Religion, Money, & Politics: An (un)Holy Trinity

As with anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion culture wars, the exportation of American economic ideologies to the Global South (and the strategies and tactics employed to impose them on others) has a long history of violence and destruction. From Nestle’s deadly exploitation of African mothers in the 1970s to the United Fruit Company’s role in inciting Guatemala’s 36-year long civil war, American corporations have consistently and relentlessly exploited the Global South for the sake of increased profits and power.

Rwanda President Paul Kagame. Photo: Veni via Flickr.

These two channels of influence — one being religious and one being economic — are typically seen as independent of one another, but evidence suggests that a growing alliance is forming between the U.S. Christian Right, their evangelical allies in the corporate world, and the political leaders they seek to make into pawns of their agenda.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda definitely understands the tagteam value of both religious endorsement and corporate backing. In 2008 he told TIME that he’s not very religious but has “a good sense of what faith is about and the usefulness of it.” Tapping into some of those useful attributes, Kagame includes among his closest allies two extremely powerful conservative American evangelicals: megachurch pastor Rick Warren and Joe Ritchie, a Chicago-based businessman and multimillionaire.

Infamously known for its 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed in the span of 100 days, Rwanda is now described as a model of stability and economic development. Rwanda has also become the favorite poster child of Rick Warren’s international work. In 2004, he declared Rwanda the first “Purpose Driven” country, affixing his famous branding to one of the world’s most well-known resurrection stories (though it’s still ranked among the most impoverished nations).

Sometimes referred to as “America’s pastor,” Warren is also arguably aspiring to be “Africa’s pastor.” Though he’s based in Lake Forest, CA, Warren claims Rwanda as his “home,” pointing to his Rwandan diplomatic passport as proof (a perk bestowed upon him by President Kagame for his service on the Presidential Advisory Council). His influence is increasingly expanding across the continent; in May 2014, Warren announced plans to host an “All-Africa Purpose Driven Church Leadership Training Conference” in Kigali, Rwanda. The conference is currently anticipated to be held in the fall of 2018.

Rick Warren. Photo: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr.

Rwanda has served as a testing ground for Warren’s “PEACE Plan,” a multi-pronged development model which brings together business, government, and churches, as a “three-legged stool.” Warren emphasizes that he isn’t a politician or a businessman, but in Rwanda he has extensive connections across both sectors, as well as with religious leaders. Through these relationships, Warren is increasingly able to integrate his conservative theological, cultural, and political agenda into all realms of society. Making a case for the blurring of lines between churches, corporations, and the state – a slippery slope with dangerous implications for sexual minorities and women. He argues that without church involvement, public-private partnerships would fall over, like a two-legged stool.

Joe Ritchie, Kagame’s other favorite American evangelical, is the one who originally ushered Warren into the inner circles of the small nation’s business and political elite. In 2003, Ritchie, who serves as the co-chair of Rwanda’s Presidential Advisory Council (PAC) and is the founding CEO of the Rwandan Development Board shared with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame a copy of the famous pastor’s bestseller, A Purpose Driven Life. Kagame subsequently invited Warren to join the PAC, “a special team of Rwandans and friends of Rwanda whose mission is to advise the President on Rwanda’s strategic development, choices and initiatives.” The Council typically meets twice a year, and over the course of its existence has included such notable members as Britain’s former prime minister, Tony Blair, and AT&T board member, Scott Ford (another American evangelical Christian)

In Prospects for Prosperity: Rwanda and the Entrepreneurial Society, a 2008 report published by the conservative think tank Hudson Institute, the authors write, “It would be impossible to fully appreciate current levels of American business interest in Rwanda without understanding the way in which an informal, yet significant, group of peers has facilitated that interest.” This group, led by Joe Ritchie and his business partner at Fox River Financial Services, Dan Cooper, established the U.S.-based “Friends of Rwanda,” a loosely organized group of “like-minded investors, business leaders, and civic leaders who have taken an interest in Rwanda.”

The authors go on to say that Warren “has been centrally involved in coordinating activity with and through this network.”

According to the American Enterprise Institute, Ritchie and Cooper’s Friends of Rwanda network played a critical role in “spreading the idea that Rwanda is a good place to do business, and not just a place for do-gooders to come help.” The two are credited with brokering Rwanda’s first breakthrough deal with retail giant Costco for coffee exports. Not long after, Starbucks followed suit (again, with help from Ritchie and Cooper).

