What Happens when US Christian Fundamentalists Shape Public Policy in the Global South?

By Celeste Kauffman*


It is no secret that United States domestic policy has a hard time implementing the separation between church and state doctrine. In particular, conservative Christian values and morals increasingly shape public debate, policy, and even law. While this is problematic in a secular, democratic society for a host of reasons, the impact of morality politics can be devastating when US civil society groups and politicians insist on exporting their religious views to the Global South, either by influencing official US financial aid, or via private donations that push a fundamentalist Christian agenda.

In 2002, Christians lobbied Bush to create a program to funnel USAID money to faith-based organizations. By 2005, funding to these faith-based organizations had doubled. At the same time, politicians and morality crusaders who failed to win over their domestic audience, have sought more fertile grounds in the Global South. Thus, they have been able to force recipients of foreign aid to abide by their particular religious beliefs, regardless of the culture, religion, public health needs, or even law of the recipient country. Additionally, fundamentalist Christian activists and missionaries have taken advantage of their comparative wealth and privilege to promote insidious beliefs and laws related to sex work, reproductive health services, and LGBT rights. Let’s take a look at each of these areas:

Sex work and the Anti-Prostitution Pledge

Currently, a large portion of US foreign aid regarding health rights is funneled through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). However, thanks to the efforts of conservative Congressman, Chris Smith, PEPFAR requires beneficiary organizations to adopt an ‘Anti-Prostitution Pledge,’ which requires organizations that receive PEPFAR funds to “have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.”

Many public health experts consider that improving sex workers’ access to public health services requires reducing the cultural stigma attached to such work. Obviously, this morality driven pledge does the opposite, creating more obstacles for Global South sex workers, and perverting the goals of PEPFAR.

In practice, this pledge means that organizations that work with sex workers must either reject US funding, or stop that work. Many organizations do not have the luxury to reject US funding, as the image below demonstrates, but organizations like the Women’s Network for Unity in Cambodia and the government of Brazil made international headlines for opposing the Pledge and rejecting US funding, arguing that the US had no right to interfere in their domestic public health matters.

Abortion Rights and the Helms Amendment and Global Gag rule

The legalization of abortion in the US in 1973 galvanized anti-abortion advocates. In addition to seeking to abolish abortion within US territory, anti-abortion advocates lobbied the government to pass the Helms Amendment,which excludes foreign aid from being used for the “performance of abortion as a method of family planning.” This phrase has been interpreted to include even providing information regarding abortion, or providing abortions even in the case of rape, incest, or threat to the woman’s life. The lobbyists won, in spite of USAID’s opposition, which rightly viewed the amendment as imperialistic and hypocritical.

US anti-abortion activists encourage their supporters to lobby the government. Photo by: karmablue

US anti-abortion activists encourage their supporters to lobby the government. Photo by: karmablue

However, morality crusaders in the US were not satisfied with the Helms amendment, pushing President Reagan to adopt the Mexico City Policy, or the “Global Gag Rule” in 1984. The Global Gag Rule did not just restrict organizations from providing abortions, or determine how foreign NGOs could use US funds, but rather prohibited foreign NGOs that receive U.S. family planning assistance from using their own, non-US funding to provide abortion services, information or referrals regarding abortion, even if abortion was legal in the country. Since its passage, every Democratic president has reversed the law, while every Republican president has reinstated it.

The Global Gag Rule had a vastly negative impact on the availability of reproductive health services in global South countries that receive US aid, by forcing NGOs to either stop providing access to abortion services or information, or by losing recourses and financial capacity if they refused to comply with the Rule and reject US funding. Additionally, given the back and forth of the Rule depending on the administration in power, NGOs cannot adequately develop long-term planning strategies or policies regarding reproductive health.

LGBT Rights in Uganda and US fundamentalist Christian Lobbying

Although Uganda has had laws prohibited homosexuality since it was a British colony, the laws were mostly unenforced, until US evangelicals groups travelled to the country, whipping up homophobia. The 2014 Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act provides lifelong prison sentences (a reduction from the proposed death sentence) for those who engage in homosexuality. Leading up to the passage of this Act, and to the increase in homophobia in the country, US Christian organizations donated to virulently anti-gay Ugandan pastors, and held a conference regarding “the gay agenda,” in which they argued that homosexuality causes AIDS and equated it with pedophilia, among other patently false statements. They also addressed the Ugandan Parliament on the issue. Coincidentally, a special motion to introduce the legislation was passed a month weeks after this conference was held.

While religion can positively impact issues of social justice and human rights, it is profoundly problematic that the religious beliefs of a minority of the US are permitted to dictate issues of public health and morality in the Global South, particularly when the impacts on peoples’ lives are so detrimental.


*Celeste Kauffman is a researcher at The Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).