Recently, the East African nation of Uganda passed a law that will increase criminal punishments for homosexual acts. Same-sex activity was already illegal in Uganda, as it is in several other African nations, and Ugandans convicted under the law already faced life in prison. Under this new law, people convicted of attempting to engage in homosexual behavior could face 10 years behind bars. Those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality,” defined as sexual abuse of a child or knowingly spreading HIV, could face the death penalty. Anyone convicted of “promoting homosexuality” could be imprisoned up to 20 years.
Reaction in the West was quick and fierce. President Biden immediately denounced the law, threatening to withhold humanitarian aid from Uganda. United Nations officials claimed that the law would criminalize Ugandans for “being who they are.” An early draft of the legislation did include a provision criminalizing merely identifying as LGBT, but that didn’t make it into the final bill.
There is plenty wrong with this new Ugandan law, including the severity of punishment and the unrealistic level of police activity that would be required to ever enforce it. A pioneer and strong advocate for criminal justice reform, Chuck Colson believed that the goal of criminal law and enforcement should be rehabilitation and restoration whenever possible, not punishment for punishment’s sake. Unfortunately, in Uganda, as in many nations both Western and developing, the criminal justice process is more punitive than restorative.
Of course, the specifics of the Ugandan law and its prescribed punishments didn’t drive the reaction from Western media and government officials. Instead, the very idea of regulating sexual activity at all is now largely unthinkable, at least in those places in which it has taken decades to normalize, de-stigmatize, and now celebrate sexual deviation in the name of “pride.”
(To be sure, the West also claims to celebrate things like “cultural diversity” and indigenous values and claims to oppose things like “cultural imperialism” and colonialism. So, shouldn’t we respect a country that will not be overrun by our modern Western ideals? Shouldn’t we resist the urge to impose our culture on theirs, as if ours is somehow better? Yet that’s not the way it went.)
Largely overlooked is that most Western nations have never experienced the level of devastation from the continuing AIDS crisis like nations such as Uganda have. According to the UN, 1.4 million Ugandans have HIV/AIDS, including roughly 5.4% of the country’s entire adult population. An estimated 800,000 Ugandan children are orphans of the AIDS crisis there. Meanwhile, in the U.S., only 0.3% of adults live with HIV or AIDS and, because of technology and wealth, most are able to manage the condition.
Up until quite recently, most nations had laws intended to restrain certain kinds of sexual activity. In fact, nearly all of them still do. For example, nearly every nation restricts and punishes relationships with animals or incest. Though many primitive and pagan societies did not regulate sexual behaviors, as the world became more civilized, governments across time and cultures found compelling reasons to regulate some sexual behaviors because of wide implications for public life, public health, population growth, women’s rights, and the safety and wellbeing of children. Historically speaking, nations in decline were the ones that deregulated sexual behaviors. Progressing nations understood why certain legal restrictions are necessary.
Governments have the right and the responsibility to exercise authority over private acts that carry significant public consequences. That does not mean that all laws are feasible in all societies. A law to restrict sexual behavior, even one nothing like Uganda’s, would be a political nonstarter in the United States. Uganda, however, has not weathered a decades-long, extremist sexual revolution. In fact, it is entirely possible that the Ugandan law is the result of the dominance of LGBT lobby groups over every area of Western culture including education, the harm done to the minds and bodies of children, and government leaders realizing, “we don’t want that here.” Or perhaps, “we could never survive that here.” In other words, the fact that Uganda’s law could never pass in the U.S. says as much about the extremism of our culture as it does theirs.
It is not clear how or if this law will be implemented in Uganda in any meaningful sense. It is not, in my view, a good law. It is over-punitive and would, if enforced, punish victims as well as perpetrators of the ideas it hopes to eliminate. At the same time, a society that truly understands and promotes human flourishing would, in fact, have laws aimed at restricting and eliminating harmful ideas and behaviors, and at protecting those who would be victimized by them.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Maria Baer. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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