There were no prayers for David Kato at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast. Despite the best efforts of LGBT rights and progressive religious leaders, its organizers refused to honor the Ugandan gay activist, who was found bludgeoned to death in his home in Kampala in late January.
Activists wanted to highlight Kato for the same reason the breakfast’s organizers, a group called the Family, wanted to ignore him. An increasing number of Americans, including prominent politicians and journalists, are making the connection between the Family, an elite, secretive brotherhood of fundamentalist Christian politicians; an Anti-Homosexuality Bill under consideration in Uganda that would make gay sex punishable by death; and a culture of homophobia in Uganda so extreme that several months prior to Kato’s murder, a tabloid had splashed the headline “100 Pictures of Uganda’s Top Homos” next to his picture alongside a banner that read “Hang them.”
The Family, based in Washington, DC, has been a major background player in national and global politics for decades. In 1935, the group’s founder, Abraham Vereide, was inspired by a dream in which God told him that Christian evangelism had been focusing on ministering to the wrong people—the poor, the suffering, the down and out. Instead, God said, Vereide should go minister to other powerful men, introduce them to Jesus, and together create a leadership headed by God. Consequently, Family members’ most heartfelt prayers, as their legislative interests indicate, concern dismantling healthcare reform, shredding the social safety net, busting unions, promoting deregulation, making abortion illegal and enriching themselves. All as secretively as possible, since, as current leader Douglas Coe says, “The more invisible you can make your organization, the more influence it will have.”
The National Prayer Breakfast has been a testament to the Family’s significance among the world’s powerful. As Jeff Sharlet notes in his book The Family, “Some 3,000 dignitaries, representing scores of nations and corporate interests, pay $425 each to attend.” Attendance is diverse, with participants ranging from oil and banking executives to “a Sudanese general linked to genocide in Darfur,” to President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Family has taken an interest in Uganda since the mid-’80s, when one of its members brought President Museveni into the fold. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which is probably coming up for a vote soon—perhaps in the weeks following Uganda’s February 18 election—was originally introduced at the Ugandan Family’s version of the National Prayer Breakfast in October 2009. Its primary promoter, Parliamentarian David Bahati, boasts of being a Family member despite the unwritten dictate that Family members keep their secret society secret. While the provision that mandates death for LGBT “serial offenders” has caused the greatest outcry from the international community, Ugandans also concerned about the part where even heterosexuals who fail to turn in “known homosexuals” face three-year prison sentences.
However you look at it, the bill’s a recipe for genocide in a country that already sentences anyone guilty of homosexual sex to up to fourteen years in prison.
The outraged response of human rights activists in the United States finally resulted in a pointed repudiation of the bill by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton at last year’s National Prayer Breakfast while protesters circled outside. It’s safe to say that the Family did not want a repeat at this year’s event. They got their wish. Obama spoke, but said nothing about Uganda. Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s husband spoke but said nothing explicit about the dangers of violent rhetoric. The Family was back in form: powerful, respectable and, most importantly, invisible.
But Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson and Reverend John Vaughn of the Auburn Theological Seminary are still trying to push the Family to take an active role in protecting the very people they’ve imperiled through supporting Bahati’s bill. “When you combine the Family’s divine sense of entitlement with anti-gay prejudice,” the Bishop told me, “you have a recipe for destruction that has caused some of the darkest hours of our history. Now Ugandan gays are scrambling to find places to hide. My friend Christopher Senyonjo, the Anglican bishop who was the other person on the front of that tabloid with David Kato, is busy trying to set up safe houses for people in Uganda while his own life and the lives of his family are in danger.”
Together, Robinson and Vaughn have called for the Family to “make a public statement that definitively calls out the pending anti-gay legislation in Uganda as a manifestation of sin.” They ask its leaders “at this pivotal moment, [to] exert your direct influence over those responsible for its creation and possible passage, such as MP David Bahati, Ethics Minister Nsaba Buturo, and President Yoweri Museveni.”
It’s hard to imagine that happening. There’s no sign of genuine remorse, or even acknowledgment of involvement from the Family, and there probably won’t be. Family member Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who won’t acknowledge being part of the Family, took care of his own PR by issuing a public renunciation of the bill after Rachel Maddow highlighted his connection to Uganda’s fundamentalist community and political leaders. (So did Pastor Rick Warren after receiving the Maddow treatment. Though not a member of the Family, he had also agitated heavily for anti-LGBT measures in Uganda.) Bahati told Sharlet that, despite some public backpedaling, he had received no pressure from the Americans to drop the bill.
But there’s another cold, hard fact at play when asking the American Family to try to roll back the tide they’ve helped to swell in Uganda. Even if a Doug Coe or a Bob Hunter—the Family’s spokesman on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill—were to pick up the phone and denounce the bill to Bahati, its primary Ugandan promoter, there’s no reason to believe Bahati could or would drop it.
For his part, Bahati didn’t seem too concerned one way or the other. Although some of the Americans had denounced the bill, he told Sharlet, they could continue to work together on other biblical issues—like defense contracts.