White evangelicals and contraception: reversal and revision redux

It has happened before and it may be happening again.

Just five years ago it would have been unthinkable for American evangelicals to rally against contraception. Religious opposition to contraception was strictly a Catholic thing and evangelicals, as Protestants, did not accept the baroque theological arguments supporting that Catholic teaching.

That has begun to change. White evangelicals have begun adopting Catholic language and Catholic teaching regarding contraception. This change has not occurred due to any new theological or biblical understanding, but due to a political change — due to white evangelical opposition to President Barack Obama.

This is deeply weird. Five years ago I would not have imagined that this strange development could even be possible. Five years ago, the very same white evangelicals now denouncing contraception could not themselves have imagined such a thing.

Yet here we are:

• Liberty University is suing for a health care exemption on the grounds that contraception is indistinguishable from abortion.

• Evangelical “pro-life” vigils target clinics that provide birth control and that treat yeast infections as part of the crusade to “end abortion.”

• The Southern Reformed editors of World magazine are attacking other evangelicals for condoning the use of contraception.

• The false belief that IUDs and hormonal contraception are “abortifacients” continues to spread among evangelicals.

• “Defunding” Planned Parenthood to restrict access to affordable birth control is a political tactic with increasing evangelical support.

• It’s becoming hard to imagine any lie about Planned Parenthood or women’s health care too outrageous for evangelicals to believe.

The transformation has begun. A radical, unexpected and total reversal of long-established evangelical ethics and doctrine is taking place before our very eyes.

But there remains some opposition to this revolutionary change. As Libby Anne writes, “There is a battle going on here.”

What matters more, lowering the abortion rate even if that means encouraging contraceptive use among those who aren’t married, or ensuring that sex has consequences and is tied to procreation even if that in practice leads to a higher abortion rate? The pro-life movement establishment, partly because of Catholic influence, has long eschewed the former position and embraced the later. But as more people take seriously the rhetoric about “saving babies,” there may be a shift as more groups and individuals move toward the former position and reject the latter.

The outcome of this battle remains in doubt. In October, the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good came out strongly in support of family planning:

“We affirm that the use of contraceptives is a responsible and morally acceptable means to greater control over the number and timing of births, and to improve the overall developing and flourishing of women and children,” said the Rev. Jennifer Crumpton, one of the advisers to the evangelical group.

The NEP document does not include abortion in its definition of “family planning.” It emphasized that access to contraception prevents unintended pregnancies and reduces abortion, and stressed the need to avoid “confusion of family planning with abortion” that has led some religious groups to oppose both.

But the NEP, unfortunately, hasn’t yet proven to be especially influential in the wider evangelical world. It’s prominent spokespeople include folks like Rich Cizik, who is suspect among conservative evangelicals after he got booted from the National Association of Evangelicals for believing in climate change; Dave Gushee, suspect after being a victim of Al Mohler’s purity-purge at Southern Baptist Seminary; and Crumpton, who is female and therefore, by definition, suspect.

It’s too soon to tell how this battle will end. If the anti-contraception side wins, we will see a radical, rapid, and once unimaginable reversal in evangelical ethics and doctrine due to nothing more than partisan political maneuvering.

But that radical ethical and doctrinal reversal will not be the really amazing thing. Far more amazing will be the Orwellian aftermath in which, 10 years from now, white evangelicals will pretend that they have always unanimously opposed contraception and they will seem unable to remember that it was ever otherwise, angrily denying that any change has taken place.

It has happened before and it may be happening again.

  • Lunch Meat

    Religious opposition to contraception was strictly a Catholic thing and evangelicals, as Protestants, did not accept the baroque theological
    arguments supporting that Catholic teaching.

    I’m not sure this is quite true. It’s probably more accurate to say religiously motivated “political” opposition. I did not grow up quite evangelical, but we were definitely not Catholic, and in middle school and high school (10 years ago) I remember hearing that people who used birth control didn’t trust God enough. It wasn’t the same argument as that used today or by Catholics, nor was anyone attempting to put it into law, but it was definitely there.

