In part 1 of this series, I gave an overview of a group called the World Congress of Families (WCF) and the anti-lgbtq and women’s rights work it has pursued in Eastern Europe and Africa. Today in part 2, I’ll be describing the ways that the LDS Church has been involved with WCF and its work. Part 3 will address the connections between WCF’s work and Russian imperialists (including, for a teaser, Konstanin Malofeev!).
At the outset, I’ll note that the LDS Church has hardly kept its involvement with WCF a secret. While records about whether and to what extent the LDS Church has directly funded WCF are not available (because neither is required to disclose its funding activities), the Church has proudly and publicly discussed its collaboration with and support for WCF.
Many may remember that the WCF’s global Congress was hosted in Salt Lake City in 2015, with much fanfare (and some protesting) from the community. It’s also no secret that the Church opposes gay marriage. What most of us have not understood, however, are WCF’s ties to Russia, the foreign events the LDS Church has participated in and the types of people Church representatives would have been rubbing shoulders with at those events, and the foreign advocacy undertaken by WCF that goes well beyond gay marriage. The WCF is not just a conservative Christian group–in fact, WCF does not claim to be Christian at all. It is significantly more aligned with radical right-wing politicians and agendas, and its support of Russian imperialism far more dangerous, than many of us have realized.
While of course one cannot attribute every WCF speech and activity to the Church, and I’m not suggesting such, I can’t help but think about the counsel given in the Church publication Standards for Youth (formerly known as For the Strength of the Youth):
Everyone needs good and true friends. They will be a great strength and blessing to you. They will influence how you think and act, and even help determine the person you will become. They will help you be a better person and will make it easier for you to live the gospel of Jesus Christ. Choose friends who share your values so you can strengthen and encourage each other in living high standards.
As you seek to be a friend to others, do not compromise your standards. If your friends urge you to do things that are wrong, be the one to stand for the right, even if you stand alone. You may need to find other friends who will support you in keeping the commandments. Seek the guidance of the Holy Ghost as you make these choices.
One has to wonder if the Church erred in counting the WCF among its friends. So, how deep did that friendship go?
The LDS Church’s Sponsorship of and Involvement with WCF
I’ve found evidence of four ways the LDS Church has been involved with WCF and its work: (1) provided vocal support for WCF in its own news statements and meetings through at least 2015, (2) provided direct funding, planning, and sponsorship for multiple WCF events before 2015 (it was not possible to identify funding sources for all events, nor is general funding information available) and sent delegates to all World Family Congress global events through the most recent event in 2019; (3) has had a board seat on WCF, and (4) aligns with other foundations that are not officially LDS foundations but were created by or involved Church members and that officially partner with WCF.
- Vocal Support
The Church has spoken in support of WCF’s mission to protect the “natural” family on numerous occasions. At the request of some commenters on the last post, I’m including the public rationale Church leaders gave for partnering with WCF in the first place–but I don’t think you’ll find anything surprising here. The rationale was primarily focused on supporting the traditional / natural family and advocating against gay marriage. I have not found public comments about the Church regarding WCF’s involvement in Russia or more extreme activity such as pushing for criminalization of homosexuality–although Church members with their own foundations were instrumental in promoting those more extreme measures.
In 1997, multiple Church leaders announced their participation in the World Family Congress and objectives for that participation:
- Elder Dallin Oaks: “There are many forces in the world today which promote family definitions and practices that are contrary to gospel values, things like cohabitation outside marriage, single-sex relationships and abortions … Also, there are some nations of the world that sponsor the idea that key decisions about the raising of children should be made by the state instead of by parents. These are quite extreme ideas, but they are out there. [Editor’s note: Howdy, Texas! Oaks is coming for you and your extreme ideas!]. ‘ . . . As the year 2000 approaches, defenders of the family from about the globe must come together to restore the family as the first social institution and as the center of civilization in all places.’ … The Church is anxious to have official representation to show support for an effort that is itself supportive of wholesome values. It shows our interest as a worldwide Church in having a voice in a conference with these kinds of objectives. In view of their stated aims, it is appropriate for us to participate in the World Congress of Families to reinforce what that congress is seeking to accomplish.”