American corporate investment has certainly offered a stabilizing force to Rwanda’s post-genocide economic development, but a marriage between government, business, and religion is one to be wary of.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision in 2014, which effectively granted individual conscience protections to corporations, expanded the slippery slope of corporate personhood that Citizens United initiated in 2010. The decision made clear how blurry the lines between church, state, and corporate entities have become in the United States. As a result of Hobby Lobby, the Christian Right has secured a loophole by which to manipulate the constitutional right to religious freedom (previously only applicable for individuals and religious institutions) into a right to discriminate that is now being applied in increasingly broad terms, granting businesses and medical providers the ability to deny services and care to otherwise unprotected classes of people (such as LGBTQ people).

American Christian Right organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization based in Arizona, are already developing strategies for how to apply this same anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion tactic internationally. ADF already claims an “active presence in the various regions of Africa.” In countries where the Religious Right enjoys the support of both political and corporate allies, we can anticipate that legalized discrimination under the guise of “religious freedom” will soon become the norm.

 

Know Your Neighbors Hits the Road

With a sweet woman named Rhonda at the wheel, our bus carefully merged onto the highway and headed south toward Colorado Springs. As the sun set behind the Rocky Mountains, Sweet Honey and the Rock’s rendition of “Ella’s Song” played over the speaker system, reminding us in gentle, insistent harmonies, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

We’d converged on Denver over the previous few days to attend the annual Creating Change Conference, hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force. Creating Change is one of the premier national gatherings of LGBTQ organizers and activists, and attracts thousands of people from as far away as Uganda and China. While Colorado Springs is a notorious right-wing hub (a recent study ranked it as the fourth most conservative major city in the U.S.), Creating Change offers a safe haven for folks like us. Gender-neutral bathrooms are the norm, workshops topics range from grassroots fundraising to anti-racist organizing, and glitter is everywhere.

… But we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes—even to Colorado Springs.

As the U.S. Right’s global impact on the lives of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color increases, the pressing question is: “What can we do?” Know Your Neighbors—a collaborative project between PRA and Soulforce—aims to respond.

Know Your Neighbors (KYNship) is dedicated to countering right-wing attacks with reliable analysis, educational programming, cross-issue collaboration, creative engagement of our adversaries, and direct action in order to expose and resist the true agendas of right-wing leaders, institutions, and ideologies, both domestically and internationally. Our goal is to challenge American culture war “exporters” with education and mobilization of social justice activists and organizations based in the same communities.

The Know Your Neighbors (KYNship) bus tour in Colorado Springs, February 2015

The Know Your Neighbors (KYNship) bus tour in Colorado Springs, February 2015

After months of planning and strategizing, the close proximity of this year’s Creating Change venue to Colorado Springs offered an exciting opportunity for KYNship to step into action.

… Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

So 27 of us—a cross-section of activists, progressive faith leaders, researchers, and educators—set out to learn, share, and connect, driven by a shared understanding that marriage equality in the U.S. does not equal freedom for all. Ongoing violence and persecution experienced by people of color and trans and gender-nonconforming people, the continued exploitation of poor and working class LGBTQ folks, and the erasure of disabled, femme, undocumented, indigenous, and young people in this movement demonstrate our shortcomings and the tremendous amount of work yet to be done.

While the onslaught of attacks on human and civil rights may come from any direction, the most robust opposition over the past few decades has emerged from the U.S. Right. Organizations like Focus on the Family—which made Colorado Springs its home in 1991—are at the forefront of this offensive, and their reach extends far beyond the city limits. Focus on the Family’s influence alone can be felt in over 150 countries around the world.

Bringing a bus full of social justice organizers and activists to its doorstep—including one of Uganda’s leading LGBTQ activists—was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

… Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Over the span of four hours, KYNship took an inspiring group of Creating Change attendees (and Rhonda) on an educational tour of Colorado Springs. We explored the history, structure, mechanisms, and contemporary trends of the U.S. Right, highlighting its global impact on LGBTQ people, women, people of color, young people, and reproductive rights. We examined the intersections of these oppressions, the role of the U.S. Right in their perpetuation, and discussed effective strategies for resistance.

Upon returning to Denver, we exited the bus with new knowledge, deeper understanding, stronger analysis, and a new sense of community in our collective commitment to resisting the Right as part of our ongoing pursuit of justice and liberation for all people.

