Brethren in power

The direct involvement of African Christians in battles over social policy in the USA is mirrored by the involvement of the American Christian Right in Africa, as they collaborate to oppose progressive forces in civil society and shape government policy

When Kenyan Pentecostal pastor Thomas Muthee stepped in front of the video cameras at the Wasilla Assembly of God church in Alaska in August 2005 and told the congregation, ‘We need believers in government, people who are born again…the congressmen, the governors…we need the brethren right inside there, because who will change the law of the land?’, he brought into the public eye the active role African Pentecostals are playing in the Christian Right’s struggle for political power in the USA, as well as in Africa.

Muthee’s task that Sunday was to bless Sarah Palin’s bid to become governor of Alaska. The video recording of the event shows Palin standing in front of him, her arms and hands outstretched, two church elders holding her, while Muthee prays, ‘Make a way for Sarah, my God. Bring finances her way for the campaign, in the name of Jesus’. Three years later, on the same podium, Governor Palin was filmed telling the Wasilla congregation that Muthee’s prayer had been ‘very very powerful’.

Muthee’s endorsement of Palin appears to challenge the Christian Right’s well-known penchant for motherhood and apple pie. As Jessica Horn has written in her article Spirit, hope, money and a dose of patriarchy, ‘The discourse emanating from many of the pulpits in Africa has become a significant force in undermining women’s rights in policy, and in promoting a submissive model of womanhood’. Yet for Muthee, it seems, Palin was simply ‘brethren’, with the potential to ‘change the law of the land’. And he was right. Ruth Rosen’s recent article on openDemocracy describes an explosion of Christian Right activity by women in the USA. Sarah Palin, says Rosen, is campaigning ‘across the nation…for her followers to launch a new, conservative feminist movement, that supports only political candidates who uncompromisingly oppose abortion’.

Muthee’s early ministry in Kenya involved a battle for power against a woman he said embodied ‘demonic influence’. Muthee decided that all the troubles of Kiambu, a suburb of Nairobi, were down to the activities of the woman he called Mama Jane. After months of mobilising residents in a ‘prayer crusade’, Muthee claimed to have driven Mama Jane out of town - and thereby eradicated crime and other social troubles. Twenty years later journalists found Pastor Jane Njenga still practising in Kiambu. Nonetheless ‘spiritual warfare’ has served Muthee well: the Daily Telegraph reported in 2008 that he was building a ‘5000-seat complex’ in Kiambu. Some of the cash to buy the land came from another Alaska church network, the Valley Pastors Prayer Network, who were so taken with Muthee’s ‘Mama Jane’ story that they brought him to Alaska and raised $30,000 to help him buy land to build his church.

The éminence apostolique behind both Muthee and Palin is US evangelist C. Peter Wagner, whose Global Apostolic Prayer Network started life as the Spiritual Warfare Network; Palin is reported to have joined in 1990, the year it was formed, and Muthee was an early board member. Wagner proselytises for what he calls the New Apostolic Reformation, which isn’t just about religion; his 2008 book, Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World, is about ‘how the people of God should aggressively move towards taking dominion of society and…strive to put people with the highest biblical standards into governmental offices’. But Wagner says he is against theocracy, preferring what democracy makes possible: ‘The rules of the democratic game open the doors for Christians, as well as for non-Christians who have Kingdom values, to move into positions of leadership influential enough to shape the whole nation from top to bottom’.

In Africa, as Jessica Horn describes in her study, Christian Fundamentalisms and Women’s Rights in the African Context: Mapping the Terrain, ‘Pentecostal and charismatic beliefs…have made notable entries into state policy...There is evidence to suggest that the U.S. Christian Right and U.S. Christian fundamentalists are providing targeted financial support to key African clergy in both the mainline and charismatic Protestant traditions…using the issues of sexual orientation and same-sex marriage, which are already contentious in the church and society, as a way to gain political and popular leverage’.

Horn interviewed a number of African women’s rights activists for her study. Nigerian activist Dorothy Aken’ova said that on the ground in Nigeria, what she and other women’s rights activists were up against was ‘the practice of institutionalising religion and making it an apparatus to monopolize and manipulate the socio-political and economic climate’. Women’s rights issues, she said, were ‘an easy rallying point for other fundamentalisms. Fundamentalists always find this a common ground, and trade off women’s rights in exchange for other interests’.

Cassandra Balchin has demonstrated how women’s rights activists in Muslim contexts and embattled sexual minorities in Uganda find themselves confronting the argument that sexual autonomy is a ‘western’ concept. Zambian pastor Kapya Kaoma’s groundbreaking study, Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, & Homophobia, reveals the extent to which the political use of religion by the US Christian Right in Africa is successfully influencing policy: ‘U.S. conservatives supported apartheid and opposed African liberation struggles. They encourage the exploitation of African natural resources and deny the dangers of global warming. They oppose international debt cancellation…yet they have succeeded in misrepresenting progressives who fight for social justice issues as “evil” people who promote homosexuality’.