  • Loki100

    Well, it was obviously going to happen sooner or later. Conservative Evangelicals and Catholics have depended upon each other for political gain for a couple of decades now. Which means that their theologies have to dovetail together, or it would break up the coalition. You can’t have a political issue that Real True Christians and Real True Catholics disagree upon, and political ideology supersedes any theology.

  • Robyrt

    Olasky’s logic in World magazine is predicated on the idea that advising contraceptive use for single people is condoning premarital sex, which is the same line of thinking that led us to abstinence-based education: Avoid talking about anything sinful and it will stop happening. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t work this way. Realistically, it is fine to draw lines about which things are worse than others – better to yell at someone than to hit them, for example – so I don’t see a theological reason for Protestants to oppose contraception.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Just five years ago it would have been unthinkable for American
    evangelicals to rally against contraception. Religious opposition to
    contraception was strictly a Catholic thing and evangelicals, as
    Protestants, did not accept the baroque theological arguments supporting
    that Catholic teaching.

    *BLINK*

    *BLINK*

    Right-wing politicians of every religious sect of Christianity, and their Christian Coalition fellow travellers, have happily made access to contraception more difficult and have made no bones about linking it to sexual permissiveness and abortion.

    How this claim can be squared with the politico-religious squalling since the 1980s and 1990s, of how The Pill somehow means the breakdown of Western society, I’m not sure.

  • MaryKaye

    If only the Evangelicals could have corrupted the Catholics on this issue and not the other way around!  (Speaking as someone whose life may have been saved by a contraceptive device….)

  • http://campuskritik.blogspot.com/ Malte

    And it’s deeply weird to watch from across the pond as this is happening. It’ll be interesting to see if evangelicals here in the UK will eventually follow their American brethren, as they did with abortion.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    This post is nice because if I win the Powerball tonight, it is a handy list of a few organizations that will get (and will not get) my donation dollars.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wayofcats Pamela Merritt

    I was a teenager in the ’70′s, attending a Southern Baptist Church. There was nothing said about birth control; of course you wouldn’t use it until you got married, because you wasn’t going to have sex until then! But its use was not controversial.

  • Citizen Alan

    Honestly, Fred. The overwhelming majority of white Evangelicals just voted for a Mormon and a Catholic, neither of whom is plausibly Evangelical and both of whom are really unabashed Mammon worshipers. At this late date, how can anyone be naive enough to look to American Christianity as a source of morality? What is good and moral to the evangelical church is whatever the Republican Party says is good and moral, which, in turn, is defined 100% by whatever is most politically advantageous to the Republican party or, failing that, what will piss off the most liberals.

  • pharoute

    I am looking forward to hearing Franklin Graham’s sermon on good works and the book of James. :-)

  • Alicia

    Yeah, I think five years ago is kind of an aggressive estimate to be honest. The articles linked in the actual post seems to argue that the wholesale shift of evangelicals towards opposition to abortion and contraception took place about two decades ago, not five years ago. The laser-like focus on contraception in specific (as opposed to just being lumped in with abortion) is a little new to me, but abortion has been a thing for much longer than the past five years. 

  • Daughter

    So how is this going to work? Because I know that most evangelicals (women and the men who love them) don’t suddenly want to become Quiverful style baby factories. And unlike abortion,  at least if you’re married, it’s rather obvious if you’re using birth control.

    But maybe it will be like the Catholics, who hear anti-BC teaching from the pulpit and just ignore it.

  • DoctorChimRichalds

    “I mean the implications of that would be huge, it would mean that the
    government, for the first time in history, is able to pass a law that
    directly conflicts with a religious belief.”

    Do you want to tell him, or should I?

  • rrhersh

    I too am surprised that Fred is surprised.  I have long associated purported concern for the well-being of fetuses with antipathy to contraceptives, regardless of whether the individual in question is Protestant or Catholic.