Indeed, we even forged kinship and community with our fearless driver, Rhonda.  Upon our return to the conference hotel, Rhonda approached the KYNship leadership team with a big smile. “I learned so much tonight! You know, my daughter… she’s gay too, and the folks you all were talking about—they make her life awfully hard sometimes. Thank you all so much for what you’re doing!”

This tour was both the beginning of a much bigger project to challenge U.S.-based culture warriors and the continuation of a long history of bold and brilliant resistance to right-wing oppression.

… Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Creating Change is over now, and the group of us that came together for KYNship’s first project have all returned home. Each of our home communities contain their own networks of committed social justice organizers and activists—and their own elements of right-wing opposition. In some cases (like with Focus on the Family), the targets of our resistance are more obvious. But in many situations, key players in the global export of U.S. culture wars maintain a low profile here in the U.S., or present themselves as far more moderate than their international campaigns reveal them to be. Groups like the World Congress of Families in Rockford, Illinois and people like Sharon Slater in Gilbert, Arizona often fly under the radar of even the most well informed activists.

KYNship is eager to step into that gap, supporting local social justice activists in identifying key opposition leaders in their communities, understanding the local and global impact of their work, and strategizing principled and effective modes of confrontation and resistance. Please visit www.KYNship.org to learn more and get involved!

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Left Behind: The Christian Right’s Continued Culture War Promotion Through Hollywood

“The goal of this movie was to not be preachy,” said Paul Lalonde, writer and producer of the new Left Behind movie released last weekend. “You get too preachy, it turns people off. That’s what’s kept faith-based movies in the church basements and out of the theaters.” But the latest Christian Right film to hit the big screen preaches little else other than a reinforcement of the Right’s culture wars.

left behind

The new film, starring Nicolas Cage, follows the action-packed first few hours following the Rapture, when pre-millennial conservative evangelicals believe good Christians will rise to Heaven in accordance with Biblical prophecy, beginning a period of tribulation on Earth that ends with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Audiences won’t even meet the Antichrist until the sequel, so those unfamiliar with the book series might miss how Left Behind feeds into right-wing conspiracy theories, opposes peace and social justice, and promotes culture wars-ideology.

Lalonde, CEO of Cloud Ten Pictures and producer of the original low-budget Left Behind films, founded another production company, Stoney Lake Entertainment, to do the reboot and focus “on producing big budget faith-themed films for a wider audience.” “I think it can open a lot of doors that would not have otherwise be opened,” Lalonde told Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, which spent extensive time on set during the filming. “People are fascinated by it. People are fascinated by the idea of the rapture.”

“What makes ‘Left Behind’ different is that it is a contemporary story that could actually happen at any moment,” explains Lalonde. “It’s also a historical account in a sense, because it’s based on a true story, it just hasn’t happened yet.” According to the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans expect that Jesus Christ will return by 2050. Lalonde himself has “no doubt we are living in the end times [before the Rapture] so therefore it could happen tomorrow that the church is going to be called home and caught up in the air and taken to heaven and that’s what this movie’s about.”

Lalonde’s maxim to not be “too preachy” in the pursuit of mainstream appeal sums up the strategy of not only the new Hollywood movie but the entire franchise of Christian Right adult and children’s books, films, graphic novels, and video games. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ fictional imagining of the Rapture graphically portrays the disaster of car and plane crashes, emotions of families torn apart, and heroes fighting against an evil overlord—a winning combination that has sold 65 million books, secured regular top spots on bestseller lists, and landed a cover story in Time magazine in 2002.

But these books intend more than entertainment; interwoven with the high-tech weaponry, romances, and disasters, LaHaye and Jenkins spin a tale intended to thrill believers, push political agendas, and bring the “unsaved” to Christ by giving them a peek at the suffering awaiting nonbelievers.

When he recruited Jenkins to co-author the Left Behind books, LaHaye was already an established Christian Right leader known for supporting creationism and anti-LGBTQ beliefs. He founded or helped to found a series of right-wing organizations, including the Institute for Creation Research, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the Council for National Policy, and the Coalition for Traditional Values. He capitalized on his high profile as Left Behind’s author to win over the Christian Right to George W. Bush’s presidential candidacy, and supported education and research on prophecy and pre-tribulation (the period before the Rapture).

