Whose Family? Religious Right’s “Family Values” Agenda Advances Internationally

About Cole Parke

The U.S. Religious Right has a long history of employing the frame of “traditional family values” to scapegoat a revolving cast of marginalized characters for all of society’s problems. (Consider Anita Bryant’s anti-LGBTQ crusades in the 1970s and Scott Lively’s more recent efforts to eradicate homosexuality in order to “save the children.”) But while they may rail against straw man stereotypes like “welfare queens” and “homosexual pedophiles” in their efforts to “defend the family,” the truth is that the arguments of religious conservatives have absolutely nothing to do with abortion or sex. The Right’s allusion to—and veneration of—some mythological one man + one woman utopian era of the past (where everyone was content with their assigned gender roles and every pregnancy was carefully planned) ultimately serves to pave the way for ongoing colonization and exploitation of the Global South.

United Nations. image via GRU.edu

United Nations. image via GRU.edu

Recently, we’ve seen a new round of right-wing “family values” efforts at the international level, focused particularly on the United Nations.  In May, Family Watch International president Sharon Slater launched a “Protect the Family” petition on CitizenGO. CitizenGO is a right-wing digital platform for online activism based in Spain that includes National Organization for Marriage head Brian Brown on its board of directors. Slater’s petition calls on all UN ambassadors to “fulfill their international obligation to protect the family by including the family in the UN’s post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” She urges supporters to “Help [UN member states] feel the power that comes when the families of the world arise and demand that policies that undermine this vital institution never advance.” 100,000 supporters have already signed on, and the number is steadily rising.

Protecting families certainly seems like a fine goal. After all, is anybody actually “pro” family destruction? The issue here is that Slater’s petition has an extremely limited definition of what counts as a family, and her list of threats to this “fundamental unit of society” conveniently coincides with many of the same policies the U.S. Right opposes in seeking to maintain male supremacy and white supremacy: According to Slater, the policies that are “undermining” the family include efforts to make sexual orientation and gender identity protected statuses under international human rights law, providing comprehensive sex ed to young people, and ensuring accessible and safe contraception and abortion options.

And while Slater claims to speak on behalf of the “families of the world,” she conveniently excludes those that are led by grandparents, single parents, same-sex parents, and countless other amalgamations of people caring for people.

In Slater’s view, extending human rights protections to LGBTQ people, respecting the bodily autonomy of all, and expanding our definition of “family” to reflect the diversity that is evident throughout the world is just too dangerous.

This growing movement to advance a restrictive definition of “family” gained ground last month when the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on “Protection of the Family.” While the resolution itself doesn’t have immediate policy implications for “non-traditional” families, it is part of a broader agenda led by the U.S. Religious Right aimed at cementing a patriarchal and heteronormative family structure as the fundamental unit of society, and then using that as a tool to advance conservative, right-wing social policies through the UN and other international organizations.

Other conservative organizations have also jumped into the “family” fray.  Following failed efforts led by Chile, Uruguay, Ireland, and France to include language in the resolution acknowledging that “various forms of the family exist,” Austin Ruse—head of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM)—said the vote reflected widespread opposition to efforts to protect LGBTQ rights in diplomatic agreements—efforts that right-wing leaders insist are Western-imposed initiatives (ignoring the fact that they, themselves, are Westerners actively imposing a particular worldview on families and communities in the Global South).

C-FAM has joined with Slater’s Family Watch International (FWI), National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH), and others in establishing the UN Family Rights Caucus. Collectively, these groups lobby against efforts to promote LGBTQ rights and reproductive justice at the UN.

In this coordinated, global campaign, the U.S. Religious Right has also been supported by an increasingly powerful program developed by the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society—the World Congress of Families (WCF). Allan Carlson, founder of the WCF, observed in 2007, “You might say we’re the United Nations of the pro-family movement.”

Indeed, the WCF functions very much like the UN, with elected officials, religious leaders, scientists, and scholars representing countries from all over the world convening at regular international conferences, or “Congresses,” to  discuss and determine strategies for advancing their anti-LGBTQ, anti-SRHR agenda internationally.

At WCF II, hosted in Geneva in 1999, Ruse defined the focus of the campaign that is finally taking hold:

“We have arrived at a perilous moment in the life of the family. Long under attack by her enemies, the family seems now to be disintegrating all around us. In every country of the developed world, families are breaking up under a plethora of pernicious pathologies. The roots of the attack, and their result are easily enumerated by most of the current social science data. But I will focus on one institution with which I am most familiar, the United Nations, an institution that is increasingly at the forefront of the attack on the family.”

The UN functions as the world’s primary decision-making body, working to maintain international peace and security, promote and protect human rights, foster social and economic development, protect the environment, and provide humanitarian aid in cases of famine, natural disaster, and armed conflict. As part of these efforts, in 2000, it established the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight goals aimed to be achieved by 2015, including the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, a reduction in child mortality, and the advancement of gender equality.

Slater’s “Protect the Family” petition calls for the establishment of an additional, standalone goal focused on the family, and she’s systematically putting the necessary pieces into place to ensure her vision’s success. One of those necessary pieces is the establishment of a conservative voting bloc at the UN, which Slater and other members of the UN Family Rights Caucus have developed by aggressively lobbying African delegates, winning them over with a sort of “reverse colonizer” argument—suggesting that they only endeavor to save poor, helpless Africans from those family-hating Western liberals who are out to destroy the developing world for their own gain.

In a speech delivered at WCF III in 2004, Gwendolyn Landolt, vice president of REAL Women of Canada, outlines the Right’s narrative:

“The west was concerned that the large population of the developing world would precipitate both increased migration to the west and increased civil unrest, which could lead to a loss of access to natural resources in the developing world by the west.

“The western nations, therefore, began to use the UN as a tool by which to attempt to curtail Third World population.  This was carried out by way of anti-family policies, such as reproductive rights (abortion), contraceptive and sterilization programs, adolescent access to these services without parental knowledge or consent (WHO defines an adolescent as anyone from 10 to 19 years), and homosexual rights.”

To put it mildly, the arguments of Slater and her crew are flawed and retrogressive.  To put it more accurately, they are neocolonial, white supremacist, patriarchal—and of grave concern to all those committed to an authentic vision of human rights and social justice.  And unfortunately, Slater and her crew seem to be succeeding—every country in the African Group voted for the “Protection of the Family” resolution without hesitation.

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Cole Parke, research analyst at PRA, studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for more than a decade. Their research and writing examines the infrastructure, mechanisms, strategies, and effects of the Religious Right on LGBTQ people and reproductive rights, both domestically and internationally, always with an eye toward collective liberation.