The vast right-wing conspiracy is coming to Utah. No, not the penny-ante conspiracy Hillary Clinton first floated back in the 90s. We’re talking about an international coalition of hate that stretches from Russia to Africa to someplace awfully close to home.
More specifically, the World Congress of Families, an umbrella group of forty-odd ‘traditional values’ organizations, announced earlier this month that their 2015 conference will be held in Salt Lake City, thanks to the financial patronage of the Sutherland Institute, a far-right think tank based there. Among the attendees: some of the leaders behind the Hobby Lobby battle in the United States and Russia’s anti-gay laws.
Ironically, this announcement comes on the heels of WCF’s awkward cancellation of its 2014 conference, which was to be held in—wait for it—Moscow, and sponsored by Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. At first, WCF doubled down in support of its Russian counterparts, even after the Ukraine invasion and the placing of said counterparts on U.S. sanctions lists. But when member organizations started to bolt, the WCF finally caved.
Now Salt Lake City’s not looking like a sure thing either. Representatives of the Human Rights Campaign insisted that "the values of the people of Salt Lake City are ones that promote inclusivity,” and noted that WCF has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Paul Mero, President of the Sutherland Institute and former vice president of the WCF’s parent organization, The Howard Center (also labeled a hate group by the SPLC), fired back in an op-ed that it was “false and dangerous” to call either organization a hate group.
But Mero’s point was quickly undercut when Chad Griffin, HRC’s executive director, noted in his own op-ed the links between the WCF and anti-gay violence in Russia. Larry Jacobs, managing director at WCF and Mero’s successor at the Howard Center, called Russia’s anti-gay laws “a great idea.” Scott Lively, the man who so strenuously promoted the anti-gay laws in Uganda, is a frequent WCF speaker.
The pages of the Salt Lake Tribune have rarely been so animated.
Behind the rhetoric, however, the story of the World Congress of Families is a twisted tale of far-right extremism, money, and politics.
First, the Russia ties are true – and deep. What Mero, Jacobs, and others would like us all to forget is that, until the last few months, the WCF had been extremely supportive of Vladimir Putin. And I do mean extremely. “The Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world,” Jacobs said back in June, 2013.
In 2012, WCF helped found FamilyPolicy.ru, a network of hard right organizations in Russia. FP’s president, Alexei Komov, is WCF’s Russian point man. He and his colleagues are the people who created the myth of Russia’s “demographic winter,” advocated for the gay propaganda ban, supported the ban’s legislative sponsor, Yelena Mizulina, and drafted the law that bans adoption by gay people.
In other words, while Russia’s Right complains of Western plots against the motherland, it itself is the product of a Western plot.
In fact, the now-aborted 2014 conference was to have been chaired by a who’s-who of Russian homophobes who have benefited from American patronage.
There’s Komov, who simultaneously represents WCF, FamilyPolicy.Ru, and the St. Basil Foundation.
And then there’s Komov’s deputy, Pavel Parfentiev, who compared the ban on LGBT “propaganda” to a ban on toxic chemicals in baby food. Komov and Parfentiev have played host to American right-wingers including Lively, the Holocaust Denier turned anti-gay crusader famous for his Uganda exploits; Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage; and Allan Carlson, the founder of WCF itself.
There are also the funders.: the oligarch Malofeef, who made his money in private equity and now spends his spare time running the St. Basil the Great Foundation and hosting secret meetings to combat the “satanic gay lobby” in Europe – and Vladimir Yakunin, a major funder of WCF projects and the founder of two far-right Russian foundations, as well as a notorious America-basher (a small disagreement set aside by WCF’s leadership).
And I wouldn’t want to forget the legislator Mizulina, who had been part of WCF planning meetings, Her handiwork is responsible for a massive escalation in violence and discrimination against tens of thousands of Russians.
Although Putin’s adventures in Ukraine scuttled the Moscow plans, WCF’s network in the United States is no less impressive.
WCF and its Russian counterparts are funded by right-wing heavy hitters, including oil executive Jerry Fullinwider, a member of the Koch brothers’ inner circle; the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, one of the leading funders of the Heritage Foundation, climate-denying Heartland Institute, and the brain trust behind the Hobby Lobby case; and its parent institution, the Howard Center.
And its ‘partner organizations’ include Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, Alliance Defending Freedom, and Americans United For Life.
So why Utah?
The chief reason appears to be money: with Mero now at the deep-pocketed Sutherland Institute, and with WCF conference locations apparently subject to a bidding process, Salt Lake City emerged as the best choice outside of Russia.
Another reason may be Mormonism. Despite the LDS Church’s recent efforts to appear more moderate on family issues, Elder Dallin Oaks remains on the board of the Howard Center. And Sharon Slater, the wacky, extreme founder of Family Watch International, is a devout Mormon and has been a featured speaker at past WCF conferences.
For whatever reason, the ‘City of the Saints’ is now being asked to play host to one of the key gatherings of the international far right.
Yet there are early signs that not everyone’s rolling out the welcome mat. The conference was quietly taken off the Salt Lake City department of tourism website after HRC Director Griffin’s op-ed was published.
And then there’s the LGBT movement itself. “We're looking at a number of options to expose the World Congress of Families and their vicious brand of anti-LGBT bigotry in the months ahead,” Jason Rahlan, HRC’s Global Press Secretary, told the Daily Beast. “This is not a group of people who simply hold deeply misguided personal opinions: they are having a profound impact on the lives of LGBT people all around the world.”