“Since our liberal arts studies aspire to contribute to responsible and civilized living, it seems to me that we could not better than to heed the unique and inexorable challenge which [Alexsandr] Solzhenitsyn has issued to all thinking people. What are the actual consequences of one’s actions? Is the thing which is said or written, painted, or accomplished, is that thing adding dignity to human living? Is it a step further along the path of spiritual improvement? Or is it contributing to confusion, despair or degradation?” – John A. Howard, founder of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, which co-created the World Congress of Families in 1997. The remarks were made at the opening convocation for Rockford College in September, 1976 and reproduced in Howard’s book Detoxifying The Culture.
The World Congress Of Families would be well served to direct the above question at themselves.
The WCF, founded in 1997, is an international consortium of conservative and fundamentalist groups dedicated to fostering the “pro-family” agenda worldwide. Until recently, their next summit was to be held in Moscow in September, as they have worked closely with anti-gay Russian leaders in their quest to spread their agenda throughout the world. The conference has been put on hold — officially, though we will not be surprised if the event suddenly is back on very soon — due to tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Penny Nance of Concerned Women For America, a World Congress-affiliated organization, broke from her movement by publicly pulling out of the event, part of which was to be held in the Kremlin. It was a surprising move, considering the fact that, though the WCF was founded by American organizations, the group has signalled strongly that they value their agenda far more than their own patriotism, as communications director Don Feder has recently written that President Barack Obama is a stronger threat to the United States’ national security than Vladimir Putin is.
The World Congress of Families is linked to Russia’s controversial “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” law, which criminalizes coming out and has given free rein to neo-Nazi hooligans to attack LGBT people. Other major organizations involved in planning the Kremlin World Congress have included Focus On The Family, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM). Two of those organizations, ADF and C-FAM, are listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Right Wing Watch provides more background on the WCF summit, and how deeply connected it is to the Russian government.
In an effort to understand the worldview that has led to American conservative organizations to sidle up to thugs and dictators around the world, choosing them over the duly elected leaders of our free, democratic society, I decided to start digging into the writings of the key players and founders involved in the World Congress of Families, starting with John A. Howard, a founder of the Howard Center For Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Illinois, which founded the WCF. Detoxifying The Culture is a collection of Howard’s speeches and writings spanning over four decades, starting in the 1960’s, the decade when, in the eyes of Howard and others like him, everything went wrong.
To begin with, let me say that some of Howard’s motives and goals are virtuous. Throughout his writings, he emphasizes the qualities of service to others, of committing oneself to great causes, and working for the betterment of society. The problem, as readers will see, is that these ideals are expressed within the confines of a limited religious worldview that, without any corroborating evidence, sees itself as the only virtuous way to live. Indeed, what comes through in the course of the book is the idea that Howard believes in freedom, equality and love for everyone, as long as everyone is willing to live within the rigid boundaries of a conservative Christian worldview. Indeed, Howard seems to believe that his religious beliefs should be the guiding force in establishing laws for our secular society. (Though he would likely argue that our society was never meant to be secular in the first place. He would be wrong, but he would argue that.) This will be a running theme in examining Howard’s writings, and, I suspect, will continue as a theme as we research these people further.
Before examining some key passages from the book, I must point something out. Though Howard and others would be loath to admit it, they’ve lost this fight in the United States. Their activities abroad, in places like Russia, Africa, Jamaica and all points between, are a desperate attempt to find purchase for their beliefs somewhere, and to do that, they must slide in next to some of the world’s most unsavory despots and dictators and activists, and into nations with populations beset with poverty, disease, lack of economic opportunity and other maladies, for only in those places will the people take their discredited ideas seriously. Only in those places is there a populace prepared to believe that the greatest problem facing them is a chimerical population of imperialist Western gays secretly plotting the destruction of their cultures and their families. We can be grateful that most of the West is moving beyond such silly, antiquated ideas, but as citizens of the world, we must speak out for the peoples who are being convinced to scapegoat vulnerable minority populations by leaders who seek to absolve themselves of blame for the poor states of their societies, and we must speak out against the American conservative activists, like Howard and the WCF who are all too willing to provide them assistance.
