Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Max Blumenthal has an article at the Daily Beast that takes a more detailed look at a subject I wrote about last week, Rick Warren’s ties to the contemptible Martin Ssempa in his African AIDS project. Long excerpt below the fold:

But since the Warren inauguration controversy erupted, the nature of work against AIDS in Africa has gone unexamined. Warren has not been particularly forthcoming to those who have attempted to look into it. His website contains scant information about the results of his program. However, an investigation into Warren’s involvement in Africa reveals a web of alliances with right-wing clergymen who have sidelined science-based approaches to combating AIDS in favor of abstinence-only education. More disturbingly, Warren’s allies have rolled back key elements of one of the continent’s most successful initiative, the so-called ABC program in Uganda. Stephen Lewis, the United Nations’ special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, told the New York Times their activism is “resulting in great damage and undoubtedly will cause significant numbers of infections which should never have occurred.”

Warren’s man in Uganda is a charismatic pastor named Martin Ssempa. The head of the Makerere Community Church, a rapidly growing congregation, Ssempe enjoys close ties to his country’s First Lady, Janet Museveni, and is a favorite of the Bush White House. In the capitol of Kampala, Ssempa is known for his boisterous crusading. Ssempa’s stunts have included burning condoms in the name of Jesus and arranging the publication of names of homosexuals in cooperative local newspapers while lobbying for criminal penalties to imprison them.

Dr. Helen Epstein, a public health consultant who authored the book, The Invisible Cure: Why We’re Losing The Fight Against AIDS In Africa, met Ssempa in 2005. Epstein told me the preacher seemed gripped by paranoia, warning her of a secret witches coven that met under Lake Victoria. “Ssempa also spoke to me for a very long time about his fear of homosexual men and women,” Epstein said. “He seemed very personally terrified by their presence.”

Ssempa is a typical African Christian leader, much like Sarah Palin’s friend Thomas Muthee, exploiting ignorance and fear and routinely trumping up fake witchcraft scares. His solution to the AIDS crisis in Africa is to eliminate homosexuals, passing more draconian laws to lock them up and separate them from society – despite the fact that AIDS is spread mostly through heterosexual contact there. And Warren’s association with him is more than a passing acquaintance:

When Warren unveiled his global AIDS initiative at a 2005 conference at his Saddleback Church, he cast Ssempa as his indispensable sidekick, assigning him to lead a breakout session on abstinence-only education as well as a seminar on AIDS prevention. Later, Ssempa delivered a keynote address, a speech so stirring it “had the audience on the edge of its seats,” according to Warren’s public relations agency. A year later, Ssempa returned to Saddleback Church to lead another seminar on AIDS. By this time, his bond with the Warrens had grown almost familial. “You are my brother, Martin, and I love you,” Rick Warren’s wife, Kay, said to Ssempa from the stage. Her voice trembled with emotion as she spoke and tears ran down her cheeks.

Joining Ssempa at Warren’s church were two key Bush administration officials who controlled the purse strings of the president’s newly minted $15 billion anti-AIDS initiative in Africa, PEPFAR. Ugandan first lady Janet Museveni also appeared through a videotaped address to tout the success of her country’s numerous church-based abstinence programs.

These Bush officials–Randall Tobias, the Department of State’s Global AIDS coordinator, and Claude Allen, the White House’s chief domestic policy advisor–are closely linked to the Christian right. Tobias, the so-called “global AIDS czar,” declared in 2004 that condoms “really have not been very effective,” and crusaded against prostitution, until he resigned in 2007 when he was exposed as a regular client of the D.C. Madam’s escort service. Allen, once an aide to the late Senator Jesse Helms, resigned in 2006 after he was arrested for felony thefts from retail stores.

