Analysis Religion

New Report: How the US Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa

Malika Redmond

Political Research Associates' latest report documents efforts by the U.S Christian Right to push an ideology hostile to reproductive and LGBT rights on sub-Saharan African countries.

Even as delegates gather in Washington, D.C. for the XIX International Aids conference, Political Research Associates released its latest report, Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa, documenting the U.S. Christian Right’s attempts to push an ideology hostile to reproductive and LGBT rights on sub-Saharan African countries.

In one notorious example in Tanzania in 2008, billboards depicted a “Faithful Condom User” as a skeleton -– a blatant attempt to discourage condom use as an effective HIV prevention method. Blazoned in clear letters underneath was the billboard’s sponsor: Human Life International (HLI), a group based in the United States.

This timely report, written by religion and sexuality researcher Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, explores how HLI–and other U.S. based Christian Right actors—try to position themselves as key moral leaders shaping African political, public health, and social agendas.  

A Roman Catholic organization, Human Life International (HLI) is staunchly opposed to contraception, abortion (with zero exceptions), stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, sex education, and homosexuality. HLI’s director of research and training Brian Clowes, one of the organization’s longest-serving staffers, is responsible for much of the overseas work and is known for explicating doctrinal points, such as the opposition to even “hard case” abortions.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

But HLI is not the only U.S. Christian Right group peddling corrosive reproductive politics in Africa. Sharon Slater, head of Family Watch International, a small Arizona-based group, wins a platform with mainstream Christian leaders for her message condemning the United Nations’ efforts to support family planning services and reproductive health options for women. In addition to opposing contraception use, Slater and HLI air conspiracy theories that exploit and exacerbate otherwise healthy concerns about the ethics of Western public health interventions. One such theory charges that vaccine distribution is really a secret sterilization program designed to destroy the African family.

Abortion is already illegal in most African countries, bans first passed decades ago under colonial governments, and even where there are some exceptions the complications of the law often drive women to obtain illegal and dangerous procedures. In an interview with Political Research Associates, Soedi White, Director of Women and the Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust, stated her desire to see laws liberalized so that desperate women are no longer pushed into “drinking surf (washing powder), using wires, and poisonous herbs.”

But outright bans are not good enough for HLI and allied organizations such as the Pat Robertson-founded American Center for Law and Justice, led by Jay Sekulow (a Romney campaign favorite). They are pushing for even stricter laws and constitutional bans. In Uganda in 2011, Human Life International’s affiliate reported a clinician who performed abortions to the authorities –- but was disappointed when the authorities didn’t respond with a crackdown. At least for the moment, both police and individuals seem to shy away from invading the “personal” decisions of women who seek abortions, even when they disapprove of the procedure.

Ironically, these U.S. Christian Right groups criticize sound human rights initiatives as forms of neocolonial interference even while they aggressively seek to change reproductive practices themselves. They hire Africans to staff their offices, putting an African face on a distinctly US conservative ideology. They work closely with African religious and political leaders.  As Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa makes crystal clear, the work of the Christian Right is distinctly a neocolonial venture.

For more information, you can read the full report at www.publiceye.org.

Analysis Law and Policy

In Marriage Equality Cases, Conservatives Argue Discrimination Is a First Amendment Right

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Anticipating a loss this summer before the Roberts Court in the marriage equality cases, conservatives are now leaning on the precedent set by Hobby Lobby and McCullen v. Coakley.

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to weigh marriage equality, a series of amicus briefs filed by religious and conservative organizations lays out the latest iteration of right-wing legal and political opposition to advancing equality. While these strategies still have plenty of old-fashioned bigotry and anti-LGBT pseudo-science at their core, conservatives have largely shifted away from claims that same-sex marriage is a slippery-slope toward pedophilia and bestiality. Instead, through briefs filed by right-wing organizations such as Judicial Watch, the Liberty Institute, the Foundation for Moral Law, the Family Research Council, Thomas More Society, and others, conservatives opposing marriage equality have advanced two different but related themes. The first is that a ruling in favor of same-sex couples would be the result of a runaway federal judiciary abusing “the will of the people” in those states that have passed anti-marriage equality laws. The second is that a ruling that requires states to recognize same-sex marriages would render the First Amendment meaningless.

These themes emerged in the Court’s two high-profile reproductive rights decisions last year, Hobby Lobby and McCullen v. Coakleyand conservatives took notice. In Hobby Lobby, the Roberts Court exploded open the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law designed to protect individuals from regulatory overreach. The Court expanded the RFRA to protect corporations from laws their owners decide they have a religious objection to complying with, such as not discriminating on the basis of gender in their employee health insurance plans. Meanwhile, in McCullen, the Roberts Court upended abortion patients’ and providers’ right to be left alone in order to protect the rights of “sidewalk counselors” to “whisper quietly” to folks outside clinics.

