Over 500 leaders from around the world celebrated the 10th Anniversary meeting of the World Public Forum, “Dialogue of Civilizations,” on the island of Rhodes, Greece, October 3-8. Participants in the deliberative-consultative body are invited from international and national nongovernmental organizations, public and private institutions, faith-based groups, academics, cultural, spiritual, business, and media spheres of influence. The purpose of the Rhodes Forum is to unite the global community to protect those spiritual and cultural traditions and values that have strengthened civilizations and solved global challenges.
It was my privilege to be a plenary speaker at this annual event, where I addressed the topic, “Marriage Matters for People and Pocketbooks.” After 40 years of negative messages about marriage, the marriage rate today is half of 1969 levels, and the divorce rate is 60 percent higher than in 1960. We live in an era of controversy and civil dispute over the role and significance of marriage. Yet, throughout history, across civilizations and cultures, marriage and family have been the foundations of nations. All civilized societies have treated marriage as a special institution and favored contract. It is, by its very origin and nature, a contract of natural law. Reams of social science data confirm that marriage is by far the best household arrangement for individuals and society. Children, especially, need to have a married mom and dad to thrive. Women are far safer within marriage, and men have more stable employment and higher earnings when married. Economists call the benefits of marriage the “marriage premium,” because marriage is more than an emotional relationship; it is an economic partnership and a social safety net.
Founder and President of the World Public Forum, Vladimir Yakunin, warned in his opening address that the nations of the world face “a crisis of the moral and intellectual foundations of human existence.” Mr. Yakunin also talked memorably about the fact that “civilizations today face barbaric geopolitical trends that threaten the world’s cultural domain.” To that end, for the first time, the “family” speakers were moved from a breakout “roundtable discussion” format to plenary speakers, where all the 500 Forum participants heard presentations regarding the decline in fertility and about the central role of the married-couple family for the well-being of people and nations.
A speaker from Nigeria stressed the threat of global depopulation.Two Chinese scholars spoke of the challenges China faces from the consequences of its one-child policies. A Russian demographer showed a large number of slides indicating negative “population scenarios of humankind” from demographic trends from various nations around the world. A Russian sociologist described the “value crisis” of family life. A British physician highlighted the impact where national and international (U.N.) policies undermine parental authority. A Catholic leader from the U.S. showed inroads that the U.N. is making to develop “sexual orientation” and gender identity in international law. A U.S. demographer/economist explained why the typical economic explanation (poverty) was inadequate as an explanation for abortion and the lack of family formation.
Other plenary sessions focused on the need for socio-political transformation, whether global peace and justice is possible, the ecological challenges of the future, and possibility of solidarity economics. Roundtable discussions were held on various topics: Practical implementation of traditions in a post-secular society, whether the Byzantine heritage has significance for today’s civilizations, the role of nanotechnologies in society, the role of tolerance in present-day migration, and the phenomenon of music as a universal language.
In addition to the intellectual dialogues, the conference included outstanding cultural events. The opening ceremony was held in the Medieval Reception area of the Grand Palace. Participants arrived via Knight’s Street where depictions of the culture of the Middle Ages transported them to a previous era – armored knights patrolled, medieval figures lined the street, sword plays were engaged along the pathways, artisans and merchants carried their wares to market, troops of knights tramped along the walkways, luminous lanterns lighted the cobblestone pathway. The Kallithea Philharmonic Orchestra of Rhodes performed Greek and classical music during the opening reception. The Esse-Quintet (Grand prize winner of the Grand Prix at six international competitions) entertained on Russian folk instruments. Encardia, a vivacious and energetic, multiple award-winning musical ensemble from Southern Italy performed ancient dances and music.
At other events throughout the week, Las Migas, a flamenco band, played gypsy, Latin, and Mediterranean folk tunes and dances that are both traditional and innovative. An 80-minute monologue, Socrates Now, presented the essence of Socratic ethics in an accessible and engaging manner that was both delightful and humorous. The world-famous, 100-member Vienna Boys’ Choir presented incomparable music with choristers between the ages of ten and fourteen.
A local group reenacted a traditional Greek wedding – complete with local wedding songs and traditions like the shaving of the groom and shampooing the hair of the bride. Island residents in authentic costumes played the various roles (mother and father of the bride and groom, etc.) and each member of the audience was given traditional gifts – the “Bomboniera” – little white tulle purses filled with sugared almonds – which are still given to wedding guests throughout Greece today.
At various evening meals, the Giving Tree Band from the United States, a Cuban Salsa band, and costumed Greek dancers entertained the diners. The conference ended with a poolside banquet and spectacular fireworks display.
The goal of the 10th Anniversary Rhodes Forum is to develop paths to the future that do not replicate customary development formulas, but instead inspire and develop social, political, economic, and religious dialogue that promotes and cultivates forms of ethical life both within and between the world’s various civilizations. Such a path, the founders believe, will not pit cultures and societies against each other, but will reconcile different partners as they engage in public dialogue about those values and behaviors that will strengthen civilizations and solve global challenges, rather than tear down those traditions and values that have been the foundation for progress, international stability, and peace.
I concluded my plenary address with these words: “We are gathered here at Rhodes to work together across our various cultural barriers to create a world where positive messages about the value of the natural family prevails over the ‘barbaric trends’ that Mr. Yakunin referenced in the opening ceremony. We must demonstrate for young people the power of dialogue and teach them the tools they need to build strong marriages and families. If we fail at this task – if we do not reach the culture in a transformative manner – we will not have a revitalizing impact on the next generation of world leaders. Worst yet, we will not see the kind of future that we all envision for our individuals homelands and the world.”