Day One: Overpopulation?—Not at the WCF Conference

Report on Day One (June 2) of the World Congress of Families Regional Congress in London

3 June, 2010

“What’s going on? Where is everybody?” While Austin Ruse’s infamous tweet from last year’s Congress was not repeated, it may as well have been.

With only 40 people in the room, the first day of the World Congress of Families Regional Congress began apologetically. There were rumblings about London traffic, volcanic ash from Iceland, Members of Parliament still settling in to a new parliament and the half-term school holiday. And anyway, small is elite. But WCF’s Christine Vollmer perhaps put it best when she noted that God knows what He wants from the conference. No need for the rest of us to worry about it.

In her opening address, Vollmer outlined the goals of the World Congress of Families, noting that it was sad that it is necessary to define the natural family. The family is the foundation of civilization, the building block of society, she said. But according to her there are anti-family forces at work in the United Nations, the European Union and left-wing governments worldwide. Never fear, though. Vollmer assured the audience that pro-family forces are gathering strength across the globe, citing WCF’s recent campaigns in Romania, Nigeria and Mexico. She reported that there was competition to host the next Congress, rather like the soccer World Cup or the Olympics. Vollmer said that international cooperation was a great source of comfort and strength—the realization that other people are doing “the same sort of thing.”

In his own opening speech, David Eaton of the Family Values organizing committee drew heavily on the UK Children’s Society recent report, A Good Childhood, which argues that despite improving material circumstances, British children increasingly suffer from anxiety and low self-esteem. But that report and its concerns are markedly different in tone and intent from the religious conservatism of the WCF. Not everyone who worries about the state of the world and the future for children, or even about the strength of families, draws the same conclusions. And over the course of the day, it became clear that “the same sort of thing” proposed by the various speakers is likely to have very limited appeal outside the conference.

In the opening session proper on The Family Structure, conservative philosopherBrenda Almond insisted that the family is a natural, biological phenomenon, a notion that seemed to be shared by the other speakers. While they reject the idea that the modern family is in any sense socially constructed, it is striking that they seem equally convinced it is being socially de-constructed, which seems an odd fate for a natural, biological phenomenon.

Almond argued that there has been an unconscious drift in recent years towards accepting the inevitability of flux in modern society: relationships end, families break up and we accept it as normal. Almond lamented the fact that the need to “move on” has become an article of faith, while arguing that what people really need is something constant. It seems the natural phenomenon of the family does depend on subjective commitments, and the problem is our failure to make them. Almond invoked Immanuel Kant on the nature of promise-keeping, insisting that a promise that can be broken is not so much morally wrong as logically incoherent. When we know the promise can be broken, the institution crumbles, and this is what has happened to marriage. Take that, biology.

Almond argued this development has led to radical new ways of conceiving of the family. Children are expected to adapt to their parents’ needs rather than biological imperatives. Apparently “sad experiments on monkeys” have shown there is no substitute for the warmth of mother-love. And she claimed that mothers who were brought up by those who were not their biological parents have difficulty with their own children. This is why Almond is particularly exercised by new developments in fertility treatment, “pushing through natural barriers of age, sex and even death.” Not only does recent UK legislation on such treatment refer to two parents rather than specifying a mother and a father, but fertility treatment is not always based on a genetic connection to either parent. Almond insisted that children not only need a mother, but one who shares their DNA; otherwise they are “orphans in a sense previously unknown to humanity.” Paradoxically, in fetishizing biology in this way, Almond surely diminishes the social and emotional ties that give real meaning to family life for millions of families, traditional or not.

Don Feder also believes that the natural family is being undermined by dangerous new ideas, but he opened in a lighter mood with a classy quip about how pictures of Hillary Clinton are being distributed in the developing world as a form of birth control. The substance of his speech, however, brought the audience back to the issue the conference had begun with: underpopulation. Perhaps the sparse attendance at the conference was early confirmation of the demographic winter that Feder predicts. Feder’s objection to birth control apparently stems from his concerns about a worldwide decline in fertility rates. Fifty-nine countries now have fertility rates below the replacement level of 2.13 children per couple. Rather than worrying about overpopulation in Africa, he said, we should recognize that rising populations have always driven progress, and worry instead about declining birthrates in the West before it’s too late: the problems that the Phoenicians, Babylonians and Mayans had probably began when they let Planned Parenthood into their schools.

While Feder’s enthusiasm for human beings was refreshing, his suggestion that the problem is too much choice was less so. “Choice” is the watchword of the anti-family left, he said, and all this craziness began in the 1960s, which apparently saw the most profound social and political change since the French Revolution, under the pernicious slogan, “Do your own thing.” To illustrate this, he repeated several points from his routine at last year’s WCF in Amsterdam: self-centered baby boomers are worrying about the ozone layer and neglecting their families, teens are having abortions so as not to ruin the line of their prom dresses and only religious families are doing their duty by producing babies in numbers. Feder wants a return to the days when procreation was so natural as to require no explanation, a simple responsibility to your family and your people. For this reason he opposes not only abortion but contraception and the whole idea of recreational sex. Apparently, sex outside marriage is the most dangerous thing two people can do. So get married and have babies or we face a Dark Age the likes of which we have not seen since the fall of Rome.