And of course, the whole point of all of this is to export the same abstinence-only nonsense that is failing in our public schools to Africa:

During the early 1990s, when many African leaders denied the AIDS epidemic’s existence, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni spoke openly about the importance of safe sex. With the help of local and international non-governmental organizations, he implemented an ambitious program emphasizing abstinence, monogamous relationships, and using condoms as the best ways to prevent the spread of AIDS. He called the program “ABC.” By 2003, Uganda’s AIDS rate plummeted 10 percent. The government’s free distribution of the “C” in ABC–condoms–proved central to the program’s success, according to Avert, an international AIDS charity.

On New Year’s Eve, 1999, Janet Museveni, who had become born-again, convened a massive stadium revival in Kampala to dedicate her country to the “lordship” of Jesus Christ. As midnight approached, the First Lady summoned a local pastor to the stage to anoint the nation. “We renounce idolatry, witchcraft, and Satanism in our land!” he proclaimed.

Two years later, Janet Museveni flew to Washington at the height of a heated congressional debate over PEPFAR. She carried in her hand a prepared message to distribute to Republicans. Abstinence was the golden bullet in her country’s fight against AIDS, she assured conservative lawmakers, denying the empirically proven success of her husband’s condom distribution program. Like magic, the Republican-dominated Congress authorized over $200 million for Uganda, but only for the exclusive promotion of abstinence education. Ssempa soon became the “special representative of the First Lady’s Task Force on AIDS in Uganda,” receiving $40,000 from the PEPFAR pot.

Emboldened by U.S. support, Ssempa took his anti-condom crusade to Makerere University in Kampala, where senior residents of a men’s dormitory promoted safe sex by greeting incoming freshmen with a giant effigy wearing a condom. According to Helen Epstein, one day after she visited the school, Ssempa stormed on to campus, tore the condom from the effigy, grabbed a box of free condoms, and set them ablaze. “I burn these condoms in the name of Jesus!” Ssempa shouted as he prayed over the burning box.

“It was a very controversial time,” Epstein told me. “After the Bush administration authorized PEPFAR, a number of the local evangelical preachers began to get excited about this and get involved in AIDS very rapidly. To try to prove his credentials, Ssempa became increasingly active and vociferous in his antipathy towards condoms.”

By 2005, billboards promoting condom use disappeared from the streets of Kampala, replaced by billboards promoting virginity. “Until recently, all HIV-related billboards were about condoms. Those of us calling for abstinence and faithfulness need billboards too,” Ssempa told the BBC at the time. A 2005 report by Human Rights Watch documented that educational material in Uganda’s secondary schools falsely claiming condoms had microscopic pores that could be penetrated by the HIV virus and noted the sudden nationwide shortage of condoms due to new restrictions imposed by on condom imports.

AIDS activists arrived at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006 with disturbing news from Uganda. Due at least in part to the chronic condom shortage, HIV infections were on the rise again. The disease rate had spiked to 6.5 percent among rural men, and 8.8 percent among women–a rise of nearly two points in the case of women. “The ‘C’ part [of ABC] is now mainly silent,” said Ugandan AIDS activist Beatrice Ware. As a result, she said, “the success story is unraveling.”

Sounds a lot like the United States, where rates of teen pregnancy were dropping steadily until abstinence-only sex ed became all the rage. Now study after study shows that while such programs may help kids put off losing their virginity for a little while, it makes them much less likely to use birth control when they do start having sex, thus increasing the risk of pregnancy and the spread of disease.

And here’s more about Warren’s BFF:

With safe sex advocates on the run, Warren and Ssempa trained their sights on another social evil. In August 2007, Ssempa led hundreds of his followers through the streets of Kampala to demand that the government mete out harsh punishments against gays. “Arrest all homos,” read placards. And: “A man cannot marry a man.” Ssempa continued his crusade online, publishing the names of Ugandan gay rights activists on a website he created, along with photos and home addresses. “Homosexual promoters,” he called them, suggesting they intended to seduce Uganda’s children into their lifestyle. Soon afterwards, two of President Yoweri Museveni’s top officials demanded the arrest of the gay activists named by Ssempa. Terrified, the activists immediately into hiding.