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The US Christian right and Vladimir Putin bring culture wars to Africa

The US Christian right and Vladimir Putin bring culture wars to Africa
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R)meets with Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, 11 December 2012. EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV

The fear now is that the culture wars will make ordinary Africans pawns in a larger geopolitical standoff and spark greater intolerance and violence against gays and lesbians.

When Kenya’s Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua slammed a Supreme Court ruling last month allowing gays and lesbians to form their own associations, the Russian embassy in Nairobi was quick to jump in and support him.

Gachagua claimed that gay activity was satanic. President William Ruto chimed in that while he respected the court’s decision, Kenya’s values and religions did not allow same-sex relationships. “I will not allow men to compete with women for other men,” he added. Both men are evangelical Christians.

Despite a progressive Constitution guaranteeing dignity and freedom from discrimination, homosexuality remains a crime in Kenya for which one can spend up to 14 years in prison.

“That is only the beginning, the West will come for more,” the Russian embassy tweeted out. “Traditional values shall be protected, otherwise humanity is doomed…”

Homophobia was in the news again on Tuesday, when Uganda’s Parliament passed a law criminalising people who identify as gay or lesbian. The law would send people accused of gay sex to prison for life, while gays with HIV who have sex can face the death penalty.

At the same time, a decision by the Church of England to allow priests to bless same-sex marriages has created a historic schism between the mother church and churches from Africa, Asia and Latin America, who refuse to “abandon the authority of scripture”. They claim that some 75 % of the Anglican communion say they no longer recognise the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

All of this adds up to a highly consequential culture war that provides a fertile opportunity for anti-liberal forces to try to win adherents on the continent.

War on the woke West

Since 2021, the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, is one of Vladimir Putin’s most loyal supporters and a fan of the war in Ukraine, has looked to Africa for new converts.

But attempts by Russia to appeal to the hearts and minds of Africans through attacks on Western decadence follow a well-worn path trod by US evangelicals.

Speaking around the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, on 21 February this year (the Russian attack started on 24 February 2022), Putin accused the West not only of destroying marriage, which he insisted should be between women and men, but of perverting children through paedophilia.

“The Anglican Church is now considering the idea of a gender-neutral God. What can we say? God forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”

Putin’s warnings about the dangers of being contaminated by Western perverseness were aimed not just at Russians, but at finding common ground with the US right and African Christians.

In equating LGBTQ rights with paedophilia, Putin is speaking the language of US fundamentalists.

They use the talk that, in an African context, legitimises attacks on gay people by casting them as predators, says Caleb Okereke, a Nigerian journalist and managing editor at Minority Africa, who wrote in Foreign Policy magazine this week.

Because it is no longer cool to go after gay people, much culture war energy in the US is currently directed against trans people — who gets to use which bathroom? — while a staggeringly large number of Republicans (more than half, according to a YouGov poll) believe liberal Democrats are blood-sucking paedophiles.

Steve Bannon, a leading voice on the far right and former adviser to Donald Trump, praises Putin for being “anti-woke”, while Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the loudest and most influential Republicans in Congress, is on a mission to end US support for Ukraine.

Increasingly, the two forces have a common meeting point in Christian nationalism.

Gideon Rachman, writing in the Financial Times, says the overlap between nationalism and the anti-woke crusade is no coincidence:

“They are linked by nostalgia for a mythologised past of national greatness and cultural homogeneity, when ‘men were men’ and women and minorities knew their place.”

There is a straight line between Putin’s manly bare-chested horse-riding and Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s counselling men to overcome feminisation and low testosterone by tanning their testicles.

Demography is shifting away from them. Russia is a broken former superpower while white Protestants in the US have shrunk to less than a third of the population and their numbers continue to plummet.

In The End of White Christian America, Robert P Jones found that a younger generation is “streaming for the church exit, turned off by intolerant anti-gay teaching thundering forth from evangelical pulpits. Those left behind stew in the acrid juices of cultural loss.” White evangelicals are Donald Trump’s most loyal fan base.

It’s no coincidence either that elements of the evangelical right have undertaken a major attempt to find new souls in Africa, the one continent where religion and church are actually growing.

Where did homophobia come from?

Okereke says the claim that homosexuality was imported from the decadent West gives African homophobes “an anticolonial veneer that allows them to say, ‘This was brought here from abroad, and we need to eradicate it’.”

This is ironic, he points out, as homophobia itself was imported from abroad: the church was the face of the anti-gay movement from the earliest days of European colonialism, while sodomy was outlawed and carried the death penalty.

The current wave of homophobia in Uganda, leading to this week’s vote in Parliament, owes much to white evangelical Christians, such as the American Scott Lively, whose anti-gay events culminated in Uganda’s 2009 “Kill the gays” bill.

Reporting by the independent media platform Open Democracy in 2020 revealed that US Christian groups opposed to LGBTQ+ rights and abortion have spent tens of millions of dollars to promote an anti-gay and anti-abortion agenda in Africa.

Okereke concludes that “the combination of a made-in-the-USA movement and ideology is polarising African countries and harming and endangering LGBTQ+ people.”

This does not exonerate Uganda, Ghana, or other African countries or suggest that they were incapable of homophobia on their own.

“Even though LGBTQ+ identities had existed in Africa since before colonialism, their existence was not always welcomed and tolerated,” admits Okereke.

The fear now is that the culture wars will make ordinary Africans pawns in a larger geopolitical standoff and spark greater intolerance and violence against gays and lesbians.

It will be extremely unfortunate if this overshadows the fact that much of the church in Africa is a powerful force for social cohesion, containing a message of inclusion, especially for poor people. The Catholic Church in Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, is often the only functioning point of welfare and human security in vast parts of the country.

Africa’s rise as a spiritual centre is a thing of beauty that can move the entire world. Let us hope that it is not marred by bigotry exacerbated by malign forces. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Gosling says:

    “Even though LGBTQ+ identities had existed in Africa since before colonialism, their existence was not always welcomed and tolerated,” admits Okereke. Same-sex relationships have existed in all cultures and among all humans since the dawn of time, Okereke. Uganda’s despicable anti-same sex laws and Kenya’s homophobia is part of a ground swell of anti-West and anti-colonialist rhetoric that is being conflated with anti-same sex relationships. Colonialists brought same-sex relationships to Africa? This speaks of a level of eye-watering ignorance and bigotry. Of course Putin and Russia are supporting this rhetoric in order to curry favor with Africa and Africans so that they can lay there hands on as much of the resources as possible. Putin will be welcomes with open arms by Ramaphosa when we host the BRICS summit later this year – watch this space…

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    LGBTQ and abortion rights have taken ages to be accepted and now certain categories and countries are going backward. It is depressing to observe how opportunism, ignorance and invented religious rules are able to cancel the progression to a world that is more tolerant and open to individual freedom.

  • dmpotulo says:

    This is retrogression and backwardness, sexual orientation is a human right issue. It is high time we bring adults in Kenya and Uganda.

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