May 2019 Church & State Magazine | Cover Story

During a conference that took place the last weekend in March, speakers attacked LGB­TQ rights, feminism, reproductive rights and religious diversity.

While this may sound like a typical gathering of a Religious Right group in Washington, D.C., it wasn’t. This event took place halfway around the globe in Verona, Italy, and represents a far more ambitious agenda than the Religious Right’s oft-stated goal of forging a “biblical” society in the United States. Indeed, the conference’s organizers aim to build a global theocratic movement.

The event was sponsored by the World Congress of Families (WCF), an organization founded in 1997 originally to oppose the spread of LGBTQ rights and roll back women’s reproductive freedom. Since then, the group has become notorious for backing extreme anti-LGBTQ measures and aligning with dictators and neo-fascist, anti-immigrant organizations.

The conference in Verona, which was WCF’s 13th, highlighted the organization’s ties to the far right. CNN reported that Verona, a city in northern Italy with a population of about a quarter of a million, has long been a hotbed of extremist politics.

“Today neo-fascist groups such as CasaPound and Forza Nuova, whose leader held a press conference outside the venue on Saturday, have their headquarters in the city’s center,” reported CNN. “And most recently, Verona has become a flashpoint of far-right activity and a launching pad for some of the country’s most well-known – and controversial – politicians and ideas. In October, Verona’s mayor Federico Sboarina declared the city ‘pro-life’ after the town council passed a motion that would use public funds to finance anti-abortion programs.”

Among the speakers at the event was Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and the leader of the League Party, which has been described as xenophobic and anti-immigrant.

CNN noted that others speakers included Lorenzo Fontana, Italy’s minister for family and disability, who has attacked marriage equality, transgender rights and immigration, asserting that they will “wipe out our community and our traditions.”

Americans were also represented at the conference. Among the speakers was Brian S. Brown, who serves as WCF’s president. In America, Brown is better known for his other job, co-founder and leader of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which spearheaded the fight against marriage equality in the U.S. NOM lost that battle in 2015 when the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Far from closing its doors after losing its signature campaign, NOM is now focused on blocking the expansion of LGBTQ rights and arguing that “religious freedom” should give business owners the right to discriminate. (It also holds out hope that a Supreme Court remade by President Donald Trump will overturn Obergefell.)

At the Verona conference, Brown told the crowd, “This universal truth of the beauty of the family is what binds us together. We are here today to defend, promote, protect and lift up something so basic, true and beautiful – the family – a man, a woman, a child.”     

Such “pro-family” rhetoric may sound non-threatening to many people, but critics say it masks WCF’s larger agenda, which is rabidly anti-LGBTQ and a form of Christian nationalism, the belief that conservative forms of Christianity should be embraced by the government and integrated into public policy.

Such “pro-family” rhetoric may sound non-threatening to many people, but critics say it masks WCF’s larger agenda, which is rabidly anti-LGBTQ and a form of Christian nationalism, the belief that conservative forms of Christianity should be embraced by the government and integrated into public policy.

Prior to WCF’s 2015 conference in Salt Lake City (the only one to take place in America), the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) released a report titled “Exposed: The World Congress of Families – An American Organization Exporting Hate.” 

The report noted that WCF has had significant influence in several African nations, where anti-LGBTQ animus has bordered on hysteria. Scott Lively, a Massachusetts anti-gay activist who has worked with WCF, spoke in Uganda in 2009 and apparently inspired David Bahati, a member of that country’s parliament, to introduce a draconian bill imposing the death penalty on anyone found guilty of engaging in same-sex relationships. The bill was later modified to change the penalty to life in prison. It was signed into law by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in February 2014, but was later invalidated by the Constitutional Court of Uganda.

Passage of the legislation horrified members of the LGBTQ community in Uganda, who blamed it for a spike in assaults and hate crimes. One Ugandan activist who spoke out against the bill during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., could not give his real name and had to speak while wearing a paper bag over his head. He said that if his identity were known, he would likely have been murdered once he got home.

A group called Sexual Minorities Uganda attempted to sue Lively in U.S. courts for endangering the lives of LGBTQ people in Uganda. A federal court dismissed the case on procedural grounds but blasted Lively’s actions for “aiding and abetting efforts to demonize, intimidate, and injure LGBTI people in Uganda….”

