The ‘Natural Family’: The Latest Weapon in the Christian Right’s New Global War on Gays

Yes, same-sex marriage looks inevitable in the United States. But the Christian Right has a Plan B—and it’s working with Russia to put it into action.

Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

The news looks bad for America’s conservative rear-guard. This month’s decision by the Supreme Court may soon make marriage equality the law of the land. Over three-quarters of Americans support anti-discrimination protection for gays and lesbians. One of our star athletes (and a Republican!) has transitioned her gender to overwhelming (though not universal) applause.

Does the Christian Right have a Plan B?

You bet they do. Their main weapon is an unfamiliar term: “natural family.” And they’re going to use it to beat back advances in women’s and LGBT equality worldwide, starting at the UN.

It’s easy to dismiss this plan, if only for the irony of Christian conservatives teaming up with Russia (!) to fight LGBTs and women at the United Nations. New World Order indeed. But irony aside, they might just win.

Here’s why. Since 1948, the United Nations has stated that the family is “the natural and fundamental group unit of society.” It makes policies and appropriates funds with that in mind.

But whose family? Does the term (and the policy and the money) only cover Mom-and-Pop nuclear families? Does it include single parents and kids? Gay families? Extended families? Families of choice?

These parameters are not just semantic, because they dictate policy. If “family” means a heterosexual couple with as many children as possible, then policies like family planning and LGBT equal rights should be opposed, if (a big if) they have a negative impact on families thus defined. If “family” is a broader term, then those same policies should be promoted.

These issues came to a head in 1994, designated the “Year of the Family” by both the United Nations and the Vatican. Cole Parke, a researcher at Political Research Associates who has written widely on this issue told The Daily Beast that, in that year, “tremendous advances were made in the fight for abortion rights and other reproductive justice issues at the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, and in response, conservatives began to mobilize more aggressively.”

In fact, progressives had sought to make 1994 the Year of the Families, plural. Conservatives successfully beat that back, but between pluralism and support for reproductive freedom, 1994 was a wakeup call.

“Natural family” was one response. As defined by its leading promoter, conservative activist Allan Carlson, the “natural family” is a small, conservative subset of actual families. It is “centered around the voluntary union of a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage,” and is for the purpose of “ensuring the full physical and emotional development of children.”

Although this definition is at variance with the Biblical institution of polygamy and concubinage, it nonetheless became the central value of the World Congress of Families (WCF), founded by Carlson in 1997 under the auspices of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, itself a product of the Rockford Institute, devoted to “analyzing the damage done to America’s social institutions by the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.”

Why “natural family?” In a 2013 interview, Carlson explained that “the term ‘natural family’ avoids other alternatives: ‘nuclear family,’ which sounds like a bomb; or ‘traditional family’ which is excessively backward-looking. In addition, the ‘natural family’ is a positive expression.”

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But if you happen to fall outside its boundaries, the consequences are extremely negative.

One of WCF’s biggest successes is Russia. Beginning in the 1990s, Carlson and his Russian counterparts—conservative sociologists at Lomonosov Moscow State University—melded American “family values” conservatism with Russian concerns about a “demographic winter.” One result was the first WCF conference, in 1997, and its declaration that, in Parke’s words, “condemned policies that subvert ‘the legal and religious status of traditional marriage,’ as well as those that promote contraception and abortion, ‘state welfare systems,’ comprehensive sexual education, nonmarital cohabitation, ‘homosexual unions,’ and single parenting.”

Now, as it happens, there is no demographic winter—in Russia or anywhere else. What there is, both in Russia and the United States, is a demographic shift toward, bluntly speaking, more brown people and fewer white people. This is what the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s revanchist circle are fighting—and the WCF is happy to help.

(Incidentally, fighting UN family planning programs will likely lead to a whole lot more non-white people in the developing world. Just another irony.)

“The Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world,” said WCF managing director Larry Jacobs in June, 2013. That claim may be overstated, but the WCF-Russia partnership has borne a number of fruits.

Inside Russia, WCF helped pass the notorious Anti-Propaganda Law, banning gays from any public displays of existence, and wrote the ban on gay adoption. In 2012, WCF helped found FamilyPolicy.ru, a network of hard right organizations in Russia led by Alexei Komov, WCF’s Russian point man. He’s the director of the arch-right-wing St. Basil Federation, a key promoter of the “demographic winter” myth, and the drafter of the law that bans adoption by gay people and would strip children away from same-sex families. (How a new class of orphans would help thaw a demographic winter is unclear.) And the anti-propaganda law’s lead sponsor, Yelena Mizulina, frequently appears at WCF events.

And at the UN, Russia has blocked every effort to recognize multiple forms of family—most recently in June 2014, when the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on “Protection of the Family” with an extremely narrow definition of the term. “Putin-Style Human Rights at the U.N.,” this publication aptly called it.

According Parke, the 2014 resolution does not have any immediate policy consequences. But, Parke said, “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.”

Has the honeymoon with Russia’s Putin-affiliated Hard Right soured, given that whole Ukraine thing?

Not at all. Sure, the 2014 WCF Conference, scheduled for Moscow, was abruptly canceled in the wake of the invasion. It didn’t help that the conference’s funders included shady characters like Vladimir Yakunin, a major funder of WCF projects, the founder of two far-right Russian foundations and a notorious America-basher.

But if American conservatives can’t go to Russia, the Russians are coming to America—in particular, to Salt Lake City, where the 2015 conference is slated to take place Oct. 27-30. Instead of dubious Russian oligarchs, the bill will be footed by the conservative Sutherland Institute. But the cast of characters will be the same: Russian and African far-rightists, together with WCF partners 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.

Not surprisingly, the theme of the conference will be “religious liberty.”

There are plenty of reasons to take these wingnuts seriously. First, there’s a lot of money: oligarch/Putin money in Russia, conservative foundation money here. Second, the governments of Russia and many Global South countries are actively hostile to LGBT people, blaming them for every problem under the sun, from Ebola to Hollywood movies. Third, they may have the votes at the UN—as they did last year in Geneva.

It’s entirely possible that LGBTs and women throughout the world will suffer a backlash because of advances in rights for gay people and women in the US and Europe. That means those advocates in the West shouldn’t get too carried away with themselves. Opponents of equality are just getting started.