Here’s just a brief overview of the series’ political agendas for the blissfully unaware:

The Antichrist rises to power as the secretary-general of the United Nations by promising world peace, expressing and reinforcing right-wing fears of takeover by secular world government and aversion to promoting peace. (“I’ve opposed the United Nations for 50 years,” LaHaye boasts, indicating the storyline was no accident.) According to LaHaye, Jesus does not promise peace, he promises the sword—so any politician promising world peace could be the Antichrist himself. People unacquainted with this belief system sometimes find it difficult to wrap their minds around the idea of being anti-peace, especially since conservative evangelicals typically know better than to voice public criticism in those terms.

Social justice and humanitarian action also fall under the shadow of collaboration with the Antichrist. Religious scholar Glenn Shuck described the Antichrist of the Left Behind series: “His ungodly traits include a silver-tongue, a handsome face, and a devilish charm that he uses to soothe the world during its time of crisis. To unbelievers he seems like a saint or even the Messiah. He works to correct economic inequalities, attempts to end poverty and cure dreaded diseases, and leads the world onto a path of total disarmament.”

In the midst of the battle against the Antichrist, LaHaye and Jenkins work in traditional culture war issues through their array of characters. They slip in an argument about the evils of abortion here, an unpleasant lesbian woman who cannot be saved there. Left Behind: The Kids, a series of 40 short books, provides an opportunity to discuss how the Antichrist’s public schools “persecute” Christian youth for their beliefs, deploying arguments similar to real-world evangelical critiques around issues like school prayer.

Then we have the role of Israel and the Jewish people. The Left Behind narrative, in short: Israel’s preordained role in the Second Coming includes its bloody destruction, while 144,000 Jewish witnesses play their part in publicly converting to Christ. For those interested in how Jews and Israel factor into millennial theology in the present-day Christian Right movement, see Rachel Tabachnick’s 2010 article in The Public Eye magazine, “The New Christian Zionism and the Jews: A Love/Hate Relationship.”

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Archbishop Tells Africa Homosexuality is a Human Rights Issue, Will American Culture War Exporters Listen?

During a working visit to Zambia on June 29, the head of the Anglican Communion, Justin Welby, showed true global leadership when he reportedly told Zambian journalists and Christians what they may not have wanted to hear. “Homosexuality is a global issue,” the Archbishop said. “We need to treat others with respect and dignity. It is a human rights issue… there is need to treat everyone with respect and dignity.”

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Image via The Sun

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Image via The Sun

For those who don’t know Archbishop Welby, he belongs to an Evangelical Wing of the Anglican Church, and is a highly respected leader in the evangelical community. In American Culture Warriors in Africa, I explain that unlike his predecessor, Rowan William, Archbishop Welby met with African leaders of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON)—founded by American Conservatives opposed to LGBTQ advances in the Episcopal Church—on October 20, 2013,following the Westgate Mall bombing of September 2013, and again just before the official GAFCON (October 21-26) in Nairobi, Kenya. After leaving Kenya, he sent a video message to GAFCON participants explaining his absence at the conference. Part of his message addressed the issue of human sexuality. “We are dealing with very rapid changes of culture in the Global North and the issue of sexuality is a very important one,” he told the participants. “How we respond rightly to that, in a way that is holy, truthful and gracious, is absolutely critical to our proclamation of the gospel.” Anti-LGBTQ Archbishops of Uganda, Rwanda, and Nigeria and their counterparts in the United States—the very bishops U.S.-based pastor of Saddleback Church, Rick Warren, has long been working with in both African and here in the U.S. to promote and extend the culture wars—misinterpreted the Archbishop Welby’s words as endorsements of their anti-gay position.

This time, however, the Archbishop made it very clear—the issue of human sexuality is a human rights issue. His words attracted the attention of conservative pastors.

Addressing the local media, Rev. Pukuta Mwanza, Executive Director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia, rebutted the Archbishop’s message and instead of heeding the calls for love and tolerance, encouraged sexual minorities to “cure” their homosexuality through prayers and counseling.

The Archbishop’s courageous words came at the time when Zambians were awaiting the ruling on a same-sex couple James Mwape and Phillip Mubiana, who were pulled from their home and arrested on charges of being homosexual in May, 2013. After spending over a year in jail, subjected to dehumanizing “medical tests” such as forced anal examinations by the state, the court finally ruled on July 3, 2014, that the state did not prove beyond doubt that Mwape and Mubiana had engaged in same-sex sexual relations.