WCF has pursued anti-LGBTQ legislation in other countries, scoring some notable successes. The organization has been credited for being the force behind Russia’s notorious 2013 “homosexual propaganda” law. Allegedly designed to stop the dissemination of LGBTQ material to young people, that harsh measure has been used to crack down on gay pride parades and other public expressions of LGBTQ unity.

WCF often cloaks its anti-LGBTQ crusade in benign-sounding “pro-family” rhetoric. In WCF’s worldview, homosexuality is a symptom of Western decadence that leads to the destruction of the family.

Freelance journalist Sarah Posner reported for Vice that during WCF’s 2018 conference, which took place in Chisinau, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Moldova, the country’s president, Igor Dodon, blasted “an anti- family ideology, which is artificially propagated all over the world.” Posner reported that Dodon called for combining his government with the Orthodox Church and enlisting help from the media to “promote family values in the society.” Dodon also attacked “festivals and other events that promote immoral principles” – thinly veiled code language for gay-pride parades.

WCF doesn’t stop at assailing the LGBTQ community. Like a lot of “pro-life” organizations, the World Con­gress seems to be obsessed with women’s fertility and asserts that women in Europe and America should produce more children.

WCF doesn’t stop at assailing the LGBTQ community. Like a lot of “pro-life” organizations, the World Con­gress seems to be obsessed with women’s fertility and asserts that women in Europe and America should produce more children.

Western nations, WCF asserts, face what the group calls “demographic winter” because not enough people are reproducing. As a result, those countries must rely on immigration to fill jobs, which threatens to alter their national character.

During the 2008 Values Voter Summit, a major Religious Right confab sponsored annually in Washington, D.C., by the Family Research Council (FRC), Don Federer, a former right-wing newspaper columnist who now does communications work for WCF, criticized the use of birth control and pined for the days when the average woman had six children. 

“Remember when births weren’t controlled, and pregnancies weren’t planned?” Federer asked. “You married and you had children.”

But WCF seems chiefly to want the “right” kind of people (white Christians) to have children. The group has been accused of being xenophobic and anti-immigrant. As Posner noted, one of WCF’s heroes is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz Party is notorious for its attacks on immigrants and asylum seekers. Orbán also gets lots of love from WCF for his attempts to ban legal abortion, his opposition to marriage equality, his crackdown on opposition groups and the media, his 2018 declaration that Hungary is based on “Christian foundations” and his party’s action to amend the Hungarian constitution to recognize only “traditional” families.

The autocratic Orbán has been embraced by the Trump administration after eight years of being treated as a pariah by President Barack Obama. In mid-March, several White House officials attended an event at the Library of Congress sponsored by the Hungarian Embassy called “Make Families Great Again.” The event promoted Orbán’s seven-point plan to entice Hungarian women to have more children. (One prong promises subsidies to offset the cost of big cars.) Also in attendance was Tony Perkins, president of the FRC. Posner noted that Perk­ins has hailed Orbán as “a strong conservative that literally has championed biblical values in Hungary.”

The Religious Right’s admiration for Orbán isn’t surprising. Critics assert that WCF has always had authoritarian leanings. The group traces its origins to 1995, when Allan Carlson, president of a Rockford, Ill.-based organization called the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, met with a handful of Russian scholars who were convinced that birth control, homosexuality and feminism were threatening families. The How­ard Center had been formed by Carlson and John A. Howard, former president of Rockford College, as an old-school, ultra-conservative think tank, and has over the years been accused of peddling racism and anti-Semitism.

The Howard Center’s magazine, The Family in America, said its aim was “to restore the child-rich, married-parent family as the cornerstone of American society,” but its staffers held some unusual views. In 2012, Robert W. Patterson, the editor of the  journal, lost his day job with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare after it came to light that he had written columns arguing that birth-control pills suppress women’s sexual pleasure, and that use of condoms deprives women of “remarkable chemicals” in semen that would allegedly elevate their mood and self-esteem.

Carl­son and the Russian scholars felt that it would be useful to link activists in Europe, Russia and the Uni­ted States. The World Congress of Families was created to meet that need, but soon expanded to include “pro-family” activists worldwide.

