DEBORAH AMOS, host:
We're now going to a story in Uganda that begins here in the United States. Homosexuality is an issue that has divided Christian churches here. Some American evangelicals have taken the culture war to Uganda - that with potentially deadly consequences.
NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty tells the story.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: To understand why Uganda is considering a bill that imposes the death penalty or life in prison on gay men and lesbians, you need to know the story of King Mwanga.
In 1886, Uganda's king ordered some two dozen male pages to have sex with him, and when they refused because of their Christian faith, he ordered that they be burned to death. Every June, Ugandans celebrate a national holiday in honor of the Christian martyrs and deploring the pedophile king.
Into this climate stepped Scott Lively, an American evangelical, who brought this message to a family life conference in Uganda last March.
Mr. SCOTT LIVELY (Evangelical): Male homosexuality has historically been, not adult to adult, it's been adult to teenager. Adults sodomizing teenage boys.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Afterwards, Lively spoke to the Ugandan parliament about what he calls the dangers of the gay agenda. A few months later, a bill was introduced to execute people for some homosexual acts. Lively says he thinks the bill goes too far.
Mr. LIVELY: But the fact that they're willing to stand up and say, no, we are not going let you homosexualize our country - that's a step in the right direction. And I would hope that that would spread to other countries.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Now, Lively is considered a fringe player in the American culture wars. But in recent years, mainstream evangelicals in the U.S. have forged close spiritual and financial ties with their biblically conservative African brothers. Dozens of Episcopal churches have moved under the authority of Anglican bishops in Uganda, Nigeria and Rwanda, over the gay issue.
Jim Naughton, a former canon in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., says their message plays one way in the United States, but differently in a place like Uganda.
Mr. JIM NAUGHTON (Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C.): They are showing up in rooms filled with gasoline and throwing lighted matches around, and then saying, well, I never intended the fire.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Now, many U.S. evangelicals, including Scott Lively, say they are mortified by the death penalty provision. Naughton doesn't buy it.
Mr. NAUGHTON: I think if they were mortified, they would have been mortified immediately. Instead they were mortified, oh, two, three months into the campaign against this thing, when it was getting real traction.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Megachurch pastor Rick Warren is a case in point. Warren has extensive ties with religious leaders in Africa, including Uganda, and initially refused to condemn the bill. Finally, two months after the bill was introduced, he urged pastors of Uganda to oppose it in a video message.
(Soundbite of video message)
Mr. RICK WARREN (Pastor): The potential law before your parliament is unjust, it's extreme and it's un-Christian.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: If Rick Warren was slow to condemn the bill, other Christian conservatives have yet to do so, says Warren Throckmorton, who teaches psychology at Grove City College. He says the Christian groups most publicly tied to Uganda have been the quietest.
Professor WARREN THROCKMORTON (Psychology, Grove City College): Joyce Meyer Ministries, for instance, they didn't want to comment; Oral Roberts University, they didn't want to comment; College of Prayer in Atlanta did not want to get involved, didn't want to issue a statement.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Throckmorton, a conservative evangelical himself, wonders what message that's sending to Uganda's religious leaders.
Prof. THROCKMORTON: Silence is often interpreted as consent.
Mr. MARTYN MINNS (Bishop, Convocation of Anglicans in North America): The question is, what's the most effective way to deal with it?
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Martyn Minns is bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a group that broke from the Episcopal Church and is now aligned with African bishops. Minns says his group has been working behind the scenes to remove the death penalty from the bill, but he also says Uganda has a right to resist the wave of gay activism that he says is flooding in from the West.
Mr. MINNS: It's hard for any of us who have not lived under colonial rule to realize how offensive it is for people who have won that freedom to now, basically, be told - you're fools, you're ignorant. One day you'll grow up and be like us. That comes across in a very patronizing way.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: This week, Uganda's president called for the bill to be withdrawn. No matter what, observers say, the story of Uganda is a cautionary tale of what can happen when the West's religious debates are transplanted to another culture.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.