Turning Family Into a Political Weapon

A descriptive and benign term, “family” has been turned into the primary frontier of social wars by the radical right.

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In March 2019, the World Congress of Families (WCF), in collaboration with the International Organization for the Family (IOF), organized its 13th conference, “The Wind of Change: Europe and the Global Pro-Family Movement,” in Verona, Italy. Sponsors and speakers at the event came from two groups: church representatives and NGOs. For example, one of the speakers was a Romanian archpriest, who is also the chairman of the Patriarchal Commission for Family and Motherhood. A major sponsor of the event was the NGO Provita & Famiglia, an anti-abortion organization that is actually the merger of two other organizations — Provita Associazione and Generazione Famiglia.

However, there was also a third and powerful presence at the event: keynote speakers who are members of the far-right Italian government as well as a strong attendance by the neo-fascist Forza Nuova. All of these groups coalesce under the banner of the (heteronormative) family, a central concept in the radical right’s fight against “gender ideology.” There are two important effects of this coalition: First, how family is weaponized in opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage and, second, how the radical right capitalizes on this “family lobby” in order to claim socially conservative individuals who do not feel represented in other political parties.

The Invention of Gender Ideology

There was a point in the early 2000s when the Catholic Church decided to tackle head on the question of gender by addressing the “signs of the times” in its various communications. In one of the first references, the Pontifical Council for the Family published the conclusions of a series of meetings in a 2000 presentation, “Family, Marriage and ‘De Facto’ Unions.” The (rather lengthy) document refers to “the ideology of ‘gender,’” carefully placing the word in quotation marks as if to destabilize and question its meaning.

The major argument here was that an environment of “radical neo-liberalism” fostered the spread of an ideology that threatened the institution of the family by allowing any type of union to be called a family. By 2009, when the Fifth World Congress of Families took place in Amsterdam, the council’s greeting to the participants referred to “the gender ideology” (without any quotation marks) as an established reality that continued to erode the “natural family” and create futile opposition between the sexes.

Gender scholars are genuinely perplexed with the term “gender ideology” or, as it is sometimes labeled, “gender theory.” At no point in a Gender Studies 101 course is such an ideology mentioned. Feminist theory does make a distinction between “sex” and “gender” with a rudimentary — if not contested — description: “sex” refers to the biological designation of male and female organisms as opposed to “gender,” which signifies the socially constructed roles and expectations associated with being a man or a woman.

This is exactly the point of contention: The Catholic Church is arguing that gender does not exist — its creation is a “theory.” In the church’s point of view, there is only a natural, biological reality of two complementary sexes that constitute the building block of the family institution.

Allegiances aside, one must admit that the rhetorical tactic of calling gender an ideology or a theory is a masterful approach. The Catholic Church does not engage in debates regarding inequality, violence or oppression that form the basis of gender studies research. Instead, they undermine the substance of these debates by questioning the existence of a foundational concept in feminism. In doing this, they have created the perfect breeding ground for the type of radical-right ideology that is needed in order to supplement its Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric — in this case, with homophobia and sexism.

Opposition to gender ideology, therefore, became a meeting point for far-right parties, especially because it was anchored on the concept of the family, with all its nationalistic connotations.

The Family Lobby

The main force behind the World Congress of Families are NGOs from both the US and Europe with a shared agenda against abortion, LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage. Opposition to euthanasia is often an additional objective as it fits within their general pro-life framework. All these groups have come to crystallize their ideology under the banner of “family” — a descriptive and benign term that has been turned into the primary frontier of social wars.

Even the relatively newly formed CitizenGO, active since 2013, which was also a sponsor of the 2019 WCF, proclaims that its goal is to “defend and promote life, family and liberty.” Interestingly, its website also links to a page on human dignity and individuals’ rights, which outlines a declaration of rights from “a Christian perspective.”

Groups such as CitizenGO avoid the term “human rights,” which they consider to be tainted by organizations such as the UN and the EU using definitions that they oppose. Instead, they seem poised to fight these definitions on a global scale. That is why Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, announced in 2016 the renaming of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society to the International Organization for the Family in order to create a worldwide nexus of activists and religious leaders connected by the belief that the institution of the family is under attack.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists IOF as a hate group because of its obvious anti-LGBTQ agenda. It is a carefully articulated agenda, of course, steering clear of blatant hate speech and focusing instead on the protection of the “natural family” — another instance of semantic subversion.