The outcome in both cases depended on the Roberts Court transforming decades of religious liberties jurisprudence, which clearly established that personal religious liberty interests end the minute they harm third parties, in order to create a legal doctrine through which conservative Christian ideology serves as a legal shield against civil rights laws. A key rhetorical component of both decisions was the ability of the Roberts Court to center its analysis on the aggrieved conservative Christian plaintiffs, using that perspective as the default setting for religious liberty claims. The conservatives on the Roberts Court didn’t just privilege the religious interests of corporate business owners like the Green Family in Hobby Lobby; they erased the interests of employees in the guise of protecting “the people” from the overreach of the Obama administration.

The legal briefings in opposition to marriage equality deliberately build on this transformation, again shifting the focus to wronged Christians as the people in danger of rights encroachment. “Unfortunately, in their zeal to advance and affirm same-sex marriage, many state actors have ignored or violated the very free speech principles that facilitated free and open dialogue on this once-settled question,” the Liberty Institute brief opens. Those imperiled free speech and open dialogue principles, it continues, include the ability of “Christian ministers, teachers, and leaders” to “preach and speak aloud their millennia-old and sincerely held religious view that marriage is the sacred ‘one flesh’ union of one man and one woman;” the First Amendment right to engage in so-called gay reparative therapy; and dissent against “Government speech codes” that conservatives claim “enforce a superficial and false conformity of belief.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The likelihood of those arguments swaying a majority of justices on the Roberts Court to rule against marriage equality later this summer is, I think, slim. Every signal the Court has sent on the marriage equality cases since its ruling last summer striking down the federal definition of marriage as between one man and one woman in the Defense of Marriage Act suggests marriage equality advocates will win in June. That’s good news.

But if those arguments are unlikely to sway even the majority of justices on the Roberts Court to rule that states have the power to ban same-sex marriages, what’s the point of raising them?

First of all, they also allow religious conservatives to do what they do best—claim persecution in order to support their anti-civil rights agenda. “Politically powerful advocates of same-sex marriage would likely use this Court’s decision as a weapon to marginalize persons of faith who will continue to adhere to their millennia-old definition of marriage as the sacred union of one man and one woman,” writes the Liberty Institute. “That in turn would lead to countless additional violations of the Free Speech Clause,” it warns.

The attorneys for Judicial Watch warn of dire “constitutional conflicts” that will inevitably lead to polygamy and intra-family marriage should the Roberts Court rule in favor of marriage equality. “If Petitioners’ reasoning is followed through to its logical and legal conclusion, what legal foundation do the Respondent States, or the United States for that matter, have for denying more than two willing participants to enter into a marriage relationship?” asks Judicial Watch. “If changing culture can be the basis for undoing centuries of legal and moral tradition as to gender, why can it not also be the basis for undoing centuries of legal and moral tradition in terms of the number of people married? Or even siblings?” And the amicus brief from the Concerned Women for America explains, somewhat confusingly, that a ruling in favor of marriage equality both subverts the “will of the people” in states that have banned same-sex marriage and would support the “politically powerful homosexuals and their allies.”

In addition, these are arguments specifically constructed to exploit what conservatives see as political and legal momentum on the inflated issue of attacks on religious liberty.

A win in June for marriage equality is one step toward eradicating sex and gender discrimination. But it is just a step. It’s still perfectly legal in most states, after all, to discriminate against LGBT individuals.

At the same time, there are also currently 17 states considering passing or expanding their own versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the federal statute that spawned a thousand contraception benefit lawsuits. States like Indiana and Arkansas have received a lot of attention recently for their RFRA efforts, in part because those laws granted explicit permission for business owners to discriminate against customers based on their sexual orientation, under the guise of protecting religious expression.

This explosion at the state level of mini-RFRAs is in direct response to conservatives’ anticipated loss at the Supreme Court this summer in the marriage equality cases. They are designed to push the issue of just how far the law is willing to go to enshrine anti-LGBT discrimination in the name of religious liberties, all the way up to the Roberts Court. So the briefs before the judges now are simply priming the well for the battle that lays ahead. In practical terms, they’re a way of gently introducing the legal arguments against equality to the Court while politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Huckabee work on ginning up public support. Like we saw in the months leading up to the Hobby Lobby arguments, and like we’re witnessing all over again in the nonprofit challenges to the birth control benefit, they are part of a coordinated campaign of legal briefings and political talking points designed to sway the public while simultaneously building the support of a conservative majority of justices.

So as we head into oral arguments in the marriage equality cases, and as we await the Roberts Court decision later this summer, let’s remember that conservatives always play the long game. While progressives celebrate an anticipated win for equality in June, religious advocacy organizations will be busy drafting and filing their next round of legal challenges to that win, and to other equality advancements. Thankfully their amicus briefings in the marriage equality cases have given us a preview and time to prep our response.