- Elder Charles Didier: “We cannot preserve our high level of culture and our technological stature without preserving the basic fundamentals or values necessary to support a modern society: family, moral and spiritual laws … The trends presented daily in the media represent an intellectual and political ideology hostile to the family structure and to family values. Those trends, if not changed, will destroy our civilization. … The World Congress of Families is an attempt to defend, restore and reaffirm the traditional Godly concept of family as the center of civilization.”
- General Relief Society President Elaine Jack: “I think of the implications of groups who are interested in promoting family values from these diverse areas of the world; this can’t help but make a difference. We are not alone in our interest in and concern for the family. Sometimes, we might think we’re alone but we are not. We have something to offer and we can support other groups, and we can learn from others. We can extend our influence.”
- Elder Bruce Hafen: “I saw the World Congress of Families as an opportunity to work with scholars and pro-family groups from many countries who welcome gospel teachings about family life. In its first meeting, the convening committee defined the family as `a man and a woman bound in a lifelong covenant of marriage for the purposes of continuing the human species, rearing children, regulating sexuality, providing mutual support and protection, creating an altruistic domestic economy, and maintaining bonds between the generations. … People across the world are recognizing that the teachings and the people of our Church offer the best available example of stable, productive family life. The congress thus offers the Church an opportunity to influence and support opinion leaders and grass roots organizers from many nations in confronting what the draft declaration calls ‘a profound worldwide crisis’ . . . that across the globe, the family exhibits an accelerating decline as . . . an institutional presence and as a cultural force.'”
Subsequent reporting on WCF’s activities and events is similar. To its credit, I did not find Church press or other public statements about WCF after 2015, and the number and visibility of official Church representatives appears to have declined after that conference–so it seems the Church has scaled back its public involvement since then, without explanation. In addition, while there have been multiple WCF regional (not global) events in Ghana and other African countries in recent years, the LDS Church has sponsored its own family conferences in the region that seem to me to be more positive than WCF events and do not appear to publicly advocate for the harsh penalties for LGBT folks that WCF advocates for. If they are involved behind the scenes, I don’t have visibility into that.
In addition, in his opening address at the 2015 Congress in Salt Lake City, Elder Ballard called for compassion and fairness for all while also defending the traditional family:
“Just as we do not or should not shun family members with whom we disagree, we cannot and should not shun those who look or think or act differently than we do … We demonstrate our best humanity when we show love and kindness to all of God’s children. We demonstrate our discipleship when we refuse strident tones, when we refuse derisive labels, and when we enter the public square seeking fair outcomes through understanding and mutual respect.”
This is a much more restrained approach than WCF takes–Brian Brown, its president, told a gay journalist that he saw “no way” for him and the journalist to “live in peace in the same society.” Indeed, it’s possible that the Church and WCF leaders disagree on “fairness for all” and that has contributed to the distancing. To be clear, though, I believe “fairness for all” is more of a shrewd legal strategy on the Church’s part than a genuine concern about LGBT folks–more on that later.
2. Funding & Conference Sponsorship
The Church and/or BYU were founding sponsors of the first several world congresses, assisted in the planning of multiple congresses, sent large delegations to multiple congresses, and has sent at least one representative to every single congress. Note, I only focused on the global events. WCF also holds many regional events but, beyond confirming that the LDS Church did not formally participate in a Ghanian event that advocated for the criminalization of homosexuality, I did not research regional events.
- Elder Bruce Hafen (identified by WCF because of his scholarship on the family) played a key role in planning the 1997 conference, beginning in 1996.
- Elder Dallin Oaks announced the Church’s participation in and support for WCF, and the Church appointed several official delegates.
- Delegates attending included Elder Charles Didier (then President of the Europe East Area) and his wife, Elder Bruce Hafen (then first counselor in the Pacific Area presidency) and his wife, Relief Society General President Elaine Jack.
