On its website, the northern Illinois city of Rockford boasts of its “affordable homes on tree-lined streets in friendly neighborhoods.” Ninety miles from Chicago, it’s too far away to be an exurb and has had to carve out its own identity. The city hosts Illinois’ largest music festival and is home to a well-regarded natural history museum. The 1970s rock band Cheap Trick called Rockford home.
What’s less well known is that Rockford is home to a movement that seeks to forge an international Religious Right bloc that aims to merge various strains of orthodoxy into a united phalanx to save the “traditional family.”
Situated along North Main Street, not far from the Rock River, is an otherwise non-descript office building. There, a small band of true believers runs the World Congress of Families (WCF).
Founded in 1997, the organization has a small staff and modest budget. It typically receives little domestic media attention for its work. But despite its small size and relatively unknown profile, the WCF has emerged as a power player in the Religious Right due to its successful track record pushing socially conservative policies in countries like Russia, Poland and Uganda. Its efforts to reform the globe are most visible in its World Congresses, which it hosts on an irregular basis in various countries in order to promote socially conservative policies.
The WCF’s activism isn’t restricted to its Congresses. Under the banner of promoting what it calls “the natural family,” it joined the United Nations’ Family Rights Caucus in order to campaign for a variety of causes beloved by American fundamentalists on the world stage – primarily, the abolition of LGBT rights.
That activity has attracted a number of partners from fundamentalist Christian organizations more familiar to American observers; the WCF’s website lists the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission among its supporters. In 2004, their Mexico City World Congress even received public accolades from President George W. Bush.
This high-profile support is at least partially due to the leadership of WCF founder and International Secretary Dr. Allan Carlson.
Carlson is no stranger to the Religious Right. Throughout his career he’s mixed Christian fundamentalism with conservative politics and a dash of academia. And he’s been successful: He’s currently the Distinguished Visiting Professor of History and Politics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich. The college describes itself as a “…trustee of modern man’s intellectual and spiritual inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture” and decries the “dehumanizing, discriminatory trend of so called ‘social justice’ and ‘multicultural diversity.’”
Before founding the WCF and teaching at Hillsdale, Carlson served as the president of the Rockford Institute, a paleo-conservative think tank. Carlson left Rockford in 1997 to found the Howard Center for Religion, Family and Society. The Center is still considered a Rockford affiliate, and it spawned the WCF to conduct research on the “natural family” and to organize the World Congresses; all three organizations are currently based in Rockford.
During Carlson’s tenure, the WCF has transformed itself into an umbrella organization uniting various ideological allies. A list of speakers provided on its website is a veritable who’s who of the Religious Right: the former U.S. Ambassador to Gambia, George Willford Bryce; Dr. Paige Patterson of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute; and Michael Farris of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, a right-wing Christian outfit.
But what exactly does Carlson – and the WCF – want?
In “The Natural Family: A Manifesto,” Carlson (with the assistance of the Sutherland Institute’s former president Paul Mero) outlines the group’s platform and political goals, beginning with a definition of the “natural family.”
“What is the natural family? The answer comes to the woman and the man who take the risk of turning their love into promises of lifelong devotion,” the manifesto asserts.
Praise for opposite-sex marriage appears repeatedly throughout the manifesto, frequently accompanied by an emphasis on large families. “Children are the first end, or purpose, of marriage,” it declares, and proceeds to offer some insight into why the authors place such a priority on reproduction.
“Just political life also flows out of natural family homes. True sovereignty originates here. These homes are the source of ordered liberty, the fountain of real democracy, the seedbed of virtue,” it explains.
The implication here – that democracy ought to be patterned after a fundamentalist Christian view of the ideal family life – is one that the WCF’s critics say is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution. Carlson and Mero don’t hide the sectarian rationale behind their agenda; in fact, they’re blunt about their intentions. The manifesto is stocked with shots at the usual suspects: “mass schooling” is blamed for dropping Western fertility rates and feminism and secular liberalism are decried as political movements targeting “natural families” for annihilation.
The manifesto also supports the concept of a “family wage,” which at first glance may sound like a progressive notion. A deeper looks shows that the wage is to be granted to men for the purposes of supporting a wife and family; working women with children would not be entitled to the same legal privilege.
The separation of church and state isn’t spared from criticism, either: Carlson and Mero condemn “forces arrayed against the natural family” for removing “…the Creator from most public squares.”
What follows, then, is perhaps not a surprise: The manifesto concludes by outlining the platform of an explicitly fundamentalist Christian government. It proposes, among other things, the abolition of sex education in schools, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, an absolute prohibition of legal abortion, and laws barring any interference whatsoever with home education. It also pledges to “end the aggressive state promotion of androgyny.”
These proposals indicate that an ideal WCF regime would bear little resemblance to American democracy in its present state. And although these policies sound extreme, the WCF has successfully garnered significant support for many of them: World Congresses often accompany a spate of anti-gay legislation and a proliferation of fundamentalist sentiment in the host country.
As of 2014, World Congresses have been held in Prague, Geneva, Mexico City, Warsaw, Amsterdam, Madrid, Sydney and Moscow. Elected officials in most of these countries swiftly proposed legislation resembling the WCF’s agenda.
The group’s reach has been felt around the globe. In the Czech Republic, WCF pushed for legislation that resulted in the legalization of homeschooling – an ostensibly secular issue that the WCF coats with a fundamentalist veneer. Polish officials banned “gay propaganda.” In Switzerland and Spain, legislators attempted to roll back legal abortion rights. Australia’s government – regarded by observers as one of the most socially conservative in its history – is already blocking bills to legalize marriage equality. And in Russia, officials have publicly condemned the LGBT community as sexually deviant. “Gay propaganda” is banned in the country, and LGBT activists are regularly singled out for political persecution. Thanks to WCF lobbying, a similar measure is under consideration in Ukraine.
Activists affiliated with the WCF have also been active in Uganda. Scott Lively, who’s currently being sued by Sexual Minorities of Uganda over his campaign for a law that would have criminalized homosexuality in the country, frequently partners with the WCF on its initiatives, and participated in a planning meeting for the WCF’s Moscow event.
Now there’s evidence that the WCF is turning its focus back to the United States. Its next World Congress will be held in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the assistance of two frequent allies: Family Watch International and the Sutherland Institute. The organization hasn’t yet published an agenda for the event, but based on previous Congresses, it’s likely that opposition to marriage equality will be an overarching theme.
When approached for interview by Church & State, the WCF denied any connection to legislation in Uganda or to the persecution of LGBT people elsewhere. The WCF initially promised Church & State an interview with Carlson in order to clarify its views, but it didn’t follow through. The organization maintains, however, that it has no connection to Uganda or to the persecution of LGBT people elsewhere.
In America, the WCF partners with groups like Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association and Concerned Women for America. That has critics worried.
“We're looking at a number of options to expose the World Congress of Families and their vicious brand of anti-LGBT bigotry in the months ahead,” Jason Rahlan, global press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, told the Daily Beast website in July. “This is not a group of people who simply hold deeply misguided personal opinions. They are having a profound impact on the lives of LGBT people all around the world.”