    So this raises the question, why is Fred surprised?  He is, after all, an interested and attentive observer of Evangelical Protestantism.  I offer as a first guess that he made the mistake of thinking of this as a theological question, and therefore being surprised that Evangelicals are adopting Catholic theology.   

    The approach I, on the other hand, take is that the “pro-life” position is really about sex.  Many aspects of the “pro-life” position that don’t make sense if we take at face value the claim that they believe fetuses to have the full moral standing of humans, make perfect sense if we instead interpret the discussion to be about sex.  Specifically:  dirty, dirty six. 

    Sex outside marriage is bad, and while Evangelicals don’t go as far as some Catholics down the road of believing that sex within marriage is only reluctantly acceptable so long as it has procreation as its goal, Evangelicals do share the Catholic trait of favoring families with lots of kids.  Contraception within marriage poses an obvious problem with this ideal.  

    So to summarize, the problem with contraception is that it might prevent shaming slutty sluts for their slutty sluttiness, and this is clearly bad.  It might also prevent good Christians from having lots of kids, and while this is not quite so clearly bad, it is undesirable.  Of course Christians with money to pay for contraception are a different matter.  At least I haven’t seen any suggestion that these favored by God ought not be allowed access.

    Finally, the one thing that has changed since five years ago is Obamacare.  The imperative to oppose Obama in every thing is ample to overcome any lingering reluctance to go all Catholic on contraception.

  • Matt Platte

    So… you’re saying that when it comes to contraception the Evangelicals and Catholics are bedfellows?

  • MikeJ

    Remember when Clinton was president and the great conservative idea from the Republican party was mandatory Norplant for every woman receiving any form of public assistance?

  • fraser

     It’s the same way that churches have always condemned “don’t drink and drive” campaigns because that clearly says drinking is OK. Oh, wait …

  • LL

    Yeah, this. I don’t remember when I started hearing this bullshit, but it was longer ago than 5 years. 

    Basically, the deal was, single women definitely shouldn’t use birth control, because unmarried women shouldn’t be having sex at all. I don’t know the exact, backwards rationale for keeping everyone else from using it, other than the “be fruitful and multiply” nonsense. 

    Maybe it started in the south and then migrated north and west (I grew up in OK and now live in TX)…

  • AndrewSshi

    I’m not entirely sure that evangelical protestants are going to go full-bore anti-contraception for a pretty basic reason. People like having sex with their spouses and most are perfectly fine with two or three kids, thanks very much. Most of what evangelicals huff and puff about in the political arena is stuff that affects Other People: condemnation of teh ghey is so easy because it’s usually heterosexuals doing the condemning. I don’t suspect that that too many evangelicals would be willing to make the personal sacrifice of acknowledging that ortho tri cyclen is concocted in the darkest pits of Hell.

  • LL

    Oh and here’s another possibility: some denizens of the internet (the rather disreputable parts, not the religion-focused parts) believe that birth control is for women. That’s it. It doesn’t benefit men at all, therefore, men shouldn’t have to pay for it (ie, they think their tax dollars shouldn’t help pay for birth control for women they’re not having sex with). This is probably where that douche Limbaugh got his talking points. 

    It therefore follows that birth control is not necessary medical care, it’s optional medical care. It’s not like diabetes medication and asthma inhalers and the like. It’s just so women can slut it up, therefore, it shouldn’t be a part of primary medical care (ie, subsidized or mandated by the government). And to “force” a religious institution to pay for it is violating their rights blah blah blah. I didn’t say it made any sense, just that that’s what some colossal assholes are saying/writing out there on the intertubes. 

  • Daughter

     Yeah, maybe it’s a regional thing. Because of hundreds of evangelical families I’ve known over the years, most have between 1 and 4 children. A handful have five. No one I know has more than 5.  I guarantee you, they’re virtually all using birth control.  Even those who have vasectomies and tubal ligations (for those who might argue that those are more acceptable forms of BC) only do so after they know they don’t plan to have more children.  Until that point, the rest of the are, for the most part, on the Pill.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    I certainly don’t recall birth control being a particular thing for evangelicals until recently. However they actually felt about it, they didn’t want to make a point of it, since the one thing they hated even more than women enjoying sex was the possiblity of being  taken to have something in common with those non-christian idolatrous papists.  Oppostion to birth control was a papist thing, and those mary-worshippers aren’t Christians

    Why, you start opposing birth control, next thing you know you might start opposing capital punishment. Or voting for a Mormon.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     

    Oh and here’s another possibility: some denizens of the internet (the
    rather disreputable parts, not the religion-focused parts) believe that
    birth control is for women. That’s it. It doesn’t benefit men at all,
    therefore, men shouldn’t have to pay for it (ie, they think their tax
    dollars shouldn’t help pay for birth control for women they’re not
    having sex with). This is probably where that douche Limbaugh got his
    talking points.

    I hear this a lot. I know a lot of otherwise pretty reasonable, liberal people who say “But it’s not fair that everyone should have to pay for a benefit that is only applicable to half the population.”

    I usually respond by saying “Let me get back to you about that later; I have to go take my mom in to have her prostate examined.”

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Considering that as far back as 1996 the Christian Coalition had people who fulsomely ranted about partial birth abortion and regularly took pro-life stances, including abstinence-only sex ed…

    Wel, it’s made the rounds.

  • J_Enigma32

    This is just another note in the fascist choir they’ve been preforming for since the 1980s. I don’t remember when it became a big deal, but it had to have been one back when Bush was elected, because I mention it in passing in the Blue Pimpernel (which I started back around 2006) – all forms of contraception and abortion have been made illegal by the Party. It’s been part of the structure of the world since then, and I had to have heard it from somewhere. It might not have become mainstream until just recently, but it’s always been an undercurrent.

    And it is just about sex. That’s all it boils down to. They have disgusting, unhealthy views of what is basically a normal human activity and that’s warped and twisted their brains beyond repair in most cases, and they’re cynically manipulated by their leadership, who unabashedly want only one thing: power.

    They’re theofascists, and that’s all they’ll ever be. Oceania’s here, and instead of Big Brother, it’s brought Big Jesus – but the policies, the leadership, and the methods remain the same.

  • Carstonio

    I don’t known about evangelicals in general, but the fundamentalist subset has opposed contraception for as long as I can remember. I usually talk about fundamentalists and the religious right as though they were the same thing, and while there’s most probably a huge overlap, the latter might include Mormons and far-right Catholics.

  • stardreamer42

     The targeting of contraception specifically (along with the quackery about the Pill being an abortifacient) dates from 2005 or thereabouts. It’s ridden in on the coattails of objections to Plan B, the “morning-after pill” — but the people fighting against Plan B have made it clear from the beginning that the Pill was going to be their next target after that.

  • Daughter

    OK, so maybe this has been going on in evangelical (or at least fundamentalist) circles for a while. But how many evangelicals are really going to go all out to ban contraception? I mean, abortion is one thing I can see many people never imagining they’ll need until they actually need it, so they can argue against it as something that won’t affect them personally. But a majority of people (I think) want to get married, and don’t necessarily want to have a huge family, so they know in advance that they will need birth control. This is akin to the personhood amendments that have failed in very conservative places — because this issue  is too personal and real, and not something people can easily fool themselves into thinking it won’t ever affect them.

    =================

    You know, I recently learned that Paul Ryan only has 3 kids. What’s up with that?

  • Daughter

    What’s even crazier is that a man could have a prostate issue totally apart from anything to do with women. Likewise, women might have issues with  their lady parts apart from anything to do with men.

    But 99.5% of the time, a woman will not get pregnant unless a man has been intimately involved, pun intended.

  • stardreamer42

     Oh, it goes back a lot further than that. It used to be that even married couples couldn’t use birth control; in fact, for a long time, birth control of any sort was actually illegal! There’s a fairly comprehensive overview of the history of birth control in the US here. And the objections have always been religious in nature.

  • P J Evans

    What is good and moral to the evangelical church is whatever the
    Republican Party says is good and moral, which, in turn, is defined 100%
    by whatever is most politically advantageous to the Republican party

    You hadn’t noticed that the Republicans are quite happy to pay lip service to the evangelicals? To the point of writing the evangelical views on women (and some of their other views) into their party platform?

  • P J Evans

     Bush the elder was in favor of abortion (at least publicly) until 1980. He changed his views to get nominated for vice-president. At which point my mother changed her registration to D,because she didn’t feel like voting fora party where people would change their views just to get into office.

  • Eamon Knight

    30-some years ago when this was a live issue for me (ie: I was Evangelical and engaged), Tim LaHaye (yes, that one) was strongly recommending the Pill, though one suspects he just wanted to stick his thumb in the Pope’s eye. OTOH, I did run across other Protestant voices (eg. Trobisch and Christensen, both Lutherans I think) who were NFP-boosters, or even just “Have sex and accept whatever the Lord gives you” advocates.

    For the record: we listened to our doctor ;-).

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Paul Ryan is 42 and has been married 12 years. 

    Fertility Awareness methods of family planning are not foolproof even with perfect adherence, but averaging one child every four years is hardly a remarkable feat of family planning.   Nine months pregnant, plus up to another 9-18 months for ovulation to resume, and then you’ve got basically 12 weeks out of the year in which conception can happen, and a 1-in-4 chance of successful implantation on top of that.

    Three children in twelve years is actually pretty much the most I’d expect from someone who wasn’t actively *trying* to have a lot of kids.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     The legal argument against contraceptives for married couples is that the state had a vested interest in preventing marital infidelity.

    I will note that even the dissenting opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut said “This is an uncommonly silly law.”

    (Being the dissent, it went on to say, basically “But being silly doesn’t make it unconstitutional”)

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I can remember when people had huge shitfits about RU-486 back in the 1980s.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    One wonders if the NFP people actively practice forms of sex that don’t lead to pregnancy.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Oh and here’s another possibility: some denizens of the internet (the rather disreputable parts, not the religion-focused parts) believe that birth control is for women. That’s it. It doesn’t benefit men at all, therefore, men shouldn’t have to pay for it (ie, they think their tax dollars shouldn’t help pay for birth control for women they’re not having sex with). This is probably where that douche Limbaugh got his talking points.

    I think that a part of this is a generational thing.  Disclaiming this as just an anecdote and not data, my girlfriend is twelve years my senior, and as much life experience as we have in common, this also means there are a certain set of generational differences as well.  One of the things she told me is that the men closer to her age she has dated tend to be a bit more hesitant about taking the initiative with regard to birth control.  They tend to assume that the onus of preventing pregnancy lies entirely with the woman.  They tend to resent an implication that they ought to bring some barrier protection of their own if they are that eager to have sex, or that if a pregnancy happens it must be the woman’s fault for “not taking care of herself.”  

    By contrast, I have had a fairly robust sex education and firmly believe that both parties are responsible for birth control.  I would venture to guess that a lot of other American males around age thirty and under (at least in certain parts of the country) are much less passive about the use of birth control than prior generations with more limited sexual education (particularly from a time where STDs like AIDS were relatively unknown.)  

    Of course, a lot of the voting constituency of the religious-right tends to be of an age where their sexual mores were formed from that earlier era, and thus a lot of them probably do believe that birth control is exclusively a thing for females.  For such a group that beats the “personal responsibility” drum as much as they do, they seem to show a lot of ignorance that for a woman to become pregnant a man has to have some responsibility in the process.  

  • http://campuskritik.blogspot.com/ Malte

     Hmm, most unmarried evangelicals also have sex, so in theory there’s a precedent for evangelicals publicly affirming a moral stance they don’t follow privately. But the use of birth control for married couples is much harder to hide, so you probably have a point.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I remember the results of a study noting that as the actual practice of sexual mores changed among a lot of values voter communities in the U.S., the community has at the same time increase their drive for symbolic gestures reinforcing those mores.  Abstinence only education, purity rings, and opposition to gay marriage are all examples of these symbolic efforts, despite (or rather in spite of) the actual sexual practices being in line with the wider community.  

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    At this late date, how can anyone be naive enough to look to American Christianity as a source of morality? What is good and moral to the evangelical church is whatever the Republican Party says is good and moral, which, in turn, is defined 100% by whatever is most politically advantageous to the Republican party or, failing that, what will piss off the most liberals.

    Apparently these people have been listening too much to too much of megachurch leader Pastor Richards.

  • Vickery1

    Your essay is poorly researched. Where have you been the last thirty years? The Evangelical movement against birth control has been growing since the eighties and there was a real change in thinking in the nineties. You are a little late on the bandwagon… In fact, the two fastest growing demographics in America are families with five or more children, mostly home-school reformed or evangelical believers, and single moms. Without the large family demographic we would be join the other industrialized countries with falling population rates.

  • Lori

    So this raises the question, why is Fred surprised?  He is, after all,
    an interested and attentive observer of Evangelical Protestantism.  I
    offer as a first guess that he made the mistake of thinking of this as a
    theological question, and therefore being surprised that Evangelicals
    are adopting Catholic theology.  

     

    I suspect it’s due more to the fact that the Evangelicals Fred knows personally were never on any sort of anti-birth control crusade until very recently. The ones I know certainly weren’t and it surprises the crap out of me ever time I hear one of them start going on it about. They were always very vocally anti-”fornication” and often anti-sex in general (although not always), but they were never against birth control until very recently. In the case of my immediate family it’s only taken hold since the passage of the ACA.

    I had a little discussion about this with my nearest and dearest on Thanksgiving. We didn’t get into a lot of detail because we were all stuck together in the car driving to dinner and none of us wanted to be trapped in an actual argument on a holiday. However, I did have occasion to point out that we are not Catholic. Dad is really purposefully not Catholic given that his family was Catholic until he was in about junior high when they left and never looked back.

    I pointed out that not only are we not Catholic, that no one I know in the Church of Christ ever had any sort of doctrinal issue with birth control until the passage of the ACA and that I don’t know any female church members of child bearing age who are going to have any truck with this crap in their personal decision-making. And that was the end of that topic.  

    I’m lucky in that my family hasn’t yet bought into the notion that birth control = abortion. The fact that they’re still clinging to a bit of reality makes it a lot easier to shame them for getting caught up in the attempt to pretend that this is an actual moral position instead of a political one.

  • Lori

    Three children in twelve years is actually pretty much the most I’d
    expect from someone who wasn’t actively *trying* to have a lot of kids. 

    I think this is one of those things that sounds reasonable in theory, but doesn’t really hold in practice. For one thing, no one can count on it taking anywhere near that long for ovulation to resume after childbirth. It’s possible that the Ryan’s situation is just as you describe, but the smart money is going to bet the other way.

  • Daughter

     Do you have a citation for Americans with 5 or more kids being the fastest growing demographic outside of single moms?

  • Daughter

     Yep. My daughter was in daycare at 8 weeks when I went back to work. I nursed when I was at home with her, and she was bottle fed during at daycare. Yet my period didn’t return until she was 14 months old, when I started weaning her.

    In contrast, a friend of mine whose daughter was born about the same time was a stay-at-home mom who exclusively breastfed. Yet her period returned at about 8 weeks after childbirth.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I usually respond by saying “Let me get back to you about that later; I
    have to go take my mom in to have her prostate examined.”

    You haven’t spent enough time on fanficrants. I know this because you assume everyone knows that people issued uteruses aren’t also issued prostates.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Without the large family demographic we would be join the other industrialized countries with falling population rates.

    You say that like having a declining population in this era of probably-already-too-many-people-for-the-planet is a bad thing.

  • stardreamer42

     I didn’t get that implication from Vickery1′s post — but I would also like to see some documentation of her claims about large families being the “fastest growing demographic”. And I’d also like to see that group broken out by ethnicity.

  • Don Gisselbeck

    There is, of course, this very effective male birth control method: http://xkcd.com/513/


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