Scott Lively made international headlines after an incendiary 2009 visit to Uganda during which he urged leaders to fight the “gay agenda.” Soon after, a member of the country’s Parliament submitted a bill calling for the execution of some homosexuals. Ugandan activists are now suing Lively for persecution—a crime against humanity. So what’s next for the Springfield pastor? He’s exploring a run for governor, of course.
An anti-gay march in Uganda.
Lively, who refers to himself as the “father of the Ugandan homosexual movement,” insists he never advocated for the death penalty during his visit, and that he argued only for “therapy.” But it’s hard to deny that some of the bill’s language echoed his own. In a draft of its preamble, for example, the bill stated that children are the “most vulnerable to recruitment into the homosexual lifestyle,” and elsewhere it asserted that “homosexuality has a variety of negative consequences, including higher incidences of violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and use of drugs.”
Reverend Kaoma sees a direct connection between Lively and the bill. “I remember a teacher saying, ‘After seeing Dr. Lively, we realized our laws are very weak.’ Lively robbed LGBT people of their humanity and turned them into devils. He provided the rationale for stiffer penalties and moved the [homosexual issue] from a religious battle between churches to a political battle and policy issue. And by making it a political issue, he took it to the next level.”
Leaders around the world reacted with disgust, and the international outcry slowed consideration of the bill, which has yet to be passed. It has recently been reinstated on the Parliamentary agenda, however, as an item of importance. Rightly or wrongly, Lively himself quickly became associated with the bill in world opinion after it was introduced, and in the years since, he’s been the subject of negative coverage in such outlets as the New York Times, the New Yorker, ABC News, National Public Radio, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
The Daily Show hit Lively the hardest, airing a segment in 2010 that mercilessly portrayed him as a fool. Discussing his sense that he was on a mission from God, Lively told the Daily Show reporter Jason Jones, “I wish I had gotten a different assignment, actually.”
“What would that assignment be?” Jones asked.
“Well, I would have loved to have been just hanging out on the beach someplace, but instead I got stuck with dealing with homosexual Nazis.”
“Yes,” Jones went on to say in a voice-over, while the camera showed Lively sitting on a park bench. “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. Actually, wait. No, no one has to do it.”
“They hammered me,” Lively recalls.
LGBT and civil rights leaders, too, have focused their attentions on Lively. “He supports practices and laws that endanger people’s lives,” says Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, the president and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, in Cambridge, herself openly lesbian. Nobody feels more strongly than the Ugandan activists who have filed suit against Lively, among them Pepe Julian Onziema. Despite the fact that the proposed law has yet to pass, Onziema argues that real damage has already been done, in the form of “escalating homophobia and persecution in Uganda.”
After his Uganda trip, Lively returned to Springfield, where he’d moved from California in 2008 as part of a mission to “re-Christianize” the city. Eager for some time away from the spotlight, he turned his attention to running the Holy Grounds Coffee Shop, which he and his wife opened in 2010. For a time, he devoted himself to serving the city’s poor and homeless.
In moving to Massachusetts, Lively was coming home. He grew up in the town of Shelburne Falls, about an hour from Springfield. He had a difficult childhood there: As a teen, he got into trouble with the law and developed drug and alcohol addictions. After high school, he left home, drifted across the country for a couple of years, and ended up in Oregon, where he tried repeatedly to cure himself of his addictions. But nothing, not even Alcoholics Anonymous, seemed to work—until one day in 1986 when, in a moment of despair, he surrendered himself to God, became an evangelical, and was saved. He says he hasn’t had the desire to drink or do drugs since. Political activism has become his addiction.
In 1989, Lively joined the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), an anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality political organization founded by radical right-wing Christians. He quickly ascended to the role of communications director, writing op-ed pieces, holding press conferences, and debating politicians, and soon became a force in local politics. His biggest success came in 1992, in the town of Springfield, a suburb of Eugene, when an anti-gay charter amendment he had promoted passed 54 percent to 46 percent. The measure made it illegal for the city to “promote, encourage, or facilitate homosexuality,” and was the first anti-gay law ever passed in the United States—although the state passed a law the next year that prevented all anti-gay ordinances from being enforced.
After the victory in Springfield, Lively and the OCA focused on passing an amendment known as Measure 9 to the state constitution. Similar to the law that had passed in Springfield, it would have prohibited Oregon from using state money or property to “promote, encourage, or facilitate homosexuality,” and declared homosexuality to be “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.” During that effort, Lively alleged that being gay was a “voluntary lifestyle based on sodomy,” and that the most likely cause of homosexuality was child molestation by other gays. The measure eventually failed, but only by a thin margin. Lively had proved himself to be an activist who could get his message out and translate it into votes. “Put before an audience receptive to fear,” says Tarso Ramos, who worked to defeat Measure 9, “Lively can have a devastating effect. He was successful in getting a high percentage of the vote, and it was too close for comfort. He’s not a statesman. He’s not a diplomat. He’s not the master of a subtle turn of phrase. He’s a bomb thrower.”
During the campaign, Lively’s opponents often called him a hate monger and a Nazi. Upset with that latter characterization, Lively began researching the history of the Nazi party—and concluded that it had been founded by a core group of homosexuals who had gone on to help perpetrate the Holocaust. He wrote an op-ed on the subject in a local newspaper, and much to his delight, he recalls, it “touched a nerve,” which, he says, “was really cool to see.”