Let’s start with Howard’s conception of the 1960’s. During this time, certain segments of the population, in the wake of the bloody quagmire of the Vietnam War, the tensions of the Cold War, horrific racial inequality, the continuing second class citizen status of women, and other issues, began to wake up. Though Howard pays convincing lip service to the noble cause of the Civil Rights Movement, he seems to believe America would have been better off if those segments of the population had just stayed asleep and continued to let fundamentalist Christian white men lead the culture:
“During the 1950′s, America was prosperous. It was the one powerful, respected nation of the world. By and large, the population was comfortable, happy and confident about the future. Things were going well for the United States. Even so, the children growing up in that period became increasingly uneasy about the possibility of atomic warfare. There were bomb shelters and school evacuation drills and there was much public distress about the Soviet Union’s spreading its Marxist doctrines across the globe. The East West tensions took on the ominous title of the Cold War.
“Another cause of distress was America’s failure to give a fair shake to its Black citizens, brought into sharp focus by the Civil Rights Movement and the cruel efforts to suppress it. In households like the Gitlins’ [Todd, author who wrote The Sixties, Years Of Hope, Days Of Rage] where the liberal parents had regularly voiced their sympathy for down-trodden peoples throughout the world, it was a natural thing for the chilren to rejoice when the repressive Batista regime of Cuba was overthrown by Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries. The humanitarian claims of socialism seemed a welcome contrast to the American reality.
“In addition to being troubled by the Bomb and America’s unfair treatment of the Blacks, the baby boom generation became increasingly worried as the Vietnam conflict expanded and the draft took a growing portion of the young men. Allegations that America was fighting an unjust war for the benefit of special interests were perhaps too readily accepted, without much thought about whether they were true. When it turned out that the ‘good guys’ who had freed the Cuban people from oppression were, in fact, Communists, that revelation, for many who were nervous about The Bomb, raised doubts about whether America should even be trying to contain Communism. Maybe America’s anti-Communist foreign policy was a bad idea rather than a good one.
“Further inciting the growing antagonism toward the government was the discrepancy between the 18-year-old draft age and the 21-year-old voting age. This was a foolish policy blunder that was skillfully exploited by radical leaders. Many college students came to look upon themselves as disenfranchised cannon fodder. They were old enough to fight and be killed in a war, but not old enough to have a say in their government. Before long, draft resistance and draft evasion came to be looked upon as heroic acts of integrity. Patriotism, in the old sense, was laughable, a thing of scorn.” (p. 49-50)
As movements against the war and racial inequality coalesced, another demon entered the picture, in Howard’s view: rock and roll music, and with it, marijuana. Though today marijuana is on the cusp of being legalized in various forms across the nation (and researchers continue to find that components of the drug can have effects ranging from pain relief to outright cures for an assortment of diseases and conditions), Howard remains in the Reefer Madness mindset. Though he says the right words about believing in freedom, an early clue that he and his cohort don’t believe in freedom at all can be found in his feelings about 1969’s Woodstock:
“Probably the most crucial single default of the Sixties was the failure of government authorities to close down the giant 1969 national festival of sex, drugs and rock music in Woodstock, New York.” (p. 52)
The most significant government default of the 1960’s was the government’s failure to shut down Woodstock? That should provide a clue into the priorities that have shaped the religious right over the decades.
Howard truly believes that the rigid dictates of orthodox Christian beliefs are the only formula for creating a strong, lasting society, with little regard for the millions of people such a system leaves behind or hurts. Indeed, throughout the book, Howard presents a false dichotomy between his worldview and a liberal worldview which, to his mind, represents little more than unguarded sheep giving in to every base, selfish desire imaginable. He cannot conceive of the fact that his vision has actually proven to hurt people, to destroy families and to cut off access to the American Dream to any who don’t fall in line. In his eyes, (heterosexual conservative Christian) Father Knows Best:
“Wisdom! That has been the ultimate casualty of the New Age. Wisdom, the understanding of what will be of benefit to everyone, rising above the claims of individual wants and passions, and the demands of special interest groups. The wisdom which used to infuse the American experiment in liberty and enabled it to become the hope of the world, was drawn from the Christian heritage of the colonies as Angus noted. Morality and honesty and civility and the work ethic, all distilled from the Christian wisdom, became folkways in America and guided and benefited the lives of all Americans, regardless of their religious affiliation, if any. It is wisdom that we must resurrect in order to reconstitute decent, moral and lawful communities.” (p. 54-55)
Do you see? Even as he allows for the existence of non-believers and those of other religions, he believes that his idea of “Christian heritage” should still guide everyone else’s lives. This is the supremacist ideology that leads people like this to traverse the world, attempting to remake suffering societies in their own image. One might call it a Messiah complex. In Howard’s writings, one can already find the seeds of today’s fake “religious freedom” campaigns, those that assert that fundamentalist Christians should get a special pass to discriminate against people at will, due to their “sincerely held religious beliefs,” as far back as 1993:
“To hold aloft the Bible as the authority for what is right and what is wrong draws the dismay and wrath of the civil libertarians and the great chorus of other advocates of the do-your-own-thing philosophy. ‘What about the Sikhs and Hindus and Muslims and Native Americans and Zoroastrians? They have rights in America, too! It is un-American and unconstitutional for them to have to live in a society governed according to Jewish and Christian concepts of virtue.’ So goes the attack on biblical standards.”(p. 63)
In this mindset, the idea that a conservative interpretation of the Bible should not direct public policy constitutes an “attack.” In a nation explicitly founded on the separation of church and state (regardless of what revisionist “historians” like David Barton might make up on the subject), Howard simply cannot handle the idea that his supremacist beliefs would be denied carte blanche to run roughshod over the constitutional rights of the rest of the nation. And so they now travel to far off lands to find populations that they can control. It’s not American, it’s not freedom-loving, and it’s not democratic, but that’s really not what animates them unless their chosen politicians are currently in office anyway. These are theocratic impulses, pure and simple.