- BYU law professor Lynn Wardle (an anti-gay marriage and gay adoption scholar and activist) also attended.
- The LDS Church was also heavily involved in planning for the second World Family Congress held in Geneva, Switzerland in 1999. Church leaders–including President Boyd K. Packer, Elder Dallin Oaks, General Relief Society President Mary Ellen Smoot, and BYU President Merrill Batement–hosted WCF’s founder Allan Carson in Salt Lake City in 1998 for an event called “A Celebration of the Second World Congress of Families” where they had speakers and prepared for the 1999 conference.
- BYU, through its World Family Policy Center (which was founded and run by BYU Law School professor Richard Wilkins from 1999-2008 until Wilkins, a leading legal scholar in the fight against gay marriage, left BYU to form a similar center in Qatar) co-sponsored and co-convened the event (one of only two sponsors).
- The speaker / attendee list for this event was not available.
2004, Mexico City
- BYU’s World Family Policy Center co-sponsored and co-convened the event (again, one of only two sponsors).
- Elder Charles Didier, then in the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy, served on the planning committee.
- Professor Richard Wilkins was scheduled to speak at the event.
- “Major funding” was provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Foundation, and Church News reported on the event.
- The Central European Area, LDS Church and BYU’s World Family Policy Forum were both co-sponsors of the event.
- Elder Bruce Hafen (then President of the Central Europe Area) spoke on “Marriage as a Social Good”, Scott Loveless (then-director of the World Family Policy Center) spoke on “Childlessness: Causes and Consequences”, Professor Lynn Wardle spoke on “The Attack against Traditional Marriage.” Professor Richard Wilkins also spoke at the event (as did other LDS people affiliated with separate organizations).
- Then-Elder Russell Nelson, Wendy Watson, and Sherri Dew attended and spoke at the event. Nelson praised WCF’s attempts to fight against factions that want to undermine the family.
- Elder Kopischke of the Seventy, and former General Relief Society President Mary Ellen Smoot spoke at the event. Elder Kopischke spoke on “the value of the natural family.”
- Several public affairs missionaries (Elder Frerich Görts, former undersecretary of the German federal government and then serving as representative of the Church to European Union institutions) and Elder and Sister Jim and Carole Brande, “managed a booth” with the help of local Church members.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sponsored the event.
- Elder Peter Meurs, Area Seventy, was a keynote speaker at the event; Professor Lloyd Newell of BYU and “Music and the Spoken Word” also spoke.
- No speaker list is available for this event, which was “canceled” due to sanctions on Russia resulting from its invasion of Crimea, but another event was held that was reframed as Russia-only (despite the participation of American WCF members).
2015, Salt Lake City
- The LDS Church was heavily involved in the planning and execution of this event.
- Elder Ballard, apostle, gave the opening remarks. Elder Oaks’ daughter, Jenny Baker Oaks, and her children performed, as did the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Numerous Church members spoke.
- Elder Larry Kacher, Europe East Presidency and BYU Professor Mauro Properzi spoke.
- Professor Lynn Wardle spoke. I could not find information about other participants or sponsors.
- Elder Christoffel Golden, Eastern Europe Area President, spoke. I could not find information about other participants or sponsors.
- Later in 2018, Allan Carlson was invited to speak at BYU.
3. Board Seat
In 2015, the HRC report listed Dallin Oaks as an honorary board member of WCF. A 2017 press release from WCF likewise identifies Oaks as such. I could not find information about when that board position began or whether it has ended.
3/7/22 addition: a reader alerted me to the fact that Lynette Gay, wife of Elder Robert Gay (an member of the 70 since 2012), was on the WCF Board until she resigned in 2016 after controversy arose over her WCF participation.
4. Church-Adjacent Organizations
In addition, organizations founded by LDS people have been key supporters of WCF. Of course, these do not prove direct involvement or sponsorship by the Church and I am not suggesting as much (with the exception of the Sutherland Institute). While I researched each of these organizations and their ties to WCF, I did not do a deep dive into their potential ties with the LDS Church beyond affiliating with WCF since this post is focused on WCF. That would be an interesting follow up.
