Rick Warren and Africa

Posted December 25, 2008

The controversy around Barak Obama’s unfortunate selection of Rick Warren for the inaugural invocation has focused primarily on his public gay bashing and support for California’s Proposition 8, and to a lesser extent, on his convictions that women have been placed on the earth as men’s subordinates. A few have mentioned that Warren feels that pro-choice advocates are “the same” as Holocaust deniers.

But much of this criticism has been countered with balanced recognition of Warren’s “good work” in Africa around HIV/AIDS and poverty. HIV/AIDS is one of Saddleback’s “Signature Missions.” This concern for far away victims of epidemic disease is seen by a wide range of people, right and left, as evidence of Warren’s moderation.

That progressive critics of Warren are buying this line is sad. Warren’s so-called support for the sick and the dying cannot be separated from his reactionary politics around sex and gender. Saddleback’s website points out that stigma is a major killer of HIV-infected people the world over, saying:

“Today, those with HIV and AIDS are often treated as outcasts, forcing them to hide even from family members out of fear or shame. It is likely that someone in your workplace or church is HIV-positive and you don’t know it. Because Jesus loved, touched, and cared for those who were sick, we must too. We care because God cares. We care because people matter to God and to us.”

Of course stigma is not a natural pre-existing African condition, or social force that will automatically wither away as time goes on, though it appears that the missionaries of Saddleback see it this way. In many parts of Africa, which have been heavily mission-ized for centuries, stigma is compounded by a Christian morality that condemns most sexual expression and relegates women to second-class, morally dubious status with little right to control of their own bodies.

Christian evangelism, in many cases, contributes to a situation in which highly prevalent, statistically “normative” behavior (for example, heterosexual sex before marriage) is sinful, embarrassing and hard to discuss. Sex within Warren-approved heterosexual marriage is a major source of infection. In the worst-hit places in the world, such as in Kwa-Zulu Natal, the majority of the population is “infected or affected” by HIV and AIDS, while socially, the disease remains the subject of whisper, rumor and silence.

In this stifling atmosphere, homosexualities in countries like Zimbabwe (where they are banned) and South Africa (where gay rights are enshrined in the constitution) are subject to violent repression, just as they are in Warren’s home state of California. A recent rash of gang-rapes and murders of out lesbian women in South Africa (including one star soccer player) came to mind when I read about the horrific carjacking and gang rape one women in Richmond, California endured last week. Apparently she was targeted for public display of a rainbow sticker. Less, not more, Christian sexual morality, stigma and violence are needed in Africa and around the world.

Which leaves me to wonder what it is, exactly, that’s progressive or even moderate about Warren’s mission to Africa or his work spreading stigma and shame here in the U.S. Under the Bush regime, more and more funding flowed to religious groups purportedly working to fight AIDS, while restrictions like the global gag rule narrowed the options of doctors and patients worldwide.

Rick Warren is not only a symbol of Obama’s disregard for LGBTQI people and all women, but also of the terrifying possibility that the next administration will continue, rather than reverse, the deadly and ineffective religious approaches to public health problems domestically and around the world. Please, progressives, lets not endorse exporting Warren’s hate to the continent where it is least needed.