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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why Are Evangelicals So into Uganda?

Originally posted 3/13/12 at Joshua's website.

In the image to the right, Invisible Children staff pose with weapons and personnel of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, which has also engaged in rape, pillage, and the use of child soldiers.

Anyone who hasn’t been under a social media rock for the past week is aware of the Kony 2012 video and viral marketing campaign started by Invisible Children. The goal is to convince US policymakers to intervene in the ongoing crisis in Central Africa by providing more US military advisers, more military aid to the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF), and more diplomatic pressure on Central African heads of state.

There’s been a wave of criticism since the whole thing began. Among the best critiques I’ve read are Bruce Wilson’s piece at AlterNet and Neil Anderson’s piece at Demand Nothing, both of which highlight Invisible Children’s financial connections with the National Christian Foundation, the Fellowship Foundation—aka, the Family, the International Foundation, the Wilberforce Foundation, C Street, etc—and several other Evangelical Christian groups. (Boing Boing has a nice roundup here, along with a much longer roundup of African voices responding to the Kony 2012 campaign.)

Let’s be clear: Invisible Children has always been an evangelical Christian organization. Its founders and staff are largely evangelicals; its major funders are evangelical foundations; its major partners are evangelical NGOs; and its early marketing was through evangelical college groups. That doesn’t bother me in and of itself. After all, much of my life has involved trying to get religious people more involved in social justice work. But something about Invisible Children rubbed me the wrong way when I first heard about it through evangelical friends back in college, and that feeling redoubled when Kony 2012 blew up.

What’s most inexplicable is Uganda. Set aside the fact that Joseph Kony is not in Uganda. Set aside that the Ugandan military also uses child soldiers, including former child members of the Lord’s Resistance Army. It’s curious how Uganda keeps popping up in relation to evangelical NGOs.
As the Bruce Wilson piece linked to above points out, one of Invisible Children’s largest funders is the National Christian Foundation, who also fund the Fellowship Foundation (aka, the Family), which Jeff Sharlet has written about extensively. As NPR has reported here and here, the Family is also deeply involved in Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni and several government ministers have ties to the Family, and they’ve even been accused of setting the scene for Uganda’s now infamous kill-the-gays bill (though members of the Family have disputed that.)

This weekend a friend and I busted out our ninja skills and did some snooping on Invisible Children and related organizations, including the Family. Looking through their 990 forms for 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005, I discovered something shocking—a school in Uganda is almost always their single largest grantee by far, to the tune of millions of dollars. It turns out this school is Cornerstone Development Africa, another explicitly Christian organization.

So, why Uganda? I have absolutely no idea. You might argue that Buddhists tend to be more concerned about Tibet and Burma and Muslims tend to be more concerned about Syria and Palestine, so it’s natural for evangelicals to be more concerned about an evangelical nation. Except that Uganda isn’t an evangelical nation; it’s mostly Catholic and Anglican.

On the other hand, it could be that the president of Uganda—who’s held that office for almost as long as I’ve been alive—is a member of the Family and apparently quite a devout evangelical Christian. On the Family’s end it could also be his willingness to deport dissidents and burn down villages for Western corporate interests—something that’s surely attractive to deep-pocketed evangelical donors.

Those are pretty audacious accusations, and they could be completely wrong. But something just feels off about the thing, and I’ve learned to trust that instinct. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.

Joshua Eaton is a writer on Buddhism, politics, and culture and a member of Occupy Boston. His full bio and more of his writings can be found at his website, http://www.JoshuaEaton.net.

1 comment:

  1. I just read more info that could support your instinct re Uganda's connection to evangelicals. From Jeff Sharlett book 'The Family'. extract is abt their Ntl prayer breakfasts
    ..." Here's how it can work: Dennis Bakke, former CEO of AES, the largest independent power producer in the world, and a Family insider, took the occasion of the 1997 Prayer Breakfast to invite Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, the Family's "key man" in Africa, to a private dinner at a mansion, just up the block from the Family's Arlington headquarters. Bakke, the author of a popular business book titled Joy at Work, has long preached an ethic of social responsibility inspired by his evangelical faith and his free-market convictions: "I am trying to sell a way of life," he has said. "I am a cultural imperialist." That's a phrase he uses to be provocative; he believes that his Jesus is so universal that everyone wants Him. And, apparently, His business opportunities: Bakke was one of the pioneer thinkers of energy deregulation, the laissez-faire fever dream that culminated in the meltdown of Enron. But there was other, less-noticed fallout, such as a no-bid deal Bakke made with Museveni, the result of a relationship that began at the 1997 Prayer Breakfast, for a $500-million dam close to the source of the White Nile — in waters considered sacred by Uganda's 2.5-million–strong Busoga minority. AES announced that the Busoga had agreed to "relocate" the spirits of their dead. They weren't the only ones opposed; first environmentalists (Museveni had one American arrested and deported) and then even other foreign investors revolted against a project that seemed like it might actually increase the price of power for the poor. Bakke didn't worry. "We don't go away," he declared. He dispatched a young man named Christian Wright, the son of one of the Prayer Breakfast's organizers, to be AES's in- country liaison to Museveni; Wright was later accused of authorizing at least $400,000 in bribes. He claimed his signature had been forged...."
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120746516

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