evangelical and touting his AIDS campaign which is little but a thinly veiled mask for his proselytizing work. The last thing he needs is more power.

In case you actually care, his campaign for AIDS prevention, in a region decimated by the disease, sneers at condoms, needle exchange, and sex education. He claims all those efforts merely slow the spread of AIDS when his plan can stop it flat. The secret -- abstinence before marriage, religious conversion, and not included on his website, that perennial favorite, queer-baiting.

One of his closest allies in Uganda in his so-called fight against AIDS is Martin Ssempa, an evangelical preacher who blames queers for the disease, makes a show of burning condoms, and this spring organized a rally with the theme, "A Call for Action on Behalf of the Victims of Homosexuality" where he spent most of his time railing against queers.

As far as treatment goes, Ssempsa offers faith healing in his Pentecostal services if only victims believe enough, and make a nice donation. In general, the bulk of his anti-AIDS activism seems to be legal battles to ensure that homosexuality remains illegal and the media continues to portray queers as sexual predators.

He's getting it done. Homosexuality is still illegal, and queers face increasing harassment and violence from the government to their next door neighbors. Newspapers sometimes print lists of people suspected of being lesbian or gay, opening them up to job loss, and physical violence. Several activists are arrested every year.

Though a Ugandan judge recently ruled in favor of LGBT activists protesting an illegal raid in 2005, it's more likely you'll get government officials like Deputy Attorney General Fred Ruhinde and Minister of Ethics and Integrity Nsaba Butoro who in 2007 actually joined a coalition of conservative Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Bahai congregations, "the Interfaith Coalition Against Homosexuality" calling for the arrest, deportation, and even murder of gays and lesbians.

And where's the sanctified Rick Warren in this delightful hate fest? Where's the man The New Yorker's Hendrik Herzberg complacently characterized as "much, much less of a jerk than, say, Pat Robertson or James Dobson" and whose inclusion in the inauguration he actually applauded as "another of Obama's brilliant chess moves"?

Well... when the Ugandan Anglican Archbishop Henry Orombi announced his aim to "purify" the Anglican Church by driving out gay and lesbian Christians and their supporters, Warren got right on board. When they announced their boycott of the global Anglican conference in March last year, he told the press, "The Church of England is wrong and I support the Church of Uganda on the boycott." Warren further declared that homosexuality is not a natural way of life and thus not a human right. "We shall not tolerate this aspect at all."

Terrible for queers, Warren and his pals are almost worse for AIDS. Uganda's HIV infection rate, which had dipped from its height in 1986, has been climbing back up in recent times. The problem? Advocates like Warren and Ssempa dumping sex education and condom promotion in favor of abstinence-only programs which study after study show actually increase risky sex.

Homophobia and HIV/AIDS go together in Nigeria, too, where thanks to people like Rick Warren, UNAIDS estimate that only 18 percent of women and 21 percent of men between the ages of 15 and 24 correctly identify ways to prevent HIV. After South Africa, Nigeria has the second largest number of people living with HIV in Africa.

The most vulnerable of all are gay men. Warren has supported figures like the Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, who in 2006 and 2007 campaigned ferociously for anti-gay legislation which stipulated five years' imprisonment to anyone who had anything to do with a same-sex marriage ceremony, participated in gay organizing, or frankly have anything to do with anything gay of any kind "directly or indirectly in public and in private."

And if hate-mongering is a habit, in 2005, Akinola was implicated in the massacre of more than 650 Muslims by a Christian mob tied to the Christian Association of Nigeria. He was president of the group at the time. For all this, Akinola earned praise from Warren in an April 2006 Time Magazine article lionizing him as a defender of the faith, a "Nelson Mandela", and "a model for Christians around the world."

Where's a lightning bolt when you need one?

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