All words: Toni Tileva
God Loves Uganda, a documentary by Roger Ross Williams, turns its lens onto a new kind of Western exploitation taking place in Africa. Spearheaded by American Evangelicals, the cultural exploitation is no less damaging or disturbing than the plundering of resources and people that has decimated Africa for centuries. The film is about much more than what caused Uganda to be the first country to introduce anti-gay legislation into Parliament that makes homosexuality punishable by death, although it makes the link between America’s hate-filled religious right rhetoric and the spread of homophobia in the country. God Loves Uganda is really about the insidious way in which something as seemingly well-meaning as missionary work has chilling implications for a country still attempting to shake the shackles of Western exploitation. It also is a very probing look into the workings of a mega church.
The film introduces us to International House Of Prayer, a.k.a. IHOP, a religion-in-a-box mega church that would surely match the pancake franchise in its customer outreach. Led by Lou Engle, IHOP is the prototype of the modern-day Christian fundamentalist mega church—in one word, a corporation no different in its methods, resources, and structure than a Fortune 500 company, except in that its media machine would surely be the envy of any corporation. Jono Hall, IHOP’s Media Director, explains he has over 1,000 full-time staff, split into 80 departments; IHOP broadcasts 1 million video hours a month to a 117 nations. No activity goes undocumented on film; millions of dollars go into messaging alone.
What exactly is the message, you might ask? Couched in nebulous and euphemistic terms like “spreading the good news,” or “The Call” campaign (12 hour pray-a-thons to put an end to abortion, for example), the message goes far beyond a merely religious one. This is where the genius of God Loves Uganda really comes through: it reveals the blatantly jingoist language used by the missionaries themselves. The missionaries in Africa keep referring to themselves as an “army” and this kind of rather violence-connoting ethos is scarily illustrated in the scene where firebrand anti-gay preacher Martin Ssempa is literally rolling on the ground, punching the floor, as his disciples all scream, “No to Obama!” for his “pro-gay stance.” A young missionary describes her mission as “imparting a DNA of prayer and worship,” and like DNA, she explains, she wants to “replicate values.” In another equally hair-raising quote, the missionaries explain how the fact that Uganda is nation where 50% of the people are under 15 years old would allow them to “multiply ourselves.” Words like “strategy” and other rather militaristic language only serve to dispel the myth that there is anything particularly spiritual or elevated about IHOP’s goals. At best, this is pure jingoism and all God Loves Uganda does is point a camera at it, without any commentary.
The jingoism also expresses itself in the way the missionaries hone in on specific communities. Engle calls Uganda, “a firepot of spiritual renewal and revival.” Reverend Kapya Kaoma, a priest and former Ugandan now residing in the U.S., who cannot return home because his research into the influence of the religious right there has made it dangerous for him to do so, calls it preying on vulnerable communities and enforcing values on them at the cost of receiving aid. Kaoma explains how the mega churches seek out especially neglected communities, ones unreached by anyone else, and turn them into “dumping places for extreme ideas.” By building schools, orphanages, and hospitals, the American Evangelicals are becoming all-powerful in Uganda and reliance on their help makes any sort of dissent an impossibility. As Kaoma very poignantly states about the young missionaries, “All they know are the Biblical verses they have memorized, but people listen to them because they are white and American.” And even worse, extremist preachers like “the gay agenda is to make your children gay and destroy the world” Scott Lively, who as Kaoma points out, is literally a nobody in the US got an audience in Uganda’s Parliament where he was directly instrumental in urging PM David Bahati to introduce the anti-gay bill. The damage is done in other areas too. During the Clinton administration, HIV reduction was hugely successful; with the advent of Bush’s abstinence-only programs, HIV rates once again began to creep up. Abstinence-only programs were the only ones receiving funding so adhering to the religious right party line was the only choice Uganda had.
God Loves Uganda is a daring film and a look into what happens when religion is used to fan the flames of hatred and violence. There is no “good news” to be found in the message of IHOP and others of its ilk; one either goes along with their message of intolerance or one is heading towards sure damnation. It’s a highly ironic given that the West has plundered Africa to the point of making it hell on Earth.