As Howard begins to examine specific issues, we find these theocratic impulses laid bare. As I wrote above, he believes in freedom and American values, as long as they exist within the confines of his religious worldview. Indeed, he finds those confines necessary in order to keep people from becoming savages, a common belief on the religious right. I have long contended that such ideas tell us far more about the people who cling to those beliefs than they tell us about the validity of said beliefs. Here, Howard bemoans the changes in divorce law over the decades:
“The liberalization of divorce laws has been one of many public policies that undermine the family as an institution. Formerly, the laws reinforced the concept that marriage is a crucially important commitment, which could be dissolved only under certain circumstances and with the concurrence of the court after a careful review of the situation. Now, in a number of states, the importance which officialdom places on the wedding bond has been reduced to the level of a clause in an automobile insurance policy. Marriage is just another contract. In case of accident, there is a no-fault easy out. However casual the drive or spouse may have been about his or her responsibilities, there is no reason to be concerned, for the legislature has removed all obligations and all guilt. Nobody is held accountable. It is, I suggest, only as we resurrect the principle of commitment and restore it to a position of highest prominent that we will begin to repair the damage that has been done to marriage. My daughter attends a church in another city, where the minister insists that an engaged couple complete a three-months’ marriage preparation course with him if they are to be married in that church, and he counsels with them regularly for a year thereafter. Over a period of eleven years, there have been only two or three divorces among the one hundred and fifty couples who have said their vows at that altar. That clergyman and his very fortunate parishioners have a clear understanding of the important of the marital commitment.” (p. 94)
This is an example of what I alluded to above — seemingly virtuous goals, yet misdirected and misguided. If the religious right were truly concerned about the strength of the institution of marriage, they would be retooling right now to fight for the strength of all marriages, including those entered into by gays and lesbians. And if they took up the banner of assisting couples in making sure they’re prepared for the commitments and responsibilities of a successful marriage, we might applaud them. One thing parts of the evangelical community get right is the prevalence of extensive pre-marital counseling as a prerequisite for marrying in the church. When I get married, my future husband and I will likely seek out a secular version of the same thing, because much of the focus is on anticipating arguments and conflicts before they come up. That’s all well and good.
But one gets the sense here that Howard is not bemoaning weaker divorce laws for the sake of strengthening good marriages. In the old patriarchal mindset, women and children often endure emotional and physical abuse for years at a time, without recourse, which is much more damaging to those individuals than the dissolution of their own nuclear family. If Howard wants to fight for strong marriages in a noble way, please do. But as long as fighting for “traditional families” includes helping Russia pass laws that instigate pogroms against the LGBT commnity (to cite one example), we’ll remain skeptical about their true aims.
Another example of Howard’s belief that freedom is only freedom if conservative Christian men make the rules comes in a comment about pornography. In his statement, he has a head-on collision with the First Amendment, but doesn’t acknowledge it:
“In any effort to limit the availability of periodicals, there will be shrill voices that condemn the action as a violation of the First Amendment. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press will be used as bludgeons to smash the effort and bring public scorn upon the participants. However, it must be remembered that whereas the Constitution guarantees the right to speak freely and to publish materials, it does not guarantee the right to force people to listen to or read or take seriously the pronouncements of anyone else. Such coercion is the hallmark of tyranny, not liberty.”(p. 96-97)
The same could be said right back to the religious right, the Howard Institute and the World Congress of Families, could it not? Another version of this complaint is played out on a daily basis these days, when people like Tony Perkins and Bryan Fischer complain that when they are quoted verbatim, or when their words or actions have consequences, that they are somehow being “silenced.” We have said it before, and we will say it again: the First Amendment does not protect the religious right from being criticized, fact-checked, corrected and yes, sometimes mocked by others, who are exercising the same right under the United States Constitution.
