Italy is This Week’s Hot Spot for Right-Wing Activists Converging for World Congress of Families

Brian Brown stands with Moldova's President Igor Dodon and other participants at 2018 World Congress of Families global summit. (Photo: Peter Montgomery for Right Wing Watch)

The World Congress of Families, the international network of anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice activists who have allied themselves with right-wing nationalist and authoritarian leaders in Europe and Russia, will convene their 2019 global summit in Verona, Italy on March 29-31. U.S. Religious Right leaders scheduled to speak include anti-LGBTQ activist Jim Garlow, right-wing law professor John Eastman, and home schooling advocate Mike Donnelly.

The marriage of “traditional values” activism with the right-wing nationalist populism embraced by the Religious Right in both the U.S. and Europe is reflected in the appearance of another speaker. Steve Turley is an author and podcaster who argues that Trump’s “redemptive” presidency is one sign that “the political influence of the Religious Right is just beginning.” In his book, “The Return of Christendom: Demography, Politics, and the Coming Christian Majority,” he wrote, “I want to argue that we are actually seeing nothing less than a conservative Christian resurgence in our demographics and politics that promises not suicide but rather the salvation of the West.”

Now, that’s the kind of talk that gets you invited to WCF, though it is far more optimistic than the dire “demographic winter” predictions, prevalent on the right, that warn white Christians in Europe and elsewhere are being “replaced.”

Earlier this month, Turley published a podcast titled, “WHITES Projected to Become Dominant SUPERMAJORITY in U.S.” While “the current multicultural insanity that’s unleashed a virulent and pernicious Cultural Marxism upon our nation” is causing damage, Turley said, that such multiculturalism is “slowly and surely dissipating” and it will be replaced by “the restoration of a distinctively American culture, custom and tradition that will continue to define our nation for generations to come.”

The WCF hosts regional gatherings as well as its global summit, at which conservative culture warriors re-energize their opposition to feminism and liberalism, brag about their political victories, and share information and strategies for defeating “gender ideology” and defending “traditional” views on sexuality, family, and gender roles.

The World Congress of Families is currently run as a project of the International Organization for the Family, the successor organization to the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, which started the WCF in the 1990s as an outgrowth of conversations between Russian and American social conservatives. Howard Center founder Allan Carlson will also be speaking in Verona.

The IOF and WCF are run by Brian Brown, who made a name for himself as the head of the National Organization for Marriage and its failed effort to prevent marriage equality from becoming the law of the land in the United States. Brown spends enough time in Russia, where he once helped lobby for legislation to ban gay couples from adopting, to have a favorite restaurant in the Moscow airport. After launching the IOF in South Africa in late 2016, Brown made one of his frequent trips to Russia to seek funding from Putin-aligned oligarchs and operatives.

Among the speakers are WCF representatives from Russia—Alexey Komov, Brown’s connection to the political support and deep pockets of “God’s oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev—and from Africa—Theresa Okafor, who has defended harsh anti-LGBTQ legislation in several countries. Joining them are a bevy of right-wing Italian politicians, academics, and activists. Other speakers include public officials from Hungary, Croatia, Malawi, Uganda, and, in a nod to right-wing nostalgia for the reign of Christian monarchs, a sprinkling of royalty, including “Her Serene Highness, Gloria, Dowager Princess of Thurn and Taxis” and Louis Alphonse de Bourbon, Duke of Anjou.

The three most recent global summits—in Georgia, Hungary, and Moldova—were a boost to Russia’s geopolitical strategy, as they lent support in each nation to the forces resisting closer ties to the European Union.

Last year’s global summit was held in Moldova, where Brown joined Moldova’s Putin-allied President Igor Dodon in hosting a conference at which speakers denounced LGBTQ people as “perverts” and declared progressive civil society organizations to be threats to the family. President Donald Trump was described by an evangelical pastor from Utah as an answer to prayer.

At the opening plenary, Dodon said that propagandizing on behalf of sexual minorities should not be allowed, and that gay pride celebrations should be illegal. Brown gushed about how “blessed” Moldova is to have a president who is “willing to stand for the truth.” Dodon is scheduled to speak again in Verona. Other returning speakers include Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov from the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarchal Commission for Family and Motherhood.

Among the other speakers in Moldova were the Family Research Council’s Peter Sprigg, who gave a PowerPoint presentation on “Five Myths of Gender Identity,” and Patrick Henry College professor Stephen Baskerville, who told attendees that sexuality has become a political ideology that is not about freedom and equality but power and authoritarianism. “What we are up against here is something very similar to the movements such as communism or fascism in the last century, and more recently Islamism,” Baskerville said. At the same panel, speakers from Russia and France denounced feminism, sex education, and tolerance of “perversions.”

In Moldova, Komov talked about his efforts to create a “friends of Mount Athos” group that would allow like-minded Catholic and Protestant leaders to visit the historic Orthodox stronghold. Brown said he had visited Mount Athos three times, once with Dodon.

Choosing to take the summit to Italy this year reflects the rise of right-wing nationalist sentiment in Italy and across Europe. And it builds on work done last year by WCF sponsoring organization CitizenGO, with the help of the Family Research Council and the Leadership Institute, to train and strengthen anti-LGBTQ groups in the country.

The choice of Italy also suggests a move, after having cemented strong ties with conservative Orthodox leaders, to build on WCF’s already-strong connections to the conservative Catholics who fuel the anti-abortion and anti-equality movements in western Europe. It was a bit of a coup for WCF to get Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin to address last year’s summit in Moldova. And this week, Pope Francis responded to controversy generated by WCF opponents by talking about the need to reaffirm the “greatness and irreplaceability” of a “family founded on marriage between a man and  woman:

In the delicate situation of today’s world, the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman assumes an essential importance and mission. It is necessary to rediscover the plan drawn by God for the family, to reaffirm its greatness and irreplaceability in the service of life and society.

Giuseppe Zenti, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Verona, is scheduled to speak. In response to critics who characterized the WCF as wanting to bring about a return to the Middle Ages, the bishop defended the values of that era. “The Enlightenment and ideological historiography that classifies the Middle Ages as obscurantist is part of the past,” he said in an interview with Vatican Insider. “It seems strange to me that some people want to exhume it without knowing the heritage of the cultural values during the Middle Ages.”

The Mormon hierarchy has also been supportive of WCF, which held its 2015 summit in Salt Lake City. In Verona, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon church is formally known, will be represented by Elder Massimo De Feo of the General Authority Seventies, a leadership body in the church.

Support for the summit from Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, Minister for Family and Disability Lorenzo Fontana, Minister for Education Marco Bussetti and other political leaders, has generated significant criticism and organizing in opposition by progressive advocates. To the disgust of Breitbart, a story in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica described the conference as a gathering of neofascists, anti-abortionists, and homophobes.

Not even Salvini’s leadership of the right-wing League party, whose government coalition includes the Five Star Movement party, could keep a leader of Five Star from saying that the conference was for “right-wing losers.” And there has even been dissent from within Salvini’s own party. Verona city council member Mauro Bonato resigned his position as local League leader, saying the party was meant to promote local autonomy, not “go back to ancient times where women are only the slaves of men.” He said he found the words of a WCF speaker chilling and said he could not accept giving a stage to people who equate homosexuality with Satanism.

Last week, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte publicly distanced himself from the conference, whose organizers reportedly had used the logo of his office without his approval.

The World Congress of Families was founded in 1997, but the U.S. Religious Right’s understanding of the culture war as a global conflict intensified during the administration of Barack Obama, when the promotion of LGBTQ human rights and protection of reproductive choice were elements of U.S. foreign policy. Religious Right groups rushed to embrace Putin’s positioning of himself and Russia as the saviors of Western civilization and the protectors of Christendom against the decadent and secularist forces they see as threats to that legacy, i.e. the European Union and, at that time, the U.S. If Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, the Obama-era anti-Americanism, if you will, of the U.S. Religious Right would undoubtedly have grown even more strident. But with Trump in the White House, they have the U.S. government on their side, and one more leader who, like Putin and various Putin-wannabes, will help them wage war against “gender ideology”—the globalized right-wing umbrella term that can cover reproductive rights, LGBTQ equality, sex ed, and anything that might upset traditionalist gender roles and norms, even laws against domestic violence.

The Religious Right’s eagerness to work with authoritarians in the name of traditional family values extends well beyond WCF—and well beyond Putin. For example, Brown has embraced Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán, who talks about Christian values while fostering anti-Semitism, undermining media and civil society, and getting rid of checks and balances on his power. When asked by journalist Sarah Posner about Orbán’s moves against media and his political opposition, FRC’s Peter Sprigg dismissed those as “procedural things” that were less important than Orbán’s commitment to “defending Western civilization rooted in Christianity.”