A Report on Day Three and a Wrap: On Message—Anger, Intolerance and Exclusion

Sydney, Australia – May 2013

WCF Sydney is over, bar the tears. And if “natural family” supporters aren’t crying, they should be. They should also be asking hard questions like, “How did we manage to run a congress in Australia’s biggest city on lightening-rod issues like homosexuality, the modern-day relevance of marriage, abortion, adoption and voluntary euthanasia, and no one came?”

Those who stayed away can congratulate themselves on not missing much. The last day of the conference sputtered out, with the offerings hitting one sincere note among the chaos of illogical, embarrassing and graceless speakers. The past few days had seen endless haranguing of individuals to marry and to advocate for pro-marriage social policy. But as Byron and Francine Pirola acknowledged, “you can’t legislate happy families.” The aim of their session was thus to explicate the “happy” part of happy families by example. In Mickey Mouse Club style, the couple crowded together at the lectern to alternate sound bites from a “Men are from Mars, Women from Venus” presentation. But so much for marital harmony—Francine corrected Byron’s delivery despite the fact he was reading pre-prepared lines.

Onwards and downwards to New Zealander Ian Grant (3 children, 11 grandchildren). His was an embarrassingly parochial presentation whose constant reference to the friendly rivalry between Australia and New Zealand would have bewildered foreign delegates. The title was also misleading. “Parenting: a Journey of Love for Life” turned out to be about fathering, specifically, and only how to raise boys. Mothers were rarely mentioned and girls only at the end of the talk, when we learned that all fathers need do to parent them well is make them feel “lovely” and “capable.”

Next up was Ted Baer, who took credit for what he says are the 57 per cent of Hollywood films that have “positive Christian content.” Apparently he can also get any kid off Ritalin after spending five minutes with their parents. His talk veered sharply off track from there, finally ending up in uncharted statistical territory—did you know that single mothers have cost the American taxpayer billions of dollars?

Lynne Anderson then took the stage to address a mixed-gender audience on “Empowering your Marriage with Natural Family Planning.” She pulled no punches, getting into the nitty-gritty of female fertility, complete with detailed information about cervical mucus. But Anderson’s gumption turned to imperviousness when the session’s chair stood to let her know her time was up. She ignored him. When she finally asked how much more time she had and was told “none,” she continued for another five minutes anyway.

This left less time for Stan Swim, who began his talk on adoption with the candid remark that he and his wife were “what happens when Natural Family Planning does nothing,” i.e., when a couple is infertile. In a congress full of on-the-bell-curve conformists, Swim represented those unable to imitate one of the natural family movement’s many injunctions: stay chaste, get married, stay married, conform to gender stereotypes, and be fruitful and multiply.

Swim spoke movingly about a “grief that comes from wanting our own kids” and said that he’d had to “park that desire because it hurt too much.” He nominated the birth-mothers of his three adopted children as his heroes. Not because they didn’t choose abortion—the birth mother of his eldest son didn’t realize she was pregnant until she was in labor—but because of the intensely difficult choice each woman made to give her child away. “I can’t image how terrible it was,” Swim said.

At a conference where young, unmarried, sexually active women were consistently demonized as “promiscuous,” this re-categorization was laudable. But it did raise a question. If giving a child up for adoption is so terrible, why not give women the choice to terminate a pregnancy so relinquishment is never a choice they are forced to make?

Still, Swim’s talk hinted at the many other stories that don’t fit in with the cookie-cutter mold touted by others at the WCF—and how much more interesting it might have been to hear them. Looking at the 520 seat auditorium that WFC Sydney organizers struggled to fill, despite it being significantly smaller than in previous years, it’s not hard to wonder how much more full and vibrant the audience would be at a conference that was about all families. As it was, with 84 speakers on the program, this averaged out to less than six delegates per speaker. As one prochoice blogger scoffed: “We didn’t have that kind of problem with the Global Atheist Convention—we filled the enormous space of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre [1,500 seats]. It was wall to wall heathens!”

Sadder still was how little notice was taken of the event, not just by the Australian media, but by participants and the organizers themselves. Two days after the conference ended the website was still begging people to register. Facebook posts about the congress have been “liked” by no more than four people, and usually none. The WFC Sydney Twitter feed is similarly replete with broadcast messages, but “re-tweets” and other evidence of interactivity are absent. A search on the hashtag #wcfsydney2013 returned just four tweets.

There were implicit acknowledgements that people with different worldviews were better funded and more effective in influencing public debate and policy. According to the politicians who spoke at the congress—all men with “terrific records of supporting marriage and the family”—“The Australian Greens and gay lobby” were “very well organized” and understood that they had to get their people elected to “change laws so that [natural family] forces can’t even prescribe alternate views.”

The lack of social media engagement went deeper than simple technophobia, although Former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson was not the only speaker to confess that social media “is difficult for grey hairs like me to understand.” During his talk, Duke Paul von Oldenberg described himself as the “baby” of the panel. Sources place Oldenburg’s age at 58, so this is an inadvertent nod to the geriatric status of many of the congress’s speakers, and the audience for that matter, and may explain why there were so few attendees still of an age to make reproductive decisions.

Certainly, no participants of any age were encouraged to join the conversation online: no Facebook page info or Twitter hashtags were supplied and there was no live social media feed. The WCF folks seem to be pretty well in touch with the fact that at heart, their messages don’t resonate with those outside their inner circle.

Those who paid lip service to the realities beyond the prescriptively “happy” family would not have made people in nontraditional arrangements feel very welcome, as they preferred to recast such sinners and deviants as pitiable victims. A book chapter given to everyone who attended the “Health Delivery and Social Policy Issues” session had the unenviable task of reconciling conservative values with the Millennium Development Goal of “Promot[ing] Gender Equality and Empower[ing] Women.” Having duly catastrophized the life chances of single women and their kids, the text gave an anemic pat on the shoulder to women for whom the nuclear family dream became a nightmare: “Just because women are married does mean they are treated equally or happy.”

All up, WFC Sydney 2013 delivered the a host of dubious achievements. Old people expressing ancient opinions dressed up with pseudo-data and religious allusions and marred by illogic. Outdated communications efforts that saw few within or outside the tent engage with, or even notice, the event. A conservative religious rally where forgiveness, tolerance and inclusion might be expected but that delivered anger, intolerance and exclusion instead.

The last words go to WFC Sydney organizer, Mrs. Fowler, “If people want to disagree with us, that’s fine. We have the freedom to express that view.… It’s not a crime to offend people.”
The most telling criticism of the World Congress of Families might be that their objectionably narrow worldview fell flat, too flat to get a rise out of the media or their substantial opposition.

Next year at the Kremlin!