Another theme that runs throughout Howard’s writings is an unwavering commitment to unfettered capitalism, and a Cold War mindset in which anything other than said capitalism is tantamount to declaring allegiance to the Soviet Union — strange, considering their current activities in Putin-led Russia. He speaks fondly of the time before and during World War II (Howard is a WWII veteran) as though it was an era where the free market reigned, families were stronger and everything was hunky-dory. What’s so bizarre about that is that that time, when people were so committed to community and country that they were willing to upend life as they knew it to fight World War II, was a time when the United States was more “socialistic” that any time in recent memory. Marginal tax rates were high, public works were heavily funded, and income equality was such that a plumber could raise a family of four and live a fully fleshed out middle class life, possibly even sending his children to college. These days, a one income family led by a CPA might have more trouble doing that than that 1950’s plumber. However, Howard is so wrapped up in his worldview and the disproven solutions proffered by the religious right that he fails to notice that the answer to many of the problems he cites lays in economics, rather than in a criticism of the nation’s collective morality or culture.
He believes that all the liberation movements that came out of the 1960’s were direct attacks on both capitalism and the “traditional family,” and that they are all part of a nefarious scheme to destroy the religious right’s concept of “America”:
“…the young revolutionaries of the sixties have fanned out into organizations fighting against one target or another. They are at least as numerous and influential in the militant movements, advocating this, that and the other fundamental change which they believe will weaken the structures of capitalistic America: the legalization of marijuana, gay rights, consumerism, environmentalism, nationalized health care, the abolition of tests in school and college, abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment, among many others.” (pg. 103)
As I said before, these quotes come from writings and speeches delivered over four decades of work, but it’s stunning to see how little their priorities have changed since 1980, when Howard wrote those words. And one must ask — what on earth do marijuana legalization, LGBT equality, abortion and the ERA have to do with capitalism? Indeed, studies have shown that marijuana decriminalization and gay equality contribute heavily to the free market. Moreover, the health care reform act that just passed, which is insuring millions more Americans, whether one supports it or not, is factually a complete giveaway to the insurance industry. One senses that Howard’s idea of free market capitalism is somehow inextricably linked with patriarchal Christian culture. Daddy makes the rules for business and for his family and, again, he should always be assumed to know best, and given free rein over society.
Howard quotes Allan Bloom in The Closing Of The American Mind, giving us another glimpse into the idea that, though religious fundamentalists claim to be “pro-freedom,” they only believe in it if it’s lived out within the confines of the pre-set rules of their worldview:
“The souls of young people are…spiritually unclad, unconnected, isolated, with no inherited or unconditional connection with anything or anyone. They can be anything they want to be, but they have no particular reason to want to be anything in particular. Not only are they free to decide their place, but they are also free to decide whether they will believe in God or be atheists… whether they will be straight or gay… and so on, endlessly. There is no necessity, no morality, no social pressure, no sacrifice to be made that militates going on, or turning away from any of these directions.” (p. 122)
Another way to put that: “We believe in your freedom, as long as you believe the way we do, and also are straight.” Again, also, he presents a false dichotomy that, if people reject Christian conservatism, they are somehow being selfish and immoral, giving into their basest desires:
“If life has no meaning beyond the fulfillment of one’s own pleasures and inclinations, then there is no incentive to take the bold risks and make the sacrifices that concern us today.” (p. 124)
It does not occur to Howard and others like them that there are millions of people out there who are upstanding, giving, selfless people, committed to their families, communities and nations, who have simultaneously either rejected or passed by the dictates of fundamentalist Christianity, finding them wanting at best, disastrous at worst. But Howard is working with a different definition of “freedom” than the one that the rest of us (and most major dictionaries) use. His idea of “freedom” can be easily lived out in a despotic, theocratic society where such religious beliefs are enshrined into law. Many Islamic nations grant their citizens similar “freedom.”
