Roger Ross Williams’s 2013 documentary “God Loves Uganda” takes viewers on a fascinatingly tragic journey into the world of evangelical extremism. Williams explores the damaging influence of the American Christian Right on Ugandan society.
The film follows members of Kansas City, Missouri’s International House of Prayer (IHOP) as they embark on an evangelical mission to Uganda. Led by Senior Leader Lou Engle, IHOP works to promote its brand of zealous discipleship. Convinced that society is devolving into a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, IHOP devotees venture outside of the house’s walls to promote their extreme message of salvation.
From the outside looking in, IHOP may seem odd; worshippers cry and convulse uncontrollably, speak loudly in tongues, and engage in other physical displays of religious faith. Spiritual leaders preach emphatically at a pulpit that looks more like a concert stage than a place of worship. Behind the scenes, IHOP works much like a corporate marketing department, as members carefully strategize disciple missions. In the film, IHOP sets its sights on Uganda, curiously referring to the country as the “pearl of Africa.”
Williams documents the mission, giving audiences an insider’s look at the implementation of the radical Christian Right agenda. Viewers watch as eerily cheerful missionaries, led by Rachelle and Jesse Digges, target Uganda’s most vulnerable, while preaching conservative Christian values and training impressionable Ugandan youths.
Williams explores how this religious rhetoric is particularly damaging, as the missionaries are ignorant to the intricacies of Ugandan society and culture. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that this external influence is threatening the very fabric of Ugandan society.
The film examines the numerous detriments of evangelical Christian extremism in Uganda, most prominently the rampant homophobia pervading Uganda’s social and political spheres. Schools, government bodies, and other institutions are used as vehicles to propagate hate. During the film, this infiltration triggers the creation of Uganda’s 2009 Anti-Homosexuality bill. The film also touches upon the American Christian right’s dangerous condemnation of condom use, which exacerbated the HIV epidemic in Uganda during the 1980s and ‘90s.
The main plotline is supplemented with interviews and historical footage. Multiple individuals share personal narratives including Pastor Engle and Reverend Jo Anna Watson. Williams also includes the stories of Pastors Scott Lively and Martin Ssempa, who engage in hateful fear mongering, under the guise of Christianity.
Viewers also hear the stories of those who oppose the religious radicalization of Uganda. One such individual is Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. His kind words provide a refreshing deviation from the vitriolic diatribes of Pastors Lively and Ssempa. His teachings are free of strategy and radical dogma. Instead, with calm disposition, he preaches love and acceptance. Audiences can appreciate how Williams strives to present all sides of the story. He is careful to avoid generalizing and demonizing Christianity, instead presenting viewers with two varying approaches to the Christian faith.
Cinematically, Williams follows the traditional framework for documentary film. Despite the conventional structure, the film is nuanced by Williams’s artistic choices. His use of audio and visual techniques is strategic and effective. Slow motion shots, including a Ugandan schoolboy walking through an open-air market, allow viewers to fully immerse themselves in the moment. Often the imagery is supplemented by moving instrumental music. Other techniques including the incongruity of audio and image, and the skillful use of humor and timing, allow Williams to perfectly craft and convey his message.
“God Loves Uganda” is a thought-provoking and multidimensional film. It reveals the tragic reality of ideological imperialism, in a matter-of-fact manner that audiences will appreciate. Overall, the film’s message and composition are brilliantly crafted and will leave audiences with much to ponder.