Allan Carlson, the editor of the IOF’s journal, The Natural Family, explained in 2013 why the phrase works: “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, which does not require a discussion of negative incompatibilities in order to gain recognition.” Indeed, naturalization is the ultimate form of legitimization.

Politicizing the Family

From a political point of view, this “natural family” lobby has succeeded in bringing together a diverse group of actors, including activists and religious leaders from all over the world. Peculiarly, it has also produced an ideological allegiance between the US Christian right and Russia, where anti-LGBTQ policies as well as setbacks in enforcement of gender-based violence laws are routine. The WCF helped Russia launch the FamilyPolicy.ru advocacy group in 2012.

Slowly, the family lobby has diversified its stakeholders by expanding through far-right governments or by inserting the concept of the family in official government bodies. Italy’s political leadership was represented at the 2019 WCF by the then-Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini (of what was then the Northern League party) and an MEP from Forza Italia. Salvini had also ordered a change in official government forms to defend the “natural family” as “the union between a man and a woman.” The forms would refer to “mother and father” instead of “parent 1 and parent 2.”

In Hungary, there is a state secretary for family and youth affairs under the auspices of the Ministry of Human Capacities, and the Catholic Church has routinely praised the government for its family policy. Similarly, in Italy, there is a Ministry for Family and Equal Opportunities created by Salvini’s government. Both Hungarian and Italian ministers, representing a wide spectrum of the far right, were keynote speakers at the 2019 WCF conference.

When WCF was organized in Hungary in 2017, Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivered the opening address. There is also a Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Policy in Poland, and in Greece even the leftist Syriza government had recommended the formation of a Family Ministry citing demographic woes — usually the talking points of the radical right. Finally, VOX’s rise to power in Andalucía, in Spain, was partly achieved through an opposition to gender-based violence law and a proposal for a Family Ministry to protect the “natural family.”

These government family agencies usually peddle the language of European extinction and demographic winters as they take on the role of mainstreaming the “natural family” concept beyond its religious confines. A good example of this is Family Day in Italy. Sara Garbagnoli writes in “Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing against Equality” that the first Family Day in Italy was organized in 2007, mostly by Catholic movements and associations, when it succeeded in countering a bill on same-sex unions introduced by Romano Prodi’s government.

When the event was revitalized in 2015 and 2016, it no longer featured only religiously affiliated family organizations but included a strong presence by Forza Nuova and Casa Pound. Last June, the founder of Family Day, Massimo Gandolfini (a keynote speaker at the 2019 WCF in Verona) was in the news for his defamation conviction because he had argued that pedophilia was among the gender identities approved by Arcigay, Italy’s first and largest national gay rights organization.

Collision Course

The radical right today is helping to both normalize and amplify the “natural family” lobby by couching it within the larger rhetoric of European/Western/white survival. More importantly, they are often in a position to cash in on their political capital by using policy positions to regulate the “demographic challenges” of our times. For the European Union, this mainstreaming of the “natural family” is on a collision course with the gender mainstreaming policies that member states have been implementing for the past 25 years.

The radical right has already embraced the challenge of moving the “natural family” debate from ecclesiastical to bureaucratic headquarters. The 13th World Congress of Families ended with the adoption of the Verona Declaration, which is a roadmap for the family lobby. It begins with the following affirmation: “The right to life is the foremost of all human rights: it must be recognized and protected — from conception to natural death — regardless of the quality of life that lies ahead.”

Later on, in one of the urgent imperatives, the congress declared that women’s rights should be protected so that, among others, they can “Choose to dedicate themselves exclusively to children and the family, with adequate remuneration for home work where the spouse’s salary is not sufficient for a free and dignified existence.” Margaret Atwood could not have written this better if she were to distil “The Handmaid’s Tale” into a policy brief.

Dr Miranda Christou is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Associate Professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Cyprus. See her profile here.

© Miranda Christou.  Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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