In the 1600s, self-exiled English established the first two European settlements in the New World: Jamestown and Plymouth. One thrived on growing tobacco from ill-gotten Spanish seeds. The other thrived on the freedom to practice their religion.
These two seemingly contradicting ideas—religious fervor and capitalism—are foundational to America. Pre-dating, well, our founding. These two currents have co-existed in this part of the world for 400 years.
Historically this is what the U.S. has given to the world: our odd balance of piety and profit; religion turning a blind eye to lucrative vice and enterprise tipping a hat to spiritual mores (when it’s good for business). Hobby Lobby is a perfect example of this: For economic reasons their retirement plan invests in companies that make birth control and for religious reasons they want to disincentivize their employees from taking those same medications.
And much to my chagrin, what we haven’t done is be a leader in human rights: We eradicated slavery long after Europe. We were far from the first on women’s suffrage. We’re the only Western nation to still execute our own citizens.
And we lag way behind in LGBT rights. Remember in the 1980s most of Europe had already decriminalized homosexuality, while in the U.S., not only was it still being punished by jail time—religious leaders like Jerry Falwell were wrongly calling AIDS the “gay plague.” Sodomy laws were still in effect until the Supreme Court overturned them in 2005. They’re still on the books in 11 states but unenforceable because of that decision. Just last year, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli campaigned for governor on a sodomy-ban platform (he lost to the largely unpopular Democrat).
Currently more states ban gay marriage than allow it—but very few businesses openly condemn same sex couples. We’ve struck that balance yet again.
But not in our foreign trade policy—there we offer a Catch-22: As a nation, we’ve exported our Old Testament, anti-gay zealotry to our trade partners in African nations like Uganda and Nigeria. There’s been international outrage over what was dubbed Uganda’s “Kill the Gays Bill.” Legislation that exists largely because American evangelicals like Scott Lively and Rick Warren have done their [filtered word]-hysteria missionary work in Africa. Some of it clearly stuck.
Last month, 10 U.S. senators signed a letter to President Obama asking for a review of Uganda and Nigeria’s eligibility in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a trade agreement signed into law in 2000 to offer duty-free imports from sub-Saharan African countries. “We believe that the discriminatory anti-LGBT laws in those countries represent a clear violation of human rights and hope that the interagency process charged with AGOA’s annual review will make this recommendation.”
Are Uganda and Nigeria the only countries we trade with who treat gays horribly? Not even close. In Belize and Guyana same-sex relations between consenting adults earns “offenders” prison time—from 10 years to life. Gays in the Salesbbean fare no better; same-sex sexual activity is against the law in 9 out of their 28 countries—punishable by fines and prison time. In Barbados the punishment for “buggery” is life in prison.
These senators are wagging fingers at Africa, but what about their own hemisphere—let alone their own nation?
I’m an extremist when it comes to human rights. I’m so “out there” I even oppose torture! (In all forms whether it’s enhanced interrogation for enemy combatants or bad Mariachi bands for subway riders.) But how can we expect Uganda to be better on gay rights than Guatemala—or to that point Alabama?
When it comes to Africa, whether we’re talking about Ebola, AIDS, extreme poverty, or religious extremism—the conversation should be more triage than finger wagging. What is the quickest way to help the most people in these countries? First and foremost: economic opportunity—growth.
Really, these senators want to sanction countries with some of the highest HIV infection rates in the world because they listened to Rick Warren? The same [filtered word]-paranoid pastor Obama invited to give the inaugural invocation in 2009?
Do I think America’s trade partners’ severe treatment of LGBTs is acceptable? Absolutely not. Do I think we should hold fledgling African markets to a higher standard on human rights than Russia? No.
We sold our hate and now we’re punishing our best customers.
It’s bad for us. And it’s worse for them.
(Tina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)