James and Phillip’s acquittal also brought to the foreground what many Africans believe, thanks to the propaganda spread by U.S. conservatives who travel to their countries, that LGBTQ people are foreign to Africa.

“We, the Youths of Zambia Say No to Gay Rights,” and “Abash Homosexuality, —Leave Zambia,” were some of signs seen outside the courtroom the day of the acquittal. At the same time, the presence of family members of the couple—particularly Phillip’s grandmother, who courageously stood by her grandson—proved the Archbishop’s point, that persecution of LGBTQ persons in Africa is not a political issue; it is a moral issue; it is a human rights issue. It is time to stop playing politics with human lives. We all have the moral responsibility to stand up and be counted—gay rights are human rights! The Archbishop’s example is commendable, for religious leaders to hide behind diplomacy when human lives are being destroyed is a betrayal of our sacred calling.

Moreover, the persecution of LGBTQ persons in Africa is defended by the myth that they can somehow be “cured.” Alan Chambers, the American Evangelical leader who made his career claiming he could “cure” homosexuality, was one of the Speakers at the Evangelical Lausanne Conference in Cape Town in 2010, and whose presentation was later deleted from the Lausanne website. Yet although he later retracted his claims, and apologized for ever claiming that sexual orientation could be altered, African politicians and pastors are busy repeating these made-in-the-USA lies.

Let the sacred truth be said, LGBTQ persons are human beings with fundamental human rights to be protected and defended. To deny these rights is to dehumanize and harm ourselves. As the Archbishop said, this is a global issue, and it deserves a global response. As Africa’s problems multiply, LGBTQ persons have become the easiest scapegoat at political gatherings for African politicians eager to turn public attention away from issues of corruption or economic inequality. And some local religious leaders, who receive funding from these American culture warriors, then celebrate such demonization as courageous leadership.

Global religious institution such as the Anglican Communion and the Vatican need to speak out against such atrocities—failure to do so is to sanction the persecution and discrimination our fellow human beings, and a sin.

The Archbishop refused to separate our common humanity into camps—“us” (heterosexuals) and “them” (homosexuals). He did not say one thing in Africa, only to turn around and deny it to a Western audience (as did Saddleback pastor Rick Warren); he did not condemn the decriminalization of African sexual minorities to a Western audience only to allow local African clergy to support anti-LGBTQ legislation in Uganda and Nigeria (as the Vatican has done). He defended our common humanity, calling on all people to respect the dignity of every individual regardless of the person’s sexual orientation.

The story of the Good Samaritan is critical here. The Archbishop of Canterbury has done his part. Will Pope Francis, Bill Graham, and Rick Warren follow suit? I hope so!

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PRA Discusses American Culture Warriors in Africa on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

PRA had the opportunity this last week to work with HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, discussing the U.S.-based conservative evangelicals who are responsible for exporting the culture wars to Uganda and other African nations. Watch it below!

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John Oliver

Exporting “Traditional Values” – The World Congress of Families

**This commentary appeared in the Winter 2009 edition of
Political Research Associates’ 
The Public Eye magazine**

In August, at the fifth World Congress of Families (WCF) in Amsterdam, Austin Ruse, president of the New York-based Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-Fam) warned “that UN radicals in alliance with radical lawyers and judges and other advocates around the world are attempting the greatest power grab the world has even known.”[1]  What they want, he continued, is to impose their nefarious agenda—support for abortion and gay rights—on unsuspecting developing countries thereby leading to a “tsunamic change in social policy and in the international system.”

Conservative Catholic activist Austin Ruse told the World Congress of Families that UN “radicals” want to “decide for all mankind the most intimate details of people’s lives.”

Conservative Catholic activist Austin Ruse told the World Congress of Families that UN “radicals” want to “decide for all mankind the most intimate details of people’s lives.”

But when Ruse told the Congress that UN “radicals” want to “decide for all mankind the most intimate details of people’s lives…from their lofty and elite perches at the UN in New York, at the European Union in Brussels and other centers of international power,” he failed to mention that in fact he and likeminded conservatives are doing the very same thing.

