I n the past few years, conservative Episcopalians from a number of
U. S. congregations have voted to bolt from their church and place
themselves under various African leaders, including Nigeria's
Anglican primate Peter Jasper Akinola. The source of the
conservatives' discontent with the U.S. Episcopal Church was its
liberal position on homosexuality. It had, after all, named an
openly gay man bishop of New Hampshire. That was also the reason
Akinola and other African clergy appealed to these largely white
congregations. Akinola's church views any gay manifestation as an
"acquired aberration" and has compared the U.S. Episcopal Church to
a "cancerous lump." He has also backed legislation that prescribes
severe prison sentences for gay sex.But, while Akinola is the best-known anti-gay voice in Africa, he is
hardly alone. If, tomorrow, he walked in front of a Lagos bus,
other clerics-- including Uganda's Henry Orombi and Rwanda's
Emmanuel Kolini--would soon assume his role. Even the heroic
Archbishop David Gitari--a leading opponent of dictatorship in his
native Kenya for 30 years--has felt compelled to denounce same-sex
unions in Canada as "immoral and contrary to the Bible."
The current prestige of African religious authorities like these in
the United States makes for an interesting new chapter in the
history of global Christianity, not to mention American culture.
And the politics are even more complicated than that: By joining
forces with their African Anglican peers, disgruntled U.S.
congregations have unwittingly become players in a culture war over
gay issues that is unfolding across the Atlantic. That war is
political and religious and historical--and has almost nothing to
do with our own.
Many African societies have well-established traditions of same-sex
interactions and gay subcultures. In different parts of the
continent, we can find everything from warrior cultures in which
mature men sexually initiate youths, to examples of gender
crossing. A decade ago, the varieties of African homosexuality were
documented in the book Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands, edited by
Will Roscoe and Stephen O. Murray.
Why, then, did opposition to gay rights become so critical for many
African Christians? The answer has a lot to do with the rapid
spread of Christianity on the continent in a relatively short time.
In 1900, Africa had 10 million Christians, representing around 10
percent of the population. By 2000, that figure had grown to 360
million, or 46 percent. As a result, most African Christians today
are first- or secondgeneration members of the faith, and many are
adult converts. Sociologists generally agree that newer religious
groups tend to have more literal approaches to scripture. In
practice, of course, literalism still leaves plenty of room for
debate and interpretation; but, when the Bible specifically
condemns a particular sin--and same-sex interaction is repeatedly
denounced in both the Old and New Testaments--that makes it
difficult for literalists to find wiggle room.
In other ways, too, the rapid expansion of Christianity has
conditioned African views on homosexuality. African churches exist
in a ferociously competitive environment, one where traditional
groups--like Anglicans and Catholics--must fight to maintain their
market share against newer Pentecostal denominations, with their
enticing promises of miracles and healings. The last thing the
older churches need is a suggestion that their commitment to
scriptural truth is anything less than absolute or that they are any
less rigorous than their rivals in condemning sin.
The other key rival--and another factor shaping moral attitudes--is
Islam. Over the past century, African Christianity has grown much
more rapidly than Islam, a fact that puzzles and infuriates Muslims
who regard the continent as naturally theirs. In 1900, for
instance, Christians accounted for just 1 percent of the people of
what would become the state of Nigeria; Muslims made up 26 percent.
By 1970, however, the religions had achieved parity, each having
around 45 percent of the population. And some recent polls suggest
that, today, the nation has a Christian plurality. Against this
background of rivalry and potential violence, Christians cannot be
seen to concede anything to Muslims in terms of their commitment to
strict morality. Even the harsh anti-gay measures that Akinola
backs in Nigeria are still milder than the provisions enforced
under the sharia code that prevails in one-third of the country's
states, which includes the death penalty for homosexuality.
Moreover, by condemning sexual liberalism, African churches are
making clear to their own members and their Muslim neighbors that
they are not puppets of the West. Moral conservatism thus serves to
assert cultural independence--a link that requires sexual
immorality to be portrayed as a Euro-American import.
The Muslim context helps explain the sensitivity of gay issues in
one other key respect. In the region later known as Uganda,
Christianity first arrived in the 1870s, when the area was already
under Muslim influence and a hunting ground for Arab slave-raiders.
The king of Buganda had adopted Arab customs of pederasty, and he
expected the young men of his court to submit to his demands. But a
growing number of Christian courtiers and pages refused to
participate, despite his threats, and an enraged king launched a
persecution that resulted in hundreds of martyrdoms: On a single
day, some 30 Bugandans were burned alive. Yet the area's churches
flourished, and, eventually, the British expelled the Arab slavers.
That foundation story remains well-known in the region, and it
intertwines Christianity with resistance to tyranny and Muslim
imperialism-- both symbolized by sexual deviance. Reinforcing such
memories are more recent experiences with Muslim tyrants, such as
Idi Amin, whose victims included the head of his country's Anglican
Church. For many Africans, then, sexual unorthodoxy has
implications that are at once un-Christian, anti-national, and
To be sure, Africa is a diverse continent, and some voices are more
liberal on gay issues than others. Many of the most progressive can
be found in South Africa, arguably one of the most gay-friendly
countries in the world. Its constitution outlaws discrimination on
grounds of sexual orientation, and, in 2006, the country legalized
same-sex marriage. Many churches certainly opposed this latter
measure, but the depth of feeling is nothing like what we find in a
country like Nigeria. Anglican leader Desmond Tutu has spoken out
for gay rights, declaring, "To penalize somebody for their sexual
orientation is the same as what used to happen to black South
Africans for something about which we could do nothing." Generally,
bishops who do criticize homosexual behavior rank it low on their
hierarchy of sins. The country's current Anglican primate,
Njongonkulu Ndungane, calls homosexuality a "pastoral, secondary
problem," and has rebuked Akinola for failing to address more
pressing issues in his backyard.
One explanation for this phenomenon is that South Africa's unique
history has given its leaders more room to promote tolerance on gay
rights. After all, given the African National Congress's recent
credentials in resisting white domination, the government can
hardly be accused of passively succumbing to Western influence.
But South Africa is not the only place where gay-rights movements
have gained a foothold. An Anglican group called Changing Attitude
claims supporters in both Nigeria and Uganda, and the director of
its Nigerian chapter, Davis Mac- Iyalla, has earned some notoriety
as a liberal foil to Akinola. Some years ago, when Namibia's
thenpresident declared homosexuality a "behavioral disorder which
is alien to African culture," activists responded by creating a
fairly overt gay-rights movement, the Rainbow Project.
At present, such voices constitute a distinct minority. That will
not be the case forever, of course. As Christianity in Africa
develops, churches will likely acquire a greater range of
theological attitudes, including more moderate ones. Indeed,
history suggests that fundamentalists often have good reason to
worry about their more liberal grandchildren.
For now, though, gays in Africa face very real barriers to
acceptance. And we do them no favors by viewing Africa's culture
war over homosexuality as a mere extension of the battle we are
witnessing here in the United States, rather than as a fight which
raises questions unique to African history and politics. Trying to
explain this can be a risky enterprise, as I learned first hand
when I gave an interview explaining why Akinola felt as he did, only
to find myself denounced for sharing his views. But, if an
ever-larger share of the world's Christian population is going to
be located in Africa--and it is-- then we at least ought to
understand the views of that population for what they are.
By Philip Jenkins; Philip Jenkins is the author of God's Continent:
Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis.