The Role of the "Natural Family" in Religious Opposition to Human Rights Instruments

Linda McClain


This chapter examines how the vision of “the natural family” articulated by several prominent conservative religious organizations in the United States shapes their opposition to certain human rights instruments. The United Nations’ 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child  seems to reflect an advance in international human rights formulations and to have generated a high degree of formal commitment by governments,  as evidenced by its quick and virtually universal ratification. However, the United States stands nearly alone in not having ratified the Convention, and the religious groups examined in this chapter strenuously urge that it should not do so, lest it undermine the natural family, motherhood, and parental and national sovereignty.  On similar grounds, they support the United States’s continuing  failure to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Strikingly, these groups invoke the UN Declaration of Human Right’s provision that “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”  to critique the Convention and CEDAW as “anti-family” and a threat to the  natural family.

This opposition is troubling if, as some have argued, one way to resolve the paradox that impressive declarations – on paper – of human rights coexist with gross violation – in actual societies – of human rights is to enlist the unique resources of religion to support a human rights culture. This chapter examines opposition expressed by Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, and the affiliated World Congress of Families.  It also analyzes the recent document, “The Natural Family: A Manifesto,” co-authored by Dr. Allan Carlson of the Howard Center and the World Congress of Families, and  Paul T. Mero, of the Sutherland Institute.  The Manifesto is intended to provide a philosophical foundation for “pro family” efforts. The chapter concludes with some reflections on this defense of the natural family. It critically evaluates how such groups’ opposition to these human rights instruments entails a conception of the proper place of men and women within families and society and a conviction that gender equality undermines families.



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Linda McClain Contact Information
Boston University School of Law
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Presentation and Publication Information:

Linda McClain, "The Role of the 'Natural Family' In Religious Opposition to Human Rights Instruments," Published In: Family Law: Balancing INterests and Pursuing Priorities (Lynn D. Wardle and Camille S. Williams, eds., William S. Hein & Co., 2007).

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