Janice Crouse also has a problem with “the long shadow of 1960s sexual revolution” (“the sad descent from the Beatles to feminism to Sex and the City”), and her particular concern is the decline of marriage. Solo living is bad enough, but single parenthood is even worse. In another reference to the natural order, we were told that grizzly bears raise their cubs in single parent families, but those cubs grow up to be some of nature’s fiercest predators. For Crouse, the problem is that the centrality of faith has been overpowered by entertainment, sport and the internet, and a secular worldview based on reason and materialism, Darwin and Marx. There was a minor ripple of controversy when a member of the audience asked if Darwinian evolution is really at odds with Christian teaching and family values, but this was quickly smoothed over, with Crouse insisting she hadn’t addressed that point and Christine Vollmer explaining that the problem was the distortion of science. Lunch!

In the first afternoon session, Defence of the Family, we heard of the many assaults on the world in which we should ideally like to live. Christopher Carmouche began by explaining the size and pervasiveness of the porn industry, and how it threatens family values. He argued that the jury is still out on whether there is a causal relationship rather than merely a correlation between pornography and sexual violence, but for him the real damage is not an academic issue. The worst effect of pornography is that it undermines long-term relationships and decreases intimacy between couples.

Barrister Paul Diamond described a number of recent cases of Christians coming into conflict with the secular authorities in the UK, warning that the trend is also apparent in the US. He has defended a man who was suspended from his job for explaining his interpretation of Christian sexual morality in a private conversation with a colleague; a British Airways employee who was not allowed to wear a small cross at work; a judge who refused to place children with same-sex couples and even a man prosecuted for inciting his own assault after he was attacked for preaching in the street against homosexuality. Diamond sees these cases as the result of rapid socio-legal change involving a new emphasis on individual autonomy. He argued that the notion that all citizens should be as open-minded and impartial as the law itself is incompatible with religion, as liberal toleration is granted only to tolerant liberals. He told the audience to expect unforeseeable rapid change in the next 30 years, and called for more US-style political engagement by Christians in the UK.

Sharon Slater then tried to help the audience understand the opposition. “Did you know…?” she said repeatedly, and catalogued the anti-family antics of “powerful special interest groups” seeking to destroy the family because they see it as an obstacle to sexual freedom. Slater’s Family Watch International battles “sexual rights activists” at the UN, where they try to amend treaties and resolutions so they can pressure governments to conform to dubious liberal demands like decriminalizing homosexuality and abortion, or even redefining gender. Slater said that these activists are often victims of failed families out to save the rest of the world from their own happy families. She insisted that when ordinary people understand what is happening at the UN, they do the right thing and support pro-family positions against so-called sexual freedom. After all, she insisted, research shows that any sexual activity outside of a man-woman marriage is damaging sooner or later both to those involved and to society. But Slater also admitted that it tends to be African, Islamic and Caribbean states that “do the right thing,” casting doubt on the idea that citizens of the Western democracies are overwhelmingly on her side, or at all.

The final session on Faith and the Family cast further light on this issue. In many ways it was heartwarming to see two Muslim speakers so well received by an audience mostly composed of Christians and including the kind of conservative Americans who might not be expected to be well-disposed toward Islam. But of course, religious conservatives of all creeds have a lot in common. Abortion is not even an issue for Muslims, Dr. Majid Katme boomed into the microphone: “Of course we don’t kill babies!” In fact, he seemed a little upset that Islam is not better understood. After listing some of the values Islam shares with the other monotheistic faiths—charity, chastity, motherhood, the Virgin Mary, the Ten Commandments—he asked, “So what’s with the Judeo-Christian label?” He went on to say how much he admires American creationists—“stop this monkey business!”—but before anyone had time to feel uncomfortable, he was onto sex. Muslims bring the fear of God to anyone who meddles with sex outside marriage, he said, but within marriage there is a special prayer of gratitude to be said at orgasm. On a somewhat different note, he refuted the idea Islam allows forced marriages: marriage must be willed by man and woman. It was the most liberal thing anybody said all day.

Farooq Hassan was less conciliatory, blaming emancipation in the West for the debacle the conference was discussing. At the UN, he said, echoing Sharon Slater, the Islamic countries are pro-family and the Western countries anti-family—Catholic Brazil had recently championed homosexuality. According to Hassan, Islam is similar to Judaism and Christianity doctrinally, but in practice it is stricter. Islamic governments are not moved by individuals, but by faith. Koranic laws come before any others like Western human rights. That this seemed to meet with the approval of the audience was telling. Pro-family religion, it seems, is entirely at odds not only with certain outcomes of individual freedom, but with the very idea of freedom. And which religion is used to bolster the family, let alone which denomination seems not to matter.

The finger-wagging at Western decadence continued with the Buddhist Bryan Appleyard, who began by announcing that he was born in 1942 and has been dismayed by the deterioration of family values ever since. Showing admirable precision, he said that the rot really set in during the second half of the 1960s, with Flower Power and all that. The hippies destroyed society’s moral parameters and the pendulum has not swung back. Appleyard said that he had complained to the Archbishop of Canterbury that the church was not taking a lead in the fight against swearing on TV, binge drinking and other apparent evils. He then called for the restoration of good manners, before very politely excusing himself and setting off for another meeting.

Elder Patrick Kearon, the senior leader of the Mormon church in the UK, concluded the day’s proceedings by remembering the recent anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation. Things might look bad for the family now, he said, but 70 years ago Britain seemed close to defeat in a war it went on to win. “We are here to talk about a rescue,” he explained. While Kearon is more Tony Blair than Winston Churchill, with a personable manner and aura of sincerity, this had the desired effect of rallying the audience to send them out on a high. They would all have comfortably fitted into just one of the 700 little ships that carried soldiers from Dunkirk in 1940.

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