- The Sutherland Institute is a Utah-based conservative think-tank that has been heavily involved in anti-gay marriage efforts and sponsored the 2015 Congress in Salt Lake City. LDS man Stanford Swim served as the Institute’s Chairman until 2019, when he stepped down, and was a major donor to and Board member of WCF. Paul Mero, who was President of the Sutherland Institute until he was fired in 2014, has served on the five-member managing committee of WCF (and was Vice President of the Howard Institute). The Sutherland Institute is alleged to have very close ties with the LDS Church, often taking policy cues and legal strategy from top Church leadership and public affairs. This account by Mero (who is not remotely left-leaning) is fascinating in detailing the relationship, and suggesting that the Church’s “fairness for all” approach was an insincere attempt to win Supreme Court cases against gay marriage at the advice of lawyers (who Mero disagreed with as being too soft on LGBT rights).
- Family Watch International (FWI), founded by an LDS woman, Sharon Slater. FWI is an official partner of WCF and Slater (and her husband) have been featured speakers at numerous global and regional WCF events. FWI has been designated by the SPLC as an extremist hate group.
- The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which has much of the same leadership as WCF – specifically, Brian Brown, who has senior roles at both organizations. It was founded in 2007 to fight Prop 8 in California. Some have alleged it was formed by Catholic and LDS Churches (who cannot officially advocate politically due to 501(c)(3) laws) to fight gay marriage, but their roles have been obscured as NOM has fought attempts to disclose its funding sources. (Disclosure of funding sources is not required for 501(c)(3) organizations, but is required of 501(c)(4) organizations since they can advocate politically.) Matthew Holland was on the founding board and was later replaced by Orson Scott Card (who resigned in 2015 after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage). It has been criticized by the SPLC, particularly for its claims that homosexuality is linked to pedophilia.
- United Families International, founded by LDS woman Susan Roylance. It was been designated as a hate group by SPLC in 2012 and has attended WCF conferences. (According to SPLC, UFI is an umbrella organization for IOF, but I haven’t been able to confirm this anywhere else. And you’re welcome for the alphabet soup.)
- The Worldwide Organization for Women (WOW), a group founded in 1977 by LDS women who the LDS Church mobilized to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment. It is an official partner of WCF and historically has attended annual WCF events.
It is not my position that the Church is fully aligned with WCF, that we should equate the two, or that we can attribute WCF quotes and activities to the Church without any evidence of a direct connection. It seems to me that starting in 2015, the Church decreased its involvement with WCF, potentially as a result of a difference of approach in legal and PR strategies: WCF remained stridently, publicly anti-gay and the LDS Church attempted to strike a balance with “fairness for all,” which many WCF affiliates objected to. That said, given its previous public support of WCF, I have to wonder if more should have been done to cut ties, and the Church continued to send representatives to events post-2015 (all of which were hosted and attended by known fascist and Putin sympathizers, which will be discussed in part 3). As we’ll consider more in part 3, the Church throwing in with far-right extremists in order to further its any-gay marriage advocacy seems to have come to roost post-2016.
For now, some questions to consider:
- What do you think of this level of involvement?
- Is it ethical for the Church to have been closely involved with an organization that shared one objective if that organization went far beyond what the Church claims its position (love and fairness for all) is? Where would you draw the line?
- Do you think this is an example of the Church continuing to align with a group despite a difference on certain issues to pursue a common objective, or do you think this is evidence that the Church’s “fairness for all” is an insincere attempt to preserve its own legal and PR interests by acting less anti-gay than it actually is?
- Going back to the idea of “friends”, what do the allies the Church basically had to work with tell us about the logical extremes of the Church’s position on gay marriage and LGBT rights? Should they be a flag that this position, no matter how you dress it up, is fundamentally anti-gay when expressed to the fullest extent (and therefore at its core)? Or do you think there is a concrete and meaningful difference between the Church’s position and WCF’s?