As we begin to draw to a close, let’s revisit the quote at the very top of this piece:
Is the thing which is said or written, painted, or accomplished, is that thing adding dignity to human living? Is it a step further along the path of spiritual improvement? Or is it contributing to confusion, despair or degradation?
Truly, that is a question that Howard and the rest involved in the World Congress of Families must ask themselves. Is advancing their religious worldview so important that they can ignore the bloodshed, the bodycount, the destroyed families, the fomenting of hatred against minorities, and so on, that their worldview engenders? In Russia, the renewed focus on “pro-family” policies is ennobling a movement of violent, anti-gay neo-Nazis who are bullying, beating and killing people they perceive to be gay, with little recourse against their actions. Across Africa and in Jamaica, populations already beset by poverty, violence, disease and lack of economic opportunity are being convinced that the true target for their hatred should be the LGBT population, and members of that population fear for their lives on a daily basis.
“Is the thing which is said or written, painted, or accomplished, is that thing adding dignity to human living? Is it a step further along the path of spiritual improvment? Or is it contributing to confusion, despair or degradation?”
Well, John Howard, which is it? Viewed outside the lens of the fundamentalist Christian worldview, where it’s not so easy to sweep collateral damage under the rug, which is it?
At the end of the book, Howard finally touches on gay rights. He extols the idea of strong families that are committed to raising strong, productive, virtuous children who will take the reins for the next generation. But he is unable to perceive the reality that families led by gay and lesbian couples are also doing just that. It’s not part of his worldview, so it doesn’t compute. They are part of the liberal, anti-freedom, anti-capitalist conspiracy to destroy white Christian America, so they can’t possibly be part of his equation. Conformity to the group, Howard’s group, is paramount, and if you’re not conforming — this is so totalitarian, so theocratic, so mind-blowing coming from an American — you’re simply being selfish, wanton and irresponsible:
“What is at issue is the eternal tension between the impulse to pursue one’s own course and the necessity to modify one’s conduct according to the requirements of group membership. This polarity is embedded in every organized endeavor, be it a kindergarten, a factory or a nation. As a group, each individual must observe certain restrictions on his behavior.” (p. 180)
“There are religious, historical, sociological and psychological reasons to believe that the institution of the natural family and the sexual liberation movement, of which the gay rights agenda is a part, are mutually exclusive. The more there is of the one the less there will be of the other. If this hypothesis is judged valid, then the American people need to decide whether they deem it wise to sacrifice the natural family in order to accommodate the claims of gay rights. This is not a judgment to be made lightly, or to be decided by the urgent persuasion of advocates who have not done their homework.” (p. 181)
The last quotes come from the year 2000, long before marriage equality began to sweep the land. And John Howard’s “hypothesis” is being proven invalid. Yet the World Congress of Families won’t admit that, because it’s not part of their playbook. Their ignorance of the reality of the lives of LGBT people is complete.
Before we close, I will note one more thing. Howard’s work doesn’t read like the frothing, hateful blathering of a Peter LaBarbera or Matt Barber. He appears to be a thoughtful, intelligent, educated man who has lived a lot of life and has many stories to tell. Considering the scholarly nature of his writings — which is refreshing, considering what we usually deal with on the Religious Right — one must assert that clinging to an ideology that says that gays and lesbians either do not exist or must conform to a conservative Christian heterosexual “ideal,” runs completely counter to reality. One must willfully blind himself to the reality of healthy, happy families led by same-sex couples, to the nurture, education and love those families provide and pass on to the next generation in order to remain stolid in the belief that gay rights, whether here, in Russia or anywhere else, are somehow mutually exclusive with supporting healthy, strong families.
If the World Congress of Families truly fought for all families, we wouldn’t be writing this right now. But they don’t. They fight for the “freedom” to live by the rules they set, and for the families who will also be submissive to those rules. The rest of our freedoms and families are seemingly irrelevant. As I said at the beginning, Howard seems to believe that we would all be better off if we erased all the gains in human rights we’ve achieved since the 1960’s. Indeed, Howard and other white, heterosexual Christian men might see themselves as better off if that were so, as they wouldn’t have to grapple with the reality of a world where they have to play by the same rules as everyone else and their authority is no longer taken for granted. But in the real world, there are millions of LGBT people who deserve the same dignity, respect and treatment under the law as everyone else. In the United States, true freedom means that we are all granted equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And in the real world, my family is just as valid as John Howard’s.
Would that he and his cohort accept those facts and truly begin to work for the dignity of every human being, rather fomenting the seeds of, as he put it, “confusion, despair and degradation.”