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The Politics of Religion in Uganda

August 2, 2010

One of the first things one notices in Uganda is the religiosity of its people.  This religiosity is on display in every corner of social life—in the Christian decorations on public transportation, on broadcast television, in the number of churches that line the roads, and in the newspapers.

Official statistics put the Christian population at around 80 percent, roughly half that number being Catholic and the other half being Anglican (here called the Church of Uganda).  About 10 percent is Sunni Muslim, and 10 percent is other, traditional animist, or non-religious.  Traditional faith, however, permeates social life even for members of established Churches; traditional medicine, sacrifices, superstitions, and so forth are common.

But the official numbers mask the recent proliferation of American-style evangelism and Pentecostalism.  For instance, of the six available broadcast television stations, one is solely dedicated to American gospel concerts, and another is dedicated solely to American televangelism, including such controversial far-right pastors as John Hagee.  The other channels also have religious programming, although news, dubbed telenovelas, local music videos, and B-movies fill out the rest of the programming.

Uganda seems to be in the middle of what Americans might call a ‘Great Awakening.’  Religious expression in political life is newly common, with even the President leading prayers at public events.  The Catholic and Anglican Archbishops are frequently in the news commenting on controversial political issues.  Recent scandals in the governing body of Ugandan Muslims were front-page news.  American and European missionaries are common.

This social conservatism manifests itself in politics, most recently during the controversy surrounding a proposed law to make homosexuality a capital offense.  The law would also have imprisoned people for not reporting suspected gay men and lesbians.  After an international outcry, the law was withdrawn.  Interestingly the episode also revealed the extensive international networks between American evangelical groups with socially conservative agendas, Republican politicians in Washington, DC, and African political, church, and civil society leaders.  Several Republican politicians struggled to distance themselves from the law, despite their close ties to American evangelical groups pushing the anti-gay agenda in Africa.

Following this controversy from America, I got the sense that Ugandans were surprised by the loud outcry coming from the States, since they were, in their minds, just taking the next ‘logical’ step in the truly vile, escalating, anti-gay rhetoric coming from American representatives of evangelical political groups that frequently visited Uganda and hosted anti-gay conferences here.  In any event, the bill has been tabled for now, though anti-gay rhetoric is common on even the government television channel and newspapers.  One interviewee on the national television station was wearing a shirt that said, “AFRICA UNITED FOR THE FAMILY,” while his colleagues wore shirts that said “AFRICA UNITED AGAINST SODOMY.”  He was on television to talk about the twin evils of human sacrifice and sodomy.

(Human sacrifice apparently exists.  Every week or so in the newspaper there is a story about someone being butchered in suspected human sacrifice rituals.)

But the intersection of religion, social conservatism, US interest groups, and African politics can be currently seen most clearly in neighboring Kenya.  Kenya is about to hold a referendum on a major revision to their constitution.  Major political figures, including the president and prime minister, who come from different coalitions, have lined up in support of the proposed constitution.  Christian groups are leading the ‘NO’ campaign because the constitution allows abortion in cases where the woman’s life is in danger.  The ‘NO’ campaign also claims (disingenuously, I think) that it opens a window to allowing gay marriage.  Former authoritarian President Daniel arap Moi is working for the ‘NO’ campaign.  Again, American conservatives are intervening in the political scene here, this time over the objection of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Recent trends suggest that evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity will only become more deeply embedded in eastern African politics.

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