How US Evangelicals Inflame Hatred of Gays in Africa

The director of the documentary God Loves Uganda talks to The Root about the role American Christian conservatives are playing in criminalizing homosexuality on the continent.

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Anti-homosexuality activists march through the streets of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, on March 31, 2014, in support of the government’s stance against homosexuality.

ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

In February, when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed an anti-gay bill that imposed harsh prison terms for acts of homosexuality, most Americans were probably clueless about the bill’s ties to U.S. conservative Christians.

In the documentary God Loves Uganda—which airs Monday on PBS—Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams shines a light on the U.S. evangelical movement in Africa and how its homophobic rhetoric is fueling a backlash against gays, sometimes with deadly consequences.

Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda. In fact, according to Amnesty International (pdf), 38 of 54 African countries have anti-gay laws on the books, mostly the result of colonial rule. But lawmakers in Uganda sought to strengthen those laws—at one point a bill was drafted to include the death penalty—to prevent Westerners from promoting homosexuality to Ugandan children, a notion that’s constantly reinforced by evangelical leaders such as Scott Lively, a key player in the anti-gay evangelical movement in Africa. (His other major claim to fame is being the author of a widely discredited book that argues that gays were behind the Holocaust.)

In the film, Williams follows young missionaries from the International House of Prayer, or IHOP, the Kansas City, Mo.-based church founded by Mike Bickle, who once famously said that Oprah Winfrey was the “forerunner” to the anti-Christ. We’re introduced to several of IHOP’s senior leaders, including Lou Engle, who is well-known for holding anti-gay rallies in the U.S. and Africa.

Williams, who grew up in the church in Pennsylvania and happens to be gay, got the idea to do the film after reading a report that charged that U.S. evangelicals are using African church leaders to peddle anti-gay hatred throughout the continent. (Nigeria also signed a strict anti-gay bill in January.)

On his first research trip to Uganda, Williams met David Kato, the Ugandan LGBT activist who would be bludgeoned to death with a hammer months after he was outed by a Ugandan newspaper that ran photos of several other supposed gay people with a banner urging readers to “hang them.”

“He [Kato] told me this is a story that hasn’t been told and he kind of anointed me to go off and make the film,” Williams said.

Officials claim Kato’s death was the result of a robbery, but his supporters believe he was targeted. His funeral, and the anti-gay protesters who show up to disrupt the service, are featured in the film.

Williams, who won an Oscar for his 2009 documentary short Music by Prudence, making him the first African American to win for directing and producing a film, took a moment to talk to The Root about the lasting impact American evangelicals may have on Uganda and Africa.

The Root: How were you able to convince IHOP to give you so much access for the documentary?