NEW YORK – Many prominent U.S. conservative groups are shifting their attention overseas this week, organizing a conference in Poland that will decry Europe's liberal social policies and portray the host nation as a valiant holdout bucking those trends.
The World Congress of Families is expected to draw more than 2,500 people from dozens of countries from Friday through Saturday to Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science, a building which was a gift from the Soviet Union to then-communist Poland in the 1950s.
The chief organizer is a Rockford, Illinois-based conservative think tank, the Howard Center. Co-sponsors include more than 20 other U.S. groups allied in opposition to abortion, gay marriage and other policies they blame for weakening traditional families in Western Europe.
"Europe is almost lost — to demographic winter and to the secularists," says a planning document for the congress. "If Europe goes, much of the world will go with it. Almost alone, Poland has maintained strong faith and strong families."
Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who will address the congress, heads a conservative government that has tangled frequently with European Union officials over such issues as gay rights and his nation's tough abortion laws. Last month, after Polish officials proposed firing teachers who promote homosexuality, the EU parliament asked its anti-racism center to examine "the emerging climate of racist, xenophobic and homophobic intolerance in Poland."
Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center and founder of the World Congress of Families movement, acknowledges that social trends in Western Europe give social conservatives little reason for optimism. Spain last year joined Belgium and the Netherlands in legalizing gay marriage; heavily Roman Catholic Portugal, one of the few holdouts banning abortion, last month legalized the procedure up to the 10th week of pregnancy.
"There are some nations that are resisting the trends," said Carlson, citing Croatia, Slovakia and Latvia.
"But with the exception of Poland, they are all small countries, so that makes Poland all the more important," he said. "They're resisting pressure from the EU to get in lockstep with the Swedish model — the secularist, post-family order."
Two long-term trends will be highlighted at the congress — Western Europe's declining birth rates and dwindling church attendance. Carlson expressed hope for a spiritual renewal among European youth, but said it was unrealistic to expect institutionalized religion on the continent to return to its historical prominence.
Birth rates are low across Europe, including Poland — where the population is expected to shrink by several million in the next two decades. Kaczynski's government is preparing legislation to encourage larger families.
The congress, even in its planning stages, has been derided by liberal groups.
"It's a jamboree for people who very often find themselves outside the mainstream," said Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. "They're living the fantasy for a couple of days of what the world would be like if their ideas prevailed."
O'Brien, a native of Ireland now based in Washington, D.C., said Poland's conservative bent is at odds with most of the continent.
"American conservative groups don't find much succor in Europe," he said. "It's moved on, toward tolerance and respect for how people live their lives, for people who are gay, single parents, different forms of family."
Scheduled speakers at the congress include a Vatican representative, Monsignor Grzegorz Kaszak of the Pontifical Polish Institute of Rome, and Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant U.S. secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.
Questioning Sauerbrey's involvement, 19 European Parliament members said in an open letter that her attendance would signal approval for "extremist and intolerant views held by some participants."
Co-sponsors of the congress include the American Family Association, Concerned Women For America, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Heritage Foundation and the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which promotes the "intelligent design" concept of the universe's origins and questions Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
Bill Saunders of the Family Research Council, who will speak about bioethics, views the congress as pivotal.
"The Eastern European countries are being pushed to move in ways that mirror Western Europe," he said. "We want to help them stand up to the EU bureaucracy."
The congress also highlights an increasingly active alliance between the Protestant evangelicals who lead many U.S. conservative groups and conservative Catholics, such as those governing Poland, who share Pope Benedict XVI's goal of re-Christianizing Europe.
"It reflects the fact that the cultural battle has gone international," Carlson said. "The American religious right, instead of being isolationist, has in fact gone global."