The U.S. Christian Right’s tactical alliance with President Trump is a model for conservative advocates of so-called “traditional values” across the world who are seeking to gain power and implement their agenda.
That was the message from American delegates at the latest gathering of the World Congress of Families (WCF) — a U.S. and Russian-led coalition of right-wing Christians who oppose same-sex marriage and abortion, which has been accused of exporting “hate” because of its overtly homophobic policies.
Trump “is not a fully-formed conservative,” said Alan Carlson, one of the organization’s American founders, acknowledging the U.S. president’s questionable status as a standard-bearer for the WCF’s ideals. But he said: “We have to take our allies where we find them.”
“We have to take our allies where we find them.” Alan Carlson, World Congress of Families
The ideological compromise of overlooking the president’s two divorces, reputation for adultery and past support for abortion is a small price to pay, delegates argued, for having someone in the White House committed to filling federal courts with conservative judges and who now styles himself as a “pro-life” crusader.”
Over two days of wining and dining, largely funded by the Kremlin-linked Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, the subtext of the discussion among these self-styled defenders of the institution of marriage was that such marriages of convenience are now an essential tactical tool.
Similar calculations are in play in Russia, where Putin’s alliance with the Orthodox Church has enabled him to position himself as a champion of “traditional values” at home and abroad, even while he takes a “pro-choice” position on abortion.
The country should become a “moral pillar” for the world, said Russian delegate Olga Letkova, head of A.R.K.S, a parental rights group that has supported the decriminalization of domestic violence.
But when asked if Putin is really “conservative”, she laughed: “I don’t really know. We are trying to educate him,” said Letkova. “We send him letters and articles and we collect signatures. We’ve collected one million signatures against abortion.”
Carlson confessed to doubts about Putin’s true beliefs too. “Unlike George Bush, I’ve never looked him in the eye to read his soul. But maybe he really has become a religious person, a genuine convert. I think he cares about Russia’s demographic future. That’s genuine.”
Hosting the conference in Moldova was seen locally as a way for the country’s pro-Kremlin President Igor Dodon to deepen ties with Russia. He reportedly met with Malofeev last year, and asked him to fund the event.
There were signs that Russia’s influence on the W.C.F. (which grew out of the founders’ involvement with campaigns against abortion and gay rights in Moscow) is expanding further.
Two weeks before the meeting got underway in the Moldovan capital, the list of speakers was substantially changed, to make way for more Russians, according to Alex Schadenberg, a Canadian from an organization called the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. “Some Westerners disappeared from the schedule, clearing space for representatives of the Russian Duma,” he said.
Most prominent among them was the ultra-conservative Russian politician Yelena Mizulina, who has spearheaded the decriminalization of domestic violence and the country’s controversial 2012 law outlawing so-called “gay propaganda,” which has helped spark a surge in attacks on the LGBTQ community in other former Soviet states.
Mizulina heaped compliments on Putin during the opening session, claiming that under his leadership the Kremlin is “setting up everything that is necessary to support a traditional family,” calling Russia an example to the world.
But under the guise of its advocacy for what it calls the “natural family,” the W.C.F. actively promotes homophobia, according to the U.S.-based civil rights group, the Southern Poverty Law Center. It has designated the W.C.F. as a “hate group” alongside white nationalist and other extremist groups. And investigations by Coda Story have shown how Putin allies connected to the W.C.F. have been developing connections with anti-gay activists worldwide.
The World Congress of Families has been designated as a “hate group” alongside white nationalist and other extremist groups
As in previous W.C.F meetings, there was also a strong current of white nationalist thinking flowing through the discussions, with Putin being held up as an ally in the struggle.
Among the speakers was an advisor to Italy’s far-right Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, who has been praised by former Trump aide Steve Bannon for his strongman brand of nationalistic populism.
Claudio D’Amico, the advisor, issued an apocalyptic warning that “European civilization” is in danger of being “replaced” by newcomers from Africa and the Middle East, because Italians and other Europeans are not having enough children.
The West, he said, needs to resolve its tensions with Russia to deal with what he called the “new problem,” the threat of a “Muslim invasion and Muslim terrorism.”
The answer, D’Amico claimed, was to form a common front together. “Russia is with us. I’m pro-family and I can see that currently the Russian government is pro-family.”
He too argued for compromise with leaders who do not adhere to their “family values” principles — mentioning Italy’s former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, as an example.
“Personal behavior” is one thing, D’Amico argued, ideas and values another. “The family is the base of the society and needs to be protected. Personal freedom is another issue. Everybody has to decide if they want to be faithful to their wife or not, or to go with men or not.”
Berlusconi’s widely reported philandering and other controversies, D’Amico argued, could be excused because of his broader support for conservative ideals.
“For example, Berlusconi was not trying to introduce a law that you can go with a prostitute whenever you want,” he said, before taking another swipe at the LGBTQ community and gay rights. “If all the men went with men and all the women went with women, the world would die.”
President Trump famously said that he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone and still not lose votes.
The unanswered question at the World Congress of Families was how far the Christian Right is prepared to compromise, in order to advance its agenda.