The U.S. Christian Right’s influence on international sexual and reproductive rights peaked at the beginning of the millennium with the full support of President George W. Bush.  Before the Bush Administration, conservative U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were mostly relegated to the sidelines at United Nations meetings, but they still managed to maximize their networking in the UN hallways where most of the lobbying takes place.  Conservative anti-abortion NGOs like C-Fam, Concerned Women for America (CWA), and the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) had for years worked the international UN circuit trying to influence conservative Latin American and Muslim countries to find common ground against abortion and gay rights.

The World Congress of Families has money and connections built up during the Bush Administration.

Bush appointed many conservative Christian Right lobbyists as U.S. representatives to the UN.  The administration also supported organizations like CWA, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and Priests for Life in gaining accreditation as UN NGO observers, which allowed them to directly lobby country representatives.[2]  Barack Obama’s presidency thus presents a direct threat to these groups and their allies who are members, contributors or participants in the World Congress of Families as they lose access to U.S. diplomats at the United Nations. They are scrambling to ensure the viability of their cause in this shifting political environment.

The WCF is a coalition of leading international advocates against abortion, reproductive and sexual rights that meets every few years to network and strategize.  It is coordinated by the Rockford, Illinois-based Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, led by the “natural family” advocate Allan Carlson.[3]  Past congresses took place in reliably socially conservative countries like Poland, Nigeria, and Mexico, and drew hundreds and sometime thousands of participants.  Organizing a right-wing event in Amsterdam, a city WCF organizers maintain has the “kind of culture traditionally minded people abhor,” is either a massive gesture of conciliation or a misguided effort to build on an emerging Dutch conservative movement.

Although the event did not meet organizers’ expectations—the WCF predicted 4,000 would show, the real number barely scratched 400—and it did not succeed in bringing in new Dutch converts or in fostering debate with reproductive justice activists, its impact is nonetheless being felt in disparate places such as the United Nations, the European Union, Albania, and Kenya.

André Rouvoet, the Dutch Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Youth and Family, opened the Amsterdam WCF conference with a tepid welcome message, giving tacit government endorsement to the event.  Rouvoet presented his video address even though Dutch members of Parliament asked him to reconsider.  The parliamentarians, while not opposed to hosting the congress in their country, were concerned about government participation in an event led by a coalition vehemently against abortion, same-sex relations and marriage, contraception, euthanasia, basically, the keystones of Dutch policy.

André Rouvoet, the Dutch Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Youth and Family, probably disappointed the World Congress of Families audience when he said they should build bridges with those they oppose.

André Rouvoet, the Dutch Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Youth and Family, probably disappointed the World Congress of Families audience when he said they should build bridges with those they oppose.

Rouvoet’s plug for building bridges between ideologically opposed social movements, and his call to “think about how we can live together in a multicultural society with differing attitudes of the family” was met with hostile silence and a smattering of forced applause.

Hosting the event in the Netherlands allowed the WCF to claim it was extending itself to the opposition and when the overture failed, it placed the burden of failure on progressives. Simon Polinder, coordinator of the local Dutch WCF organizing committee, in his opening statement said the WCF had been accused of being afraid to debate.  That’s why he explained, the WCF invited people with differing views to participate, but they had declined.  Polinder then asked rhetorically, “So who’s afraid to debate now?”

In fact, Dutch participants with moderate views on the family, LGBT rights and abortion did attend.  The issue lay not in their lack of participation but rather in the WCF’s inability to accommodate their differing views into its platform.  During the conference Austin Ruse twittered, “Lots of off stage excitement at the WCF.  The local organizing committees are not American conservatives and they produced an unacceptable…Document that we had to get killed.  A new document was produced by Allan Carlson that will be released today.”[4]

Ruse and others bullied their agenda into the WCF’s final document, congratulating themselves that “in the end, the Congress was a success.”[5] Not because it brought two opposing sides together, but because the event succeeded in inching Dutch public discourse to the right.  Indeed, the research department of the Dutch Christian Reformed Party (SGP), a WCF participant, recommended that Dutch family policy legalize marriage only for a man and a woman, impose stricter restrictions on divorce, and take away the rights of gay couples to adopt.[6]

But one policy proposal does not a sea change make and it’s certainly too early to declare the Right’s ascendency in the Netherlands following the WCF.  Similarly, despite the poor attendance, it is also too early to sound the death knell for the WCF, as some progressives have.

The World Congress of Families, which began taking shape in the mid-1990s, has never been a movement with a particularly large or active base. Their ability to influence policy at the national and international levels comes not from the grassroots, but rather from their well-connected and well-established leadership.  The WCF cosponsors are a who’s who of the conservative right-wing in the United States, many of whom were warmly embraced by the Bush Administration.   In the last decade these individuals have nurtured conservative leadership in Eastern Europe and the developing world to promote a reactionary agenda.

