In 1907, Winston Churchill referred to Uganda as "the Pearl of Africa." More than a century later, the International House of Prayer—a Missouri-based megachurch that calls itself, yes, IHOP—doesn't see Churchill's assertion as mere praise of the country's natural beauty. The phrase is, in the words of one pastor, "a prophetic declaration." According to IHOP, Uganda is a pearl to be harvested.
That harvesting, as depicted in Roger Ross Williams' engrossing documentary God Loves Uganda, takes the form of fervent proselytizing, with American evangelicals traveling to the East African nation to spread the Gospel. Not only do these missionaries—many of them rosy-cheeked 20-somethings, just like the magic underwear-clad kids in The Book of Mormon-—sermonize about salvation through Jesus, but also about the sin and "sexual insanity" of same-sex relationships. Williams makes the convincing argument that this imported brand of conservative Christianity has fueled homophobia in Uganda, including a bill that would have mandated the death penalty for repeat same-sex offenders (a less severe version passed last month).
The zealots in God Loves Uganda speak frankly about moving into the political and moral vacuum left in Uganda after dictator Idi Amin was deposed in 1979. Africa, they say, is fertile ground for their radical missions. But such fertile ground easily becomes a dumping place for dangerous and often discredited ideologies, including those of Scott Lively, former leader of an Oregon anti-gay group who will stand trial for crimes against humanity for his homophobic activism in Uganda. Also alarming is Martin Ssempa, a Ugandan pastor who sprinkles his sermons with graphic footage of gay fetish porn as he rails against President Obama and his congregants pound the floor.
Yet even more unsettling than these whack jobs are the naive Americans who travel to Uganda to gape at the primitive outhouses and warn rural villagers of a fiery hell. At one point, they try to preach to a group of Muslim vendors far more interested in selling them chicken skewers than in being sold the Bible. (Wait'll you hear what one of the Americans says when he realizes they've failed—the line, which blurs all sorts of religious boundaries, is too good to spoil here.)
Such scenes provide levity, but this remains a thoroughly sobering film, and no more so than when we glimpse the funeral of LGBT rights activist David Kato, who was clubbed to death in 2011. That the funeral of a man who advocated peace and tolerance nearly became a brawl tells us all we need to know about the real crusade that must be waged.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: God Loves Uganda plays at the Clinton Street Theater. 7 pm Friday-Sunday, Jan. 17-19.