News Violence

The White House Takes on Campus Sexual Assault in New Report

Martha Kempner

A task force focusing on sexual assault on college campuses, announced by the White House in January, released its first report Tuesday with recommendations for how administrators should handle this widespread problem.

Read more of our articles on consent and sexual assault on U.S. college campuses here.

On January 22, President Obama announced a new White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to tackle the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. In his East Room declaration, Obama said, “Sexual violence is more than just a crime against individuals. It threatens our families, it threatens our communities; ultimately, it threatens the entire country.” The president praised an “inspiring wave of student activists” for calling attention to this issue and told women and men who have survived rape and sexual assault, “I’ve got your back.”

On Tuesday, the task force took its first public step, announcing the release of a website, NotAlone.gov, and a report of the same name.

The task force was first mentioned in a report released in January by the White House Council on Women and Girls, called Rape and Sexual Assault: A Call to Action. Though that report looked at sexual assault in all settings, it did devote a good deal of time to college campuses, which are notorious both for the prevalence of sexual assault and the lack of response by schools. The report noted:

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The dynamics of college life appear to fuel the problem, as many victims are abused while they’re drunk, under the influence of drugs, passed out, or otherwise incapacitated. Most college victims are assaulted by someone they know—and parties are often the site of these crimes.

Schools must have policies in place so they can both prevent crimes and respond more effectively when rape does occur, the report said. It went on to note:

To accomplish these and other goals, the President today is establishing a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The task force will:

  • Provide educational institutions with best practices for preventing and responding to rape and sexual assault.

  • Build on the federal government’s enforcement efforts to ensure that educational institutions comply fully with their legal obligations.

  • Improve transparency of the government’s enforcement activities.

  • Increase the public’s awareness of an institution’s track record in addressing rape and sexual assault.

  • Enhance coordination among federal agencies to hold schools accountable if they do not confront sexual violence on their campuses.”

Not Alone goes into greater detail on each of these points. It suggests that all colleges conduct a campus climate survey, so administrators and students can understand the extent of the problem at their school. There is an accompanying tool kit for schools to use to determine not just how many students have experienced sexual assault, but the circumstances under which these assaults have taken place—did the survivor know her attacker, were they at a party, was alcohol involved, were there bystanders or witness? Additional questions ask how the sexual assault was handled after the fact and if students know the school’s policies and procedures for filing a report. The task force suggests that all colleges and universities conduct such a survey in the upcoming year, and it’s working with lawmakers to see if there is a way, legislatively, to compel schools to do so. The task force will also work with researchers at Rutgers University to evaluate the survey tool and revise it as necessary.

Once a school understands the problem, the task force believes it is important to take on three specific issues: preventing sexual assault, responding to it, and being open and transparent in discussing the realities on their own campus. For example, the report suggests involving men as allies in prevention and conducting bystander education programs to urge students to step in when they see anything that looks like it might not be consensual. It also suggests that all colleges need someone a survivor can talk to confidentially, a comprehensive sexual misconduct policy, improved disciplinary policies and adjudication procedures, and trauma-informed training for all staff who will be involved along the way.

The Obama administration seems committed to helping administrators implement each of these steps; the report notes that the U.S. justice department, through both its Center for Campus Public Safety and its Office on Violence Against Women, is developing training programs for school officials, campus police, and local law enforcement that are based on research into how victims of trauma react and how to increase trust between survivors and law enforcement. The Department of Education is creating a similar program for campus health centers. The justice department is also looking to identify and publish best practices for adjudicating campus sexual assault cases, and the Department of Education has released new guidance urging schools to change their disciplinary process to forbid questions about survivor’s past sexual history with anyone but the perpetrator and prevent parties from being allowed to cross examine each other, among other things.

Finally, the task force wants more transparency about sexual assault on campus and has said it will work to increase enforcement to ensure schools are not attempting to sweep the problem under the rug. To that end, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will release “a 52-point guidance document that answers many frequently asked questions about a student’s rights, and a school’s obligations, under Title IX,” the report notes.

Among many other topics, the new guidance clarifies that Title IX protects all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, immigration status, or whether they have a disability. It also makes clear that students who report sexual violence have a right to expect their school to take steps to protect and support them, including while a school investigation is pending.

The issue of sexual assault on college campuses seems to be continually in the news as incidents are reported at schools across the country. In just the past week alone, there have been highly publicized cases at Amherst College, Brown University, and Vanderbilt University.

As Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement released with the report, “Colleges and universities need to face the facts about sexual assault. No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist. We need to give victims the support they need—like a confidential place to go—and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”