For the first time in its two-decade history, the World Congress of Families (WCF) will be held in the U.S. next week, Oct. 27–30, right here in Salt Lake City. But if you’ve heard the news, you’ve also likely heard the spurious accusation that the WCF is a “hate group.” I hear a lot of accusations (I’m a lawyer), and I’ve come to understand that accusations often say more about the accuser than the accused. So if you’re concerned about the “controversy” around the world’s largest gathering of family scholars and leaders, come and see what it’s all about first. You might be surprised.
Presenters include, among others, Nick Vujicic, a motivational speaker born without limbs who affirms the value of every life; Elizabeth Smart, kidnap survivor and victims advocate; Sammy Rodriguez Jr., a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships; Ted Baher, founder of family-centered MovieGuide; and Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Attendees will also enjoy world-class entertainment, including The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and The Piano Guys.
My wife, Jenet Erickson, attended the second World Congress of Families held in Geneva, Switzerland. A 24-year-old graduate student at the time, the congress transformed her. She would eventually earn a Ph.D. in family studies and teach at Brigham Young University.
Knowing the profound influence the congress had on my wife, and no doubt countless others, I’ve been disappointed by the media coverage. Just about every news story references the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and its designation of WCF as a “hate group.”
Browse SPLC’s website and you’ll find hundreds of groups categorized as Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Confederate, Neo-Nazi, Racist Skinhead, Holocaust Denial, Black Separatist, White Nationalist, and so on. And you’ll also find a category called “Anti-LGBT,” which comprises primarily faith-based family advocacy groups. Likening the “World Congress of Families” to the “Aryan Brotherhood” and other sponsors of criminal violence is absurd. But being branded a hate group is no trivial matter.
Back in 2012, a 28-year-old man entered the D.C. lobby of the Family Research Council and shot an employee with intent to kill. During the ensuing FBI investigation, the shooter explained his motive: “Southern Poverty Law lists, uh, anti-gay groups. I found them online.” That chilling account should give anyone pause before repeating SPLC’s dangerous accusations.
It’s also worth noting the growing number of journalists concerned about SPLC’s use of alarmist fundraising to capitalize on fear of hate groups. Ironically, the “Southern Poverty Law Center” is one of the nation’s richest charities. Its massive headquarters was once nicknamed the “Poverty Palace,” and its Cayman Islands bank account has not escaped notice either. Most telling, CharityWatch consistently grades SPLC an “F” for stockpiling its assets (read: donations) rather than expending them for charitable services.
But I didn’t know any of that when my wife was invited to attend the WCF planning meeting last October. I was concerned that WCF had been designated a hate group by a “civil rights” organization, and I was anxious to hear about her meeting. She came home that night with a book titled "Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor" by Glenn Stanton, a policy director with Christian-based Focus on the Family. Every attendee received a copy. I read with interest a fascinating encounter the author describes in the introduction.
Stanton invited his frequent debate opponent Jonathan Rauch, one of the nation’s foremost same-sex marriage advocates, to speak at the Colorado headquarters of Focus on the Family. Stanton lightheartedly notes that Rauch might have felt he was being invited to the “belly of the beast” of the “anti-gay” movement.
How was Rauch received? With a standing ovation. And during private meetings later, several employees even hugged Rauch to show their appreciation. “Sincere regard and warmth,” writes Stanton, “can take place between those who live at extreme ends of such a social chasm.” Rauch and Stanton disagree on the definition of marriage, but that doesn’t keep them from being friends. That’s a model to follow for any congress, and that was the message communicated by WCF’s organizers.
Not long ago, powerful California politicians spearheaded a pressure campaign to keep San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone from speaking at the 2014 March for Marriage. He graciously responded, “Please do not make judgments based on stereotypes, media images and comments taken out of context. Rather, get to know us first as fellow human beings. It is the personal encounter that changes the vision of the other and softens the heart. When we come together seeking to understand the other with good will, miracles can happen.”
Utahns will have that opportunity next week. Come and see.
Michael Erickson is an attorney. He lives in Salt Lake City.