Sunday, November 29, 2009

Family knows best?

Sitting in Logan airport using Google's free holiday wi-fi (thanks, Google!), I came across the following:

With their reported $13 billion tax-exempt financial empire, the Mormons may be the wealthiest cult in America — and Scientology may be the big thing among the rich and powerful in Hollywood — but when it comes to political power neither of those sects holds a candle to the Family, the Christian extremist political group that operates the now infamous C Street house on Capitol Hill in Washington.


But what many people may find surprising is that the Family has branches around the world. In fact, yesterday, Jeff Sharlet, author of “The Family: Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” reported on NPR’s “Fresh Air” that it was a Family member in the Ugandan parliament who introduced a bill that would increase the punishment for homosexuality from life imprisonment, which is the maximum sentence today, to death:

SHARLET: [The] new legislation adds to this something called aggravated homosexuality. And this can include, for instance, if a gay man has sex with another man who is disabled, that’s aggravated homosexuality, and that man can be – I suppose both, actually, could be put to death for this. The use of any drugs or any intoxicants in seeking gay sex – in other words, you go to a bar and you buy a guy a drink, you’re subject to the death penalty if you go home and sleep together after that. What it also does is it extends this outward, so that if you know a gay person and you don’t report it, that could mean – you don’t report your son or daughter, you can go to prison.

And it goes further, to say that any kind of promotion of these ideas of homosexuality, including by foreigners, can result in prison terms. Talking about same sex-marriage positively can lead you to imprisonment for life. And it’s really kind of a perfect case study and the export of a lot of American largely evangelical ideas about homosexuality exported to Uganda, which then takes them to their logical end.


[The] legislator that introduces the bill, a guy named David Bahati, is a member of the Family. He appears to be a core member of the Family. He works, he organizes their Uganda National Prayer Breakfast and oversees a African sort of student leadership program designed to create future leaders for Africa, into which the Family has poured millions of dollars working through a very convoluted chain of linkages passing the money over to Uganda…

So who are the members of Congress who belong to the Family and tolerate, if not encourage, this sort of extremism overseas? According to Jeff Sharlet, while most cult members are Republicans, members of both parties are welcomed. “Jesus didn’t come to take sides,” the members are fond of saying. “He came to take over.”

Now check this:

The mainstream media avoids referring to the Family as a cult, but check out this description of the group’s belief system from Jeff Sharlet and decide for yourself:

They have a very unusual theology in the sense that they think that Christ had one message for an inner circle and then a kind of different message for a sort of slightly more outer circle. And then the rest of us, Christ told us little stories because, frankly, we couldn’t handle the truth. And the core members are those they think are getting the real deal.

He didn't come to take sides, he came to take over. It makes me shiver.

But what makes me shiver more than the Family/cult/power network stuff is the overarching dynamic. A lot of gay people in Uganda are going to die, or live in misery. A lot of their friends and family will, too. And they will go through this directly because of globalized Evangelical Christianity.

I was just reading about a much different, milder, nicer version of this in a book about the Full Gospel community in Trinidad. Protestantism plus colonialism in Trinidad, at least, has rendered the local and the native identical to the carnal and the primitive, while the nonlocal (North America in particular) is identified with the spiritual and pure. This gets played out in choices of music appropriate for worship services, but that's not the point here. In Trinidad, at least, sects are concerned with the "global church" (largely Pentecostalist and Evangelical) as a way of defining for themselves what is proper religious practice and what is appropriate for someone living a religious life.

I admit that I don't know much about Uganda, and I am very ready to be wrong. But as we know, a little information is a dangerous thing, and so armed with my one book about Trinidad I see a bit of a parallel here of a global (read: American) church having a strong influence on congregations far from the global center--peripheral nations like Trinidad and Uganda. And especially in the case of particular issues, like abortion and birth control, this flow of influence has been strengthened and backed by explicit U.S. policies.

That makes me shiver, too. In a much less titillating fashion.

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