An international network of some of the world’s most vitriolic Religious Right activists and self-proclaimed orthodox religious leaders is holding its ninth global conference in Salt Lake City this October. The World Congress of Families’ conferences tend to attract thousands of participants and prominent religious and political leaders from all over the world. If past conferences are any indication, many Americans may be shocked, but not entirely surprised, by the proceedings.
“From Russia to Nigeria to Australia,” as my colleague at Political Research Associates Cole Parke recently explained regarding the WCF IX agenda, “a seemingly innocuous definition of the ‘natural family’ is quietly being used as the basis of new laws to justify the criminalization of abortion and LGBTQ people.” Indeed. It has unleashed a rolling thunder of horrific anti-LGBTQ political activism, legislation, and violence.
Unsurprisingly, the theme of the Salt Lake City conclave will be religious liberty, and the groups involved in the planning of the event are among the best known organizations of the American Christian Right. They include the Alliance Defending Freedom, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Americans United for Life, National Organization for Marriage, Eagle Forum and the Manhattan Declaration. And while the schedule and speakers have yet to be announced, it is worth noting that past participants include top Vatican officials, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and American evangelical and Christian Right leaders.
The Congress will be convening in the wake of the recent dark history of draconian anti-LGBTQ and anti-reproductive health laws in some countries, notably Uganda, Russia, and Nigeria. While WCF and some of its affiliates have cheered and sometimes participated in the development of such legislation, LGBTQ people in those countries have suffered waves of backlash including ongoing harassment, discrimination, prosecution, violence, and murder.
These laws are partly an American cultural export, brought to the world via our own Christian Right. One of this movement’s cultural ambassadors, Scott Lively, has traveled widely in Eastern Europe, Russia and Africa promoting his views and suggesting legislative solutions. Among his claims are that LGBTQ people are responsible for a range of modern horrors from the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide. The virulence of his views have disturbed many of his audiences in different countries. Lively and fellow U.S. culture warriors like Rick Warren and Lou Engle are widely credited, for example, with inspiring the legislation once known as the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda. While the death penalty provision was eventually taken out, the bill that passed further criminalizes homosexuality and includes potential life imprisonment for some charges.
Russian laws now criminalize blasphemy and “propaganda” (speech) that takes anything other than a negative view of homosexuality and transgender identity. This situation was considered so oppressive that it was even denounced by one of the America’s leading anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion political theorists — Robert P. George — who in 2014, served as chairman of the official U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. George, (the founder of the National Organization for Marriage and the principal author of the Manhattan Declaration) was concerned that the two Russian laws “limit the freedoms of religion and expression and which clearly violate international standards.”
One of the laws penalizes blasphemy with heavy fines and the other prohibits the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations among minors.”
These laws, George claimed, reflect a growing alliance between the Kremlin and elements in the Russian Orthodox Church that want to restrain both religious and secular dissident voices in public life.
“Besides punishing those who are deemed to have offended the feelings of others, this vaguely worded but sweeping law,” George complained, “gives Moscow’s stamp of approval to certain religious beliefs while criminalizing the expression of others.”
One could certainly say the same thing about the Uganda legislation and other proposed laws that will be praised and recognized as models for the preservation of Christian civilization when WCF IX convenes in Salt Lake City in October.
It should be noted that these international movements are bringing their message to America at the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign season and thus however they are received by conference attendees, they are also likely to inform our national political conversation.