World Congress of Families Meets, Seeks a New Dark Ages

Last month the World Congress of Families (WCF), an international conservative network, met at the Palacio de Congresos in Madrid to share tactics in defense of the “natural family.” For its participants the natural family is a standard for social values that harkens back to a mythical era when men headed the household, women tended the kitchen and children, and sex was for procreation only.

Because these ideals don’t line up with the way many people live and think about their lives, it’s tempting to dismiss the WCF as a gathering of out-of-touch extremists. Scratch the surface, though, and what you find are well-connected and well-funded groups hard at work codifying their “traditional values” through national and regional legislatures and judiciaries. 

The conference theme, “Marriage and Family, the Future of Society,” echoed many of the concerns of conservative religious organizations here in the U.S. (the WCF, unsurprisingly, is headquartered in Rockford, Illinois). While drolly retrograde panels like “Authentic Women and Rediscovering Homemaking” and “Solutions to Homosexual Behavior” featured prominently, embedded in these and most other panels were serious themes articulating a conservative worldview and strategies for protecting and promoting them in the public sphere.

Personal improvement sessions like “Keeping Families Together,” “The Case for Marriage, Purity and Abstinence: How to Develop Character,” and Promoting Fatherhood (Crisis in Manhood),” were outnumbered by those analyzing opposition tactics like, “Threats to Life and Family in International Law,” “The Homosexual Lobby,” “The Natural Family and the Revolution against the Family,” and counter-strategic sessions like “How to Fight Back against International Law,” or “How to Impact Public Policies and Elections.”

2012 marked the first time the WCF devoted an entire day to organizing with parliamentarians and civil society. The invitation-only International Parliamentary Forum met to develop concrete political and legislative solutions in defense of the natural family. By far the biggest block of participating parliamentarians was from Spain’s newly installed conservative party, the Partido Popular (PP).

With a political platform staunchly opposed to reproductive and sexual rights, the Partido Popular is a natural ally for the WCF. Among their first announcements upon entering office was the promise to restrict Spain’s progressive abortion laws; specifically denying youth access without parental consent (youth rights versus parental rights was a central theme of many conference presentations). The PP’s promise to replace a required public school class—which includes instruction on respect for human rights and sexual diversity, among other topics—with one that would exclude “contents that could be used for ideological indoctrination,” drew high praise from participants.

What emerged after three days was a clear tension between agitating against governments, courts, and international human rights bodies that had “corrupted the meaning and dignity of marriage, devalued parenting, encouraged easy divorce and births outside of marriage, confused sexual identities, promoted promiscuity, created conditions that increased child abuse, isolated the elderly, and fostered depopulation,” and figuring out how to best manipulate those same systems into defending their particular religious values.

One concern undergirding the varied topics covered by the speakers was that the protection of individual rights (youth rights, gay rights, reproductive rights) was taking place at the expense of “fundamental” religious, cultural, and parental rights. The idea of Christian persecution, or Christianophobia, was echoed throughout and the human rights framework was frequently misappropriated to serve the needs of a given speaker. Human rights were oppressive when they protected reproductive and gender rights (or “new” rights), whereas, when it came to protecting “traditional” rights to freedom of religion and speech, they were suddenly fundamental. New rights, they argued, cannot supersede traditional human rights. When they do, these rights violations must be redressed.

This very argument is being used in the debate over the Obama health care reform law, one of the main objections to which is access to reproductive health care. Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the mandate, however, do not directly confront abortion and contraception, but are based on the purported violation of the First Amendment. Stand Up For Religious Freedom, one of the lead networks agitating against health care reform, explicitly states that: “the American ideal of religious liberty is at stake. This isn’t really about contraception—it’s about the First Amendment.”

The Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), one of four World Congress of Families co-conveners, has been extremely active in “defending religious organizations and businesses that refuse to comply with the mandate and abandon their faith.” To date they have filed three lawsuits against the Obama administration, each claiming that the health mandate is unconstitutional based on its violation of the First and Fifth Amendments.

The ADF is also actively litigating religious freedom cases overseas. Because U.S. justices are increasingly citing progressive international jurisprudence in their opinions and decisions, much of the ADF’s international litigation is aimed at ensuring that foreign rulings serve its domestic objectives. This, despite ADF Chief Council’s Benjamin Bull’s comment that “The Constitution is the only arbiter of American law. Allowing foreign or international law to determine the legitimacy of American law is completely unjustifiable and rife with dire consequences.” Presumably it is fine for activist American justices to cite international jurisprudence if it advances their religious agenda.

Roger Kiska, an Ave Maria-trained lawyer, runs ADF’s European office. Located in Vienna, it’s a Eurail ride from both the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and the European Court of Human rights in Strasbourg, where Kiska spends a great deal of time. Kiska is developing an allied attorney network dedicated to litigating European cases with the potential to impact ADF work in the United States. Kiska’s WCF presentation, “How to Fight Back against International Law,” included a four-point strategy that, while not revealing too many trade secrets, was notable for its venomous tone toward “humanists” and others who, he says, accuse Christians of demanding preferential treatment.

The European premiere of the Hollywood film For Greater Glory perfectly complemented the persecution complex detectable in many presentations. Titled Cristiada in Spain, the film chronicles the Mexican Cristero War as experienced by Catholic militia who opposed attempts by the post-Mexican Revolution government to impose anticlerical laws. A New York Times review described the movie’s characters as “clear-cut saints and sinners.” Like the Cristeros fighting against the Mexican lay state, WCF members see their battle as one of religious freedom against an oppressive state bent on forcing them to reject their values and accept a secular, relativist one.

While WCF participants make the case that they’re being denied their fundamental rights, they are in fact using “religious freedom” as a cover to deny women, children, sexual minorities, and others access to basic needs and protections. The WCF may want to take us back to the Dark Ages, but they’re not afraid to use modern human rights systems to get there.

On the final day of the conference Paul Herzog Von Oldenburg, the Belgian president of the right-wing Catholic group Tradition, Family and Property, summarized it best: “our great aim, our great ideal, is to build a Christian civilization from the ruins of the modern world just as the medieval world arose from the ruins of the Roman world.”

kaneg@ipas.org'

Gillian Kane is a freelance writer living in New York City.