In Uganda a coalition of high-level and influential Anglican and Pentecostal clerics and politicians has used what C. Peter Wagner calls ‘the rules of the democratic game’ to introduce an anti-homosexuality bill, known to rights campaigners around the world as the ‘Kill Gays’ bill. A vocal advocate of the bill is evangelical pastor Martin Ssempa, close associate of Uganda’s first lady, born-again Christian Janet Museveni. Ssempa says of the bill, ‘This is an African home-grown effort by Ugandans for Ugandans. This is democracy where leaders make laws for the people based on the will of the Ugandan people’.

Ssempa is a particularly virulent exponent of what Kaoma identifies: the phenomenon of identifying action against sexual minorities with ‘post-colonial pride’. US conservative Christians, he says, ‘exploit to maximum effect the African view that the imposition upon them of so-called western morality is imperialist’. When President Barack Obama publicly criticised the Bill, Ssempa accused him of using the White House as ‘a bully pulpit to spread sodomy, while enabling the murder of millions of unborn babies in his unconscionable and extremely odious abortion laws’.

By thus simultaneously intervening in the US ‘culture war’ on abortion, Ssempa put himself alongside his previous colleague and sponsor, Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in southern California (who told Newsweek in November last year that abortion is ‘a holocaust’), and further aligned himself with Pastor Kevin Odor of Canyon Ridge Christian Church , a mega ‘prayer warrior’ church in Las Vegas which now lists Ssempa and his wife as strategic partners. Canyon Ridge Church partners with the anti-abortion Women’s Resource Medical Centre in Las Vegas.

Since 2005, Rick Warren has been working directly with Rwandan President Paul Kagame to implement his concept of a national ‘purpose driven life’ in Rwanda, a programme he also promotes in Uganda and Kenya. President Barack Obama chose him to lead the prayer at his inauguration – even though Warren campaigns vigorously in the USA against abortion and same-sex marriage. Under intense pressure from rights activists over the ‘Kill Gays’ bill, Warren issued a Letter to Ugandan Church Leaders in December 2009 in which he described the bill as ‘unjust, extreme and un-Christian’. But Canyon Ridge Church has so far refused to disavow Ssempa.

The direct involvement of African clergy in battles over social policy and power in the USA is very evident in the bitter struggle over the consecration of gay bishops in the Episcopal Church in North America. African archbishops in Uganda, Nigeria Kenya and Rwanda, have not confined themselves to verbal denunciations of what they call ‘unbiblical decisions’; they also offered ‘ecclesiastical oversight’ to dissident congregations in the USA and Canada. Ugandan archbishop Henry Luke Orombi told Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori that the Savannah, Georgia, congregation he was visiting in May 2008 was now ‘part of the Church of Uganda’. A year earlier, as he announced that he would be consecrating a dissident US priest as bishop, Orombi said he had oversight of 26 congregations in North America. In 2006, Nigerian archbishop Peter Akinola (now retired) was reported to have ‘ecclesiastical authority’ for 8600 US Episcopalians; by 2010 that number was said to have risen to over 70,000. Kapya Kaoma says that American conservatives, ‘who are in the minority within mainline churches, depend on African religious leaders to legitimize their position’.

Kaoma interviewed many African clergy, and reports that ‘the majority were not consulted’ about this massive intervention by their archbishops in the affairs of the Episcopal Church. He says, ‘The evidence suggests most of these clergy, and of African Christians in general, oppose the move’. But their views count for little.

A full-scale alternative to the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of North America, is now in existence. It should perhaps come as no surprise that Pastor Rick Warren addressed the founding assembly in June 2009, and stepped onto the stage ‘to a standing ovation’.

The hue and cry against homosexuals in Uganda, and against gay Anglican bishops in the USA, comes from a fundamentalist reading of the Bible that’s used for authoritarian social ends. Jessica Horn, writing about the situation in Uganda says, ‘The emphasis on criminalizing advocacy for LGBTQI rights points to an agenda of controlling the actions of progressive civil society, and suggests a broader goal of silencing progressive voices, not least in the run-up to a controversial presidential election in Uganda in 2011’.

But progressive civil society in Uganda has not given up the ghost. On Valentines Day 2010, more than 200 LGBT Ugandans gathered in Kampala under the auspices of Ugandan Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Kiyimba, for a ‘pride parade in a closet’ and to strategise against the ‘Kill Gays’ bill. In the recent British documentary ‘Africa’s Last Taboo’ homosexual men from Uganda, Kenya and Malawi, spoke openly about their difficulties, and their determination not to be cowed. The ‘brethren’ may be strategising to take power, and may actually have power in some instances – but they have not yet won.

However, the massive split in the Anglican Communion has already had consequences that go way beyond the church. As Kapya Kaoma says, ‘Even if conservatives fall short of their goal of takeover of the mainstream US churches, the decades-long campaigns of destabilization have weakened once powerful forces for social justice in the US and abroad’.