Going Catholic? Evangelicals and birth control: Evangelicals and birth control

May 14, 2012

Amid the various responses to the White House mandate requiring insurance plans to cover birth control for employees—including those working at Catholic institutions—one statistic caught my eye. A Pew survey found that 56 percent of white evangelicals disagreed with the government mandate, but only 47 percent of white mainline Protestants and only 37 percent of Catholics did. Evangelicals, some suggested, appeared to be more in tune with Catholic teaching than Catholics are.

Though these figures may simply reflect evangelicals’ long-standing de­fense of religious liberty against government intrusion, some observers, such as Mark Oppenheimer of the New York Times, have suggested that a shift is under way in evangelical views on birth control. Oppenheimer points to the evangelical Quiverfull movement, which opposes birth control and celebrates large families; the popular reality television show 19 Kids and Counting; and figures like theologian Russell Moore at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who assails America’s “contraceptive culture.” Taken together, Oppenheimer argues, we can see evangelicals gradually adopting a more Catholic view of birth control.

There are two questions to consider here: whether or not a shift is taking place among evangelicals and, if it is, whether it is bringing evangelicals closer to Catholic thinking. On both issues, