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The Real Reason Evangelical Christians Are Trying to Thwart Women's Right to Birth Control

Behind the Evangelical movement's surprising turn against contraception.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Barbara J. Johnson

 

On July 19, 2011, a report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommended that all American women be provided with free contraception. Catholic charities were immediately in an uproar, knowing that this would like result in a provision for free contraception as part of the recently-passed Affordable Care Act.

In addition to Catholic institutions, evangelical organizations were also sounding the alarm bells. “Yet another untruth about Obamacare has been uncovered,” said Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, on July 20. “HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has recommended mandatory coverage for ‘emergency contraception,’ which is a euphemism for the morning-after pill, which often kills a newly conceived child by not allowing the embryo to implant on the wall of the mother’s womb.”

Land’s strong words mark the first major evangelical objection to the contraception mandate. By the Spring of 2012, evangelicals were the only major religious group where a majority opposed the mandate, according to a Public Religion Research Institute Poll. But the evangelical anti-contraception-mandate movement didn’t gain widespread attention until Hobby Lobby filed a lawsuit against Sebelius, announced in September 2012. Hobby Lobby founder David Green argued that his company was founded on pro-life Christian principles, and thus should be exempt from the mandate. “Being Christians, we don't pay for drugs that might cause abortions. Which means that we don't cover emergency contraception, the morning-after pill or the week-after pill. We believe doing so might end a life after the moment of conception, something that is contrary to our most important beliefs.”

The Hobby Lobby lawsuit encouraged other evangelicals to join the battle against the mandate. Lawsuits opposing the mandate, which had previously been filed mainly by Catholic groups, were now being filed by evangelical businesses and universities. Evangelical publishing giant Tyndale House sued Sebelius, followed by three Baptist universities, The American Family Association, and Guidestone Financial Resources (which provides health insurance to Southern Baptist Convention employees.)

With the Hobby Lobby’s case to be decided by the Supreme Court in June, many Americans are still confused about the evangelical role in this fight. Unlike Catholics, evangelicals have not historically been known for their opposition to birth control, and yet, most journalists seem to have taken conservative evangelicals at their word, assuming that if evangelicals say they have always been opposed to birth control, it must be true.

The reality is much more complicated. Technically, evangelicals have been opposed to certain forms of birth control ever since they came to believe life begins at conception. Before the mid- to late-1970s, evangelicals actually had a generally pro-choice attitude, according to Jonathan Dudley, author of “Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics.” Dudley pointed to a 1968 document produced at an evangelical conference co-sponsored by Christianity Today and the Christian Medical and Dental Association that said, “Whether the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord. … When principles conflict, the preservation of fetal life ... may have to be abandoned to maintain full and secure family life."

When evangelicals finally got on the pro-life bandwagon on the mid to late 1980s, they adopted much of the pre-existing pro-life ideology, which had been created by Catholic pro-lifers. According to Dudley, “When evangelicals joined the movement full-force in the late 1970s, Catholics had already established what it meant to be "pro-life" in the political world. And being "pro-life" meant believing life begins at conception.”

For Catholics, these pro-life ideas went hand-in-hand with a rejection of birth control, a notion that some evangelicals embraced as well. Catholics believed that anything that prevented children from being born was a violation of God’s will. Some evangelicals adopted a different but related idea, believing that, since life begins at conception, forms of birth control that could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting were essentially abortions or “abortifacients.” This idea was the basis for opposition to the pill in the 1970s (when the scientific consensus was that the pill could prevent implantation, a consensus that has been challenged today) and to Plan B, Ella, and IUDs today. Bruce Prescott, minister author of the blog “Mainstream Baptist,” encountered this idea in 1979, which led him and his wife to switch birth control methods. (Although he no longer supports this idea today.)

Still, the idea that birth control was abortive was rarely talked about among evangelicals, even though the idea that life begins at conception was doctrine at places like the Southern Baptist Convention. “It is evident,” wrote Southern Baptist Ethics Professor Kenneth Magnuson in 2003, “that there is no well-defined evangelical position on contraception.” Others went further. Dr. Allan Carlson of Hillsdale College noted in a 2012 New York Times article that “as recently as “10 or 20 years ago,” rejection of birth control “would have been an immediate no” for nearly all Protestants.” As recently as 2008, evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll argued that “even Focus on the Family and the Christian Medical and Dental Associations (CMDA) are undecided on the issue ... As a result, it seems legalistic and inappropriate to declare that use of the pill is sinful.” Polls in 2009 and 2010 showed that 90% of evangelical leaders and the evangelical populace viewed birth control as morally acceptable.

This was even the case in the ultraconservative Southern Baptist Convention, according to Prescott. “Most Southern Baptists don’t know that they have issues with birth control.” The idea that life begins at conception was written into the Southern Baptist faith statement in 2000, but Prescott notes that most Southern Baptists probably saw this as narrowly prohibiting abortion. “People in the pews didn’t have a clue what the significance was — that it would prohibit stem cells and contraception.”

There was thus a direct disconnect between doctrine and practice. And evangelical leaders largely seemed content with this. Some leaders occasionally griped about the evangelical community’s laissez-faire attitude on birth control, but most were apparently equally guilty of this. To the extent that an anti-contraception movement existed before 2011, it was a popular one: evangelicals have no official source of opinion like the Pope, and thus anti-birth control views moved throughout evangelism from the bottom up. Evangelical sub-movements like the Quiverfull movement, which eschews all forms of birth control, played an important role in articulating evangelical anti-birth control beliefs, but they were far from the only ones to do so. Many took issue not only with the “abortifacient” nature of birth control, but also believed that it potentially encouraged promiscuity and treated children as a problem rather than a gift from God.

Abby Norman, a Southern Baptist and writer of the blog “Accidental Devotional”, experienced these beliefs firsthand. In 2006, women in her church discussion group told her birth control was abortive and recommended that she read the 2001 book “Lies Women Believe,” which Norman said convinced most of her church group to stop using hormonal birth control. “Lies Women Believe,” written by conservative Christian Radio Host Nancy Leigh DeMoss, has sold over half a million copies and spawned two “companion guides” to the book.

DeMoss claims that the destructive influence of feminism is largely responsible for the wide use of birth control among Christians. “One of the fundamental tenets of feminist ideology has always been the right of a woman to determine for herself if and when she will have children and how many children she will have...the Christian world has been unwittingly influenced by this way of thinking, leading to the legitimization and promotion of such practices as contraception, sterilization, and family planning. As a result, unwittingly, millions of Christian women and couples have helped further Satan’s attempts to limit human reproduction and therby destroy life.”

DeMoss quotes Quiverfull activist and famous anti-feminist Mary Pride, who said, “Family planning is the mother of abortion...once couples began to look upon children as creatures of their own making, who they could plan into their lines as they chose or not, all reverence for human life was lost." (As a side note, the idea that birth control encourages abortion — which is frequently repeated point in the birth control debate — is actually patently untrue. As Dudley notes, “several scientific studies” show ready availability of birth control has been shown to limit abortions. )

Perhaps this rhetoric is not surprising for DeMoss, who once compared the feminist mindset to “that of an ostrich that tramples their children.” Nevertheless, her books and radio show are popular — and her ideas about birth control are echoed by leaders of groups who take a radically conservative approach to family life, such as the Quiverfull movement and homeschooling leaders like Doug Phillips and Debi Pearl.

Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was perhaps the most widely respected person to advocate for an anti-contraception position amongst evangelicals — he commented publicly on it at least twice. In 1998, Mohler was asked to give commentary on Pope John Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, which prohibited birth control. He said, “the Humanae Vitaesounded the alarm, warning of a contraceptive mentality that would set loose immeasurable evil as birth control methods allowed seemingly risk-free sex outside the integrity of the marital bond.” Still, he complained, “The evangelical reaction to Humanae Vitae was, generally speaking, dismissal and disregard … Indeed, birth control became fixated in the Protestant mind as a ‘Catholic issue.’” Mohler made a very similar argument on his blog in 2006. aruging that Christians needed to make selective use of contraception, prohibiting Plan B and IUD’s outright.

Still, before the birth control mandate, those who believed birth control was abortive were a “minority,” even within the conservative SBC, according to Norman. This view was echoed by Prescott. “Most of the people in Baptist churches used contraception. They used the pill. They had no idea people were so opposed to it.”

There’s a practical reason this was the case, according to Jenell Paris, a professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Messiah College. “Most evangelicals are participating in the mainstream economy. Most can’t afford rejecting contraception — they need 1.5 to two jobs to make it, so they can’t have lots of kids.”

There’s also an ideological reason: these ideas have trouble surviving confrontation and contradiction. Prescott noted the fact that a great number of pregnancies, at least a third and as many as half, end naturally between conception and implantation, regardless of human intervention. Prescott noted that this implies “that God is pretty wasteful with human life. If it was all that important, he sure did let a lot of it go down the toilet. But the SBC doesn’t want to talk about that.” Norman pointed out that this philosophy makes all non-procreative sex incredibly dangerous: if sex can so easily create death, then it would be irresponsible to have sex unless the goal was procreation. “If they were really serious about a fertilized egg not implanting, they’d be telling people not to have sex unless they’re trying to have a baby.”

Anti -contraception movements seem to have not confronted these ideas in any substantive way. This illustrates how these anti-contraception views actually persisted: since they were only talked about in very conservative circles where there is very little room to dissent with authoritative leaders, they were not subject to the tough questions that mainstream evangelicals would ask. Opposition to contraception survived because of isolation from debate, discussion, and conversation.

The War on Contraception

The anti-contraception movement failed to catch on for nearly thirty years, but a number of factors made it viable after 2011, at least among the conservative evangelical community. For starters, evangelicals, since the “conservative resurgence” of the seventies, have often been driven to political involvement by the abortion issue. Political scientist Rosalind Petchesky has argued that the evangelical movement placed “sexual, reproductive, and family issues at the center of its political platform — not as manipulative rhetoric only, but as the substantive core of a politics geared, on a level that outdistances any previous right-wing movements in this country, to mobilizing a nationwide mass following.”

When the Obama administration mandated birth control, they explicitly connected birth control to liberal politics. This made anti-contraception views, formerly untenable outside of the most extreme forms of conservative evangelism, more viable. It may have been difficult to accept the contradictions of the anti-contraception view when it was just a theological discussion topic, but it was easy for conservative evangelicals to see why Obama forcing them to violate their idea that life began at conception was a definite bad thing.

The fact that most evangelicals were already displeased with the Affordable Care Act didn’t hurt either. A 2013 DemocracyCorps memo noted that “when Evangelicals talk about what is wrong in the country, Obamacare is first on their list.” Prescott noted that the Tea Party movement is driven in large part by conservative evangelicals and Southern Baptists. Polls show that evangelicals are one of the few religious groups to significantly favor the Tea Party, which, after all, gained steam around the original growth of the Affordable Care Act.

But the key rhetoric that drove the anti-contraception-mandate contingent was the idea that evangelicals did not want to “pay for” abortions. This point has long been an evangelical obsession, and it adapted very well to the “abortifacient” debate. For Al Mohler, the extent to which evangelicals would be responsible for paying for contraception was a key point. In 2010, before the “contraception mandate”, he wrote that while he was not pleased with the ACA’s lack of “any adequate protection for the unborn,” he did not advocate civil disobedience against the government to remedy this. He noted that, “to refuse to pay taxes is to deny the legitimacy of the government itself, and to declare it beyond political remedy.”

After the contraception mandate, he took a different view. In November 2013, Mohler wrote that the contraception mandate forced religious employers to decide “to serve God or to serve Caesar” — that is, to pay for birth control or shut their doors. He said, “We dare not render to Caesar what belongs rightly and only to God.” In Mohler’s view, forcing religious groups to “pay for” contraception definitively crossed the line.

The obsession with being “forced” to pay for abortions reveals a strange hypocrisy at the heart of the evangelical anti-contraception ideology. If contraception was so evil to them, they would have fought against contraception in their own churches much earlier. After all, Mohler is not an idiot — he must have known in 1998, when he argued against abortifacient birth control, that many in the SBC were using the methods he decried. Even political organizations like Focus on the Family or the Republican National Commitee have in the past purchased employee health care coverage from companies that covered abortions. Evangelicals, as citizens of the world, have never been financially disentangled from abortions and “aborifacients” — to the contrary, they’ve been very much part of a world in which contraception is the norm.

Christian author Rachel Marie Stone made a similar point on her blog, where she discussed her time working at a Family Planning Clinic in Malawi. She pointed out that the contraception she distributed was all marked with a USAID seal. “I was following the contraception mandate debate, and I thought, how ironic.” She wrote in an article on the same topic for the magazine Soujourners, saying, “I can’t help feeling that while some of the concerns about the effects of a “birth control culture” may be valid, I also worry that to deny women access to contraception — especially when we’re talking about women in the developing world — is to trivialize what more children means in a place like Malawi, or, say, Somaliland, where women have a one in 14 lifetime risk of dying in childbirth.”

Rejecting contraception, after all, is always a more viable political stance than it is a personal choice.

Rob Shryock is a freelance journalist covering topics such as evangelical Christian culture, religion in the military and Islamophobia. He frequently writes for Religion Dispatches.