Scratching the Surface in Uganda

Time magazine's recent story on a religious freethinker in Uganda is in some respects a very good read. Bright, breezy and upbeat, the article explains how James Onen, a former Pentecostal, has started a blog and a discussion group to encourage open debate on religion.

The article notes how “Onen's efforts have, inevitably, led to some grumblings in the local media” in the famously–even notoriously–conservative country, and that several clergymen have begun to question his efforts. But the reporter frames Onen's work as a reasonable reaction against Uganda's religious excesses: witchcraft, spiritual warfare, the prosperity gospel, faith-healing and harsh anti-gay legislation.

What's missing from the story is the reality that the religious expressions passingly referenced—whether spiritual warfare or a “draconian anti-gay bill”—are fundamental to the country's current sociocultural composition: Uganda is in the midst of becoming a prototype for a new synthesis of right-wing religion and politics, both American and African. That important bit of contextual scene-setting is missing from Time's feel-good piece about religious freedom in Uganda.

Writing last year in Religion Dispatches, Nick Street (full disclosure: Nick is also the managing editor of this website) described Uganda–a country on the frontier of Islam and Christianity in Africa governed by an evangelical president-for-life–as “an experiment in right-wing social thought.” Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill, which seems posed to pass, would imprison or kill the country's gays.

There is no shortage of information about the intersection of conservative American evangelicalism and Ugandan political activity. A new study by Kapya Kaoma, an African Anglican priest, documents how and why American culture wars have been exported to Uganda.

The takeaway from Time's airy souffle of an article is simple: do your homework. When you're writing about global religion, there are usually more than one or two variables in the equation—especially when red flags like anti-gay legislation, spiritual warfare and the prosperity gospel are whipping in the breeze as the latest batch of American missionaries debarks at Kampala. True enough, the reality is that budget cutbacks make it hard for journalists to pursue in-depth reporting in places like Uganda. In the near term, we're hoping to help address that shortfall through the Knight Luce Fellowships for Reporting on Global Religion.

But in the longer term, reporters must grok that religious movements and institutions don't exist in isolation from politics, culture and economics; in very real ways, religion and the other elements in any given societal mix are often inseparable from one another.

Writing about a religious freethinker in Uganda without probing the deeply entwined roots of violence and evangelicalism in that country is like reporting on a couple of black college students sitting at a Birmingham lunch counter in 1963 without mentioning segregation or the civil rights movement.

There's more at stake than rudeness when the server at the lunch counter asks the college students to leave. And there's much more to James Onen's story than his hope that “logic and reason will keep the peace.”

Diane Winston

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