The worldview championed by Carlson and WCF is outlined in “The Natural Family: A Mani­fes­to,” a document Carlson wrote with the assistance of Paul Mero, former president of the Sutherland Institute, a Salt Lake City-based anti-government think tank. The paper outlines WCF’s ideal society, and says it all starts with “natural family.” 

Observes the manifesto, “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.” 

According to the manifesto, children are the expected result of every marriage. “Children are the first end, or purpose, of marriage,” it declares, adding, “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.” 

From there, it proceeds to make specific policy proposals. The manifesto criticizes “mass schooling” (a euphemism for public education), feminism, secularism and liberalism. Carlson and Mero also slam separation of church and state, blasting “forces arrayed against the natural family” for removing “the Creator from most public squares.”

The document goes on to call for the abolition of sex education in schools, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, a ban on abortion for any reason and laws barring any interference with home schooling. Curiously, it also demands an “end [to] the aggressive state promotion of androgyny.”

Five years ago, former Church & State writer Sarah E. Jones noted that the manifesto also contains one provision that at first glance might look to be progressive: a government-guaranteed “family wage” to help people meet living expenses. A deeper look exposes the scheme as a sexist ploy, granted only to men after they married and fathered children while their wives stayed home. Single moms and working women would not qualify for the subsidy. (See “World of Trouble,” December 2014 Church & State.)

The organization has held conferences every year since 1997, except for 2014. The conference that year, planned for Moscow, had to be canceled because of unrest in Uk­raine. WCF events have occurred in Prague, Czech Republic; Geneva, Swit­zerland; Mexico City, Mexico; Warsaw, Poland; Amsterdam, the Neth­erlands; Madrid, Spain; Sydney, Australia; and Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia.

Despite its extreme views, WCF has integrated itself into several governments around the world. HRC’s report noted that former Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Wade Horn and U.S. Representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women Ellen Sauerbrey attended both WCF’s 2004 conference in Mexico City and the 2007 event in Warsaw. In Mexico City, Sauerbrey delivered greetings from then President George W. Bush, who said, “As one of the pillars of civilization, families must remain strong and we must defend them during a time of great change. … My administration has taken important steps to promote strong families, preserve the sanctity of marriage and protect the well-being of children.” 

WCF gave Bush its Family and Dem­ocracy Award during the 2016 conference in Tbilisi. Bush did not attend the event but sent a note reading, “I commend your efforts to recognize the importance of families in building nations. Your work improves many lives and makes the world better.”

During WCF’s 2009 meeting in Am­sterdam, controversy erupted because a Dutch politician, André Rouvoet, addressed the group. Several Australian politicians attended a regional meeting the group held in Melbourne in 2014.

WCF events routinely draw big names in the far-right world and attract thousands of attendees. Yet according to publicly available tax documents, in 2017 the budget for the Howard Center, the parent group of WCF, was a paltry $205,000. In 2016, the figure was higher at $577,000.

How does WCF pay for its events? The HRC report says that conservative groups in America and wealthy Russians underwrite them. In the past, WCF has received funding from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Knights of Columbus and a number of Russian businesses.

In turn, U.S. Religious Right leaders are often featured at WCF events. WCF has especially close ties to the FRC and the American Family Association, two of the nation’s largest and most powerful Religious Right groups.

The alarming agenda of WCF hasn’t gone unnoticed. The group’s meeting in Salt Lake City sparked a counter-protest, and more than 14,000 people signed on to an ad published in the Salt Lake Tribune expressing support for all families and declaring, “Hate is not an American value, it has no place in Salt Lake City. We fundamentally reject the World Congress of Families and its destructive agenda.”

The alarming agenda of WCF hasn’t gone unnoticed. The group’s meeting in Salt Lake City sparked a counter-protest, and more than 14,000 people signed on to an ad published in the Salt Lake Tribune expressing support for all families and declaring, “Hate is not an American value, it has no place in Salt Lake City. We fundamentally reject the World Congress of Families and its destructive agenda.” 

The recent WCF meeting in Verona, drew a crowd of about 30,000 counter-demonstrators who marched while hois­ting banners promoting women’s rights and LGBTQ equality. 

“We want to make people aware of what is happening and to outline the threat that everybody is facing – it’s not just a feminist thing,” Alessandra Celati, one of the protest organizers, told CNN. “We want to create a bridge between our organization and others who want to contribute in the resistance to the medieval policies these people are pulling forward.”