Human Rights: War and the Righteous

Human rights scholars and advocates were busy last week.

While President Obama reconciled security, morality, and human rights in his speech in Oslo, members of Congress were tied to an effort to incarcerate and/or execute homosexuals in Uganda.  In Obama’s remarks at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, he identified one of the principal tensions our leaders must wrestle with as they uphold their oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States: between assuring our security and protecting human rights. Throughout most of American history security has held primacy over morality as the modal framework of foreign policy. As a result, human rights, based in a moral precept of liberty, have been occasionally compromised to achieve security. But, as Obama pointed out in his elocution of the contradiction of waging war to achieve peace, “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend.” He argued that the “United States of America must remain the standard bearer in the conduct of war” to serve its dual aims of security and morality.[1]  In these words he rejected the advocacy of realpolitik prominent during the Nixon-Kissinger era, as well as the hyper-exceptionalism of the George W. Bush era, for a nuanced hybrid of realism and idealism—waging war with moral compass in-hand—an ideological approximation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian realism.”[2]

Meanwhile, a few senators and congressmen waged their own war against Ugandans by supporting its leaders who are about to pass an anti-gay law that would deprive suspected homosexuals of their freedom and, under certain circumstances, their lives.[3]  Why are these senators, who presumably have a grasp of the American concept of human rights, supporting leaders in Uganda who are trying to legalize the incarceration and execution of homosexuals?  The short answer: because they can.  Their motive and means reveal the dark side of a network of powerful fundamentalists—of a dubious and power-centric theology—who wield influence saturated by righteousness and bigotry. Their common bond with the president of Uganda: they are all members of “the Family.”[4]

The Family is an informal network of Christian fundamentalists that has existed in the United States for many years.  They are also referred to as the “Fellowship,” or “Fellowship Foundation” and sponsor the annual National Prayer Breakfast, attended each year by numerous politicians including the President of the United States.  They own and operate residences in the Washington DC area for the care and fellowship of members, including members of Congress.  Their “man in Africa” according to Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family, is Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda. The relationship between Museveni and the Family dates back many years and includes business and moral development.

Uganda has become the sandbox of righteousness for members of the Family who believe their particular interpretation of the Bible is supreme to the laws of man. Their “life equation” according to their leader, Doug Coe, is Jesus + 0 = X.[5] Jesus plus nothing is everything.  Jesus is all you need.  And, not surprisingly, homosexuals are evil.  In Uganda, they have twisted the concept of God’s love with such abandon they have morphed it into hate. Personal liberties, as conceived by the Founding Fathers, are no match for their righteousness. Their concept of separation of church and state is a “myth” that, when interpreted through their evangelical lens, only prohibits the state from influencing the church.[6]  Their concept of human rights includes the right to imprison and execute humans who do not conform to their beliefs.

Human rights are likely more safe than they were under Bush with Obama’s contemplation of foreign policy.  But, human rights remain in peril every day as religious fundamentalists, like those who claim membership in the Family and occupy seats in Congress, operate as rogue warriors waging hate.

[1] Barack Obama, December 11, 2009, “Obama’s Nobel Remarks,” New York Times,
[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.)
[3] Rachel Maddow of MSNBC has been on this story for several days now. See
[4] For a comprehensive study of the Family, see Jeff Sharlet, The Family (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008).
[5] Ibid., p. 58.
[6] Ibid., p. 339.