By Jacob Mertens.
Allow me to begin this review with a truism: life is complicated. We are born and we die, and everything we build within that span of time grows lonely with our passing. Without ever being a religious man, I have always held the utmost respect for the refuge sought in scripture and tradition. However, it seems that while religion gives to many comfort and a means to express faith and spirituality, these positives pale to its capacity to be used as a weapon. In April of 1979, the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was removed from power. In his wake, a swell of Christian missionaries swarmed the country and began building Uganda back up from the ground. The foreign missionaries funded new schools and churches and roads, and with a renewed infrastructure came a conservative Christian ethos that has gone on to reshape and corrupt the nation. Before I watched Roger Ross Williams’ documentary God Loves Uganda, the idea of a wide eyed missionary speaking to an African Muslim about the word of Christ would not have filled me with an implacable anger. Indeed, I would have regarded it as a mostly harmless act. But the Christian faith has begotten something vile and dangerous in Uganda, and for better or worse I can no longer say the same.
Williams’ film carefully constructs a critique of the missionary movement in Uganda using close access to a Christian organization called the International House of Prayer, or IHOP, and personal interviews with prominent Ugandan citizens. It is through the damning interviews with evangelicals, however, that we learn the most important principle facts of the documentary. At the time of filming, fifty percent of the Ugandan population was under fifteen years of age, and because of this splendid statistic the evangelical community, as exemplified through IHOP, regarded Uganda as an important proving ground for a faith based revolution of thought and action. Following this basic mission statement are sequences that show missionaries teaching Ugandan children songs about baby Jesus, or songs with cutesy refrains of “I am a C-H, I am a C-H-R-I-S, I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N.” It all feels innocuous enough as far as brain washing goes, until Williams goes on to detail the spread of this conservative Christian influence. We see the torch being passed from the outsider presence of IHOP to newly trained Ugandan missionaries, who take to the streets haranguing the public with cheap microphones, reading scripture with a holy fire in their cadence. We learn that nearly ninety percent of the country now belongs to the Christian faith. And we listen as interviewed evangelicals use words like “soldiers” to describe their followers, a word preferred for its intensity.
The consequences of this movement are likely several fold, reaching further than a documentary can expect to explain. For the purposes of God Loves Uganda though, the negative impact of adopted conservative Christian ideologies revolves around a repressed attitude toward sexuality. Before the movement took place, Uganda had been a success story in the fight against AIDS. The decline of those infected owed both to a government funded television ad campaign and a widespread issuing of condoms. However, during George W. Bush’s presidency, an ultimatum was issued to the country. If Uganda were to receive foreign aid, it would have to enact a nationwide abstinence program. With these external pressures mounting from abroad, and a changing ideological framework at home, Uganda’s government readily acquiesced to our born again President’s demands. Predictably, the number of those infected by AIDS has gradually gone up since.
Even more harrowing, however, is the spread of hate toward homosexuals propagated by the church. In the early moments of the film, IHOP takes credit for helping to uphold the initial decision of Prop 8 in California, a now famous piece of legislation banning same-sex couples from marrying, through a series of amphitheater-sized demonstrations. The church carries its prejudicial crusade to Africa, and Ugandans take to their new beliefs with such zeal that they actually attempt to pass a piece of legislation that would give the government unilateral power to jail and kill homosexuals (legislation that still waits to become law to this day). Unsatisfied by these measures, the more extreme citizens take to the streets and murder homosexuals in cold blood. In a telling moment in God Loves Uganda, one of the key LGBT activists in the country dies in just such a way, and a Ugandan priest attempts to grandstand about the sin of homosexuality at his funeral.
Williams’ film does not have to work hard to raise ire, because the current landscape of prejudice in our country finds an almost elegant magnification in Uganda. Here, evangelicals take advantage of a country lacking a means of filtering their message, where even the most radical preachers can find traction where none exists in the states. The question of “why?” may always elude me though. Prominent preachers in Uganda spend half of their time in Africa and half in the states, they live in wealthy mansions, and so obviously the business of hate is profitable. Perhaps without someone to demonize, the urgency of a passed collection plate would lose something. And perhaps, as a stretch, without the condemnation of our own sexuality, perpetuating a feeling of worthlessness and sin, we might just lose our need to be healed by the church. Still, this is not so much a why as a convenient excuse for something inexcusable. And, after all, it is the wrong why to ask altogether. The why I want to know is why does it work? Is there something fundamentally lonely within some of us, that we must cling to religion to feel at ease? And not just any branch of religion, but to those who seem to speak with more conviction than anyone else, to those who believe there is a fight to be won. The measured, rational voice just does not carry as far, does it?
If readers were to go looking for a contemporary to God Loves Uganda, the closest may be the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp, which raises similar questions. Unlike Jesus Camp though, in God Loves Uganda the endgame of a youth based Christian indoctrination is stripped bare, and the animosity wrought in God’s name reveals itself. Some may feel the film decries the outrage in Uganda too forcefully, that it polarizes the audience into those who already feel one way or another, and lacks the ability to sway hearts and minds. For me, this would be a misread of the film. It is important to maintain a measured, rational voice in regards to religion but you had better make sure your voice is loud. Otherwise, your words just will not carry.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.