In the Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon,” the show’s main characters, Elder Price and Elder McKinley, are informed that they will spend two years on a mission in Uganda. The bumbling Elder McKinley asks, “Uganda? Cool, where is that?” When he is told that it’s in Africa, he replies, “Oh cool, just like Lion King!”
The reason this bit is so funny is because Elder McKinley’s perception of Africa is not so far removed from that of everyday Americans. Trying to convince the average person that Africa is not a country is difficult enough, so perhaps it makes sense why journalists tend to dumb down political issues that concern the continent.
We can clearly see this phenomenon at work with the passage of Uganda’s new law imposing draconian sentences for “homosexual behavior.”
Explicitly, some news organizations have suggested that the reason this bill came to be was because of American evangelical pastors like Scott Lively stoking an anti-gay fervor throughout Uganda. Implicitly, coverage of this law suggests that Ugandans are a backward people who lack enlightened Western notions of sexual orientation and gender equality.
Both of these assumptions are flawed and belie the nuanced political circumstances that fomented this law. First of all, arguing that Ugandans only accepted this law because conservative American religious forces pushed them along highlights a chauvinistic assumption that Uganda’s people are not smart enough to make political decisions on their own, and therefore are at the mercy of manipulative Western interests. That is hardly the case here.
One of the chief proponents of Uganda’s anti-gay law was the Anglican Church of Uganda, which split with its Western counterparts over the issue of theological teachings on sexuality. The issue galvanized the Church to a degree that Uganda’s Anglican community felt the need to protect “Christian orthodoxy” against perceived corrupting Western influences. Moreover, the Anglican community was in an inter-denominational conflict with Uganda’s Pentecostal community, which was rapidly winning over younger converts in cities like Kampala. Support for the bill, from this perspective, was motivated more by an Anglican desire to remain politically relevant. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, probably seized on this political motivation in hopes of guaranteeing himself another term.
Secondly, the reason we should not interpret this bill as proof of African inferiority because these kinds of sleazy politics work almost exactly the same way in the West.
Of course our Supreme Court has ruled that laws against homosexual behavior are unconstitutional–I do not want to understate just how morally repugnant the language and implications of Uganda’s law are.
However, when state legislatures pass laws allowing businesses to refuse to serve homosexuals in the name of “religious freedom,” our moral high ground slips away. The world’s lesbian and gay communities continue to suffer unconscionable discrimination, and legislatures work in subtle and explicit ways across the globe to keep that discrimination in place. When we pretend that “that sort of thing wouldn’t happen here,” we’re only blinding ourselves to the magnitude of this problem.