In October, the UN Human Rights Council pleased the WCF when it approved a resolution promoting “a better understanding of traditional values of humankind.”

Two months following the August WCF, its members were celebrating international victories for the “natural family.” For years the WCF has decried what it sees as the “hard-edged intolerance by the UN to traditional values.”[7] In October, the United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution proposed by Russia promoting “a better understanding of traditional values of humankind.”  While not defined in the resolution, traditional values, as understood by its promoters, means marriage between a man and a woman, and zero tolerance for abortion and homosexuality, among other issues.

Julie de Rivero, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director, is very concerned that such a “resolution fails to recognize that many values that political and cultural leaders exalt as ‘traditional’ can stand at odds with international human rights law.”[8]

According to WCF veteran Sharon Slater of the Arizona-based Family Watch International, the real intent behind the resolution is to “push back against UN member states that are seeking to overturn traditional values based on morality under the guise of protecting ‘human rights.’”

The Russian resolution was surprising given the country’s general support for women’s rights.  When asked about the WCF’s role in the resolution Larry Jacobs, WCF Managing Director, noted that “There wasn’t any secret conspiracy.   The interesting thing about the WCF is that we are just bringing groups together.  And I will mention that there’s a group standing up for Eastern traditional values and Russia has a big leadership role.” Indeed, the idea for a “world congress of families” began in the mid-1990s when Allan Carlson, WCF Secretariat, met in Russia with Dr. Ivan Schevchenko, head of that country’s right-wing Orthodox Brotherhood of Scientists and Specialists.

Austin Ruse’s idea that UN radicals are working to stamp out the “natural family” presents neither a nuanced nor accurate view of what actually takes place in the United Nations or behind the scenes.  U.S. Christian Right conservatives may no longer have presidential support, but they have made sufficient strides during the Bush years to maximize their international contacts. As Sharon Slater explains, “at the international level, we join with profamily groups in other countries at the World Congress of Families conferences to network and strategize how to protect the family.  At the UN we participate in a profamily coalition.”[9]

And it’s not just connections; WCF members have money backing them. One of its members is the Christian-Right-oriented Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which litigates internationally for religious freedom. The most recent ADF tax returns show their total revenue for 2007 was over $30 million.[10]

In addition to the UN, the WCF is also making inroads at the European Commission and the European Parliament.  Anna Záborská, a Slovakian member of the European Parliament and, incongruously enough, chairwoman of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, is a WCF spokesperson; in 2004 she commented that “AIDS is God’s vengeance for homosexuality.”

Ruse ended his Amsterdam WCF presentation by encouraging participants to “Go forth, my friends, go forth.  Defend your countries.  Defend your Churches. Defend your families.  Defeat the radicals in the courts: defeat them in Parliaments; defeat them in the universities; defeat them in the international institutions.  Go forth.”  Ruse received a standing ovation.

End Notes

  1. Austin Ruse, “The Effects of the UN on the Families of Developed Nations,” remarks to World Congress of Families V.
  2. Esther Kaplan, With God on their Side, The New Press, 2004, p. 234.
  3. For more on Carlson and the “natural family” ideology, see Jeremy Adam Smith, “Living in the Gap: The Ideal and the Reality of the Christian Right Family,” The Public Eye, Winter 2007.
  4. austinruse on Twitter
  5. Austin Ruse, “The World Congress of Families and the Limits of Dialog,”The Catholic Thing, August 21, 2009.
  6. Jaco van den Brink, “Government and Family: Influence or Intrusion? A comparative study on family policies in an international perspective,” Guido de Bres-Foundation, Gouda, The Netherlands, August 2009, p. 65.
  7. See Gwendolyn C. Landolt’s remarks at the 1999 Congress, for instance.
  8. “Human Rights Council: ‘Traditional Values’ Vote and Gaza Overshadow Progress,” Human Rights Watch, October 2, 2009.
  9. Sharon Slater, Stand for the Family,(Gilbert, Ariz.: Inglestone Publishing, 2009), p. 150.
  10. ADF-allied attorneys reach milestone, donate $100M of pro bono work for religious liberty,” Alliance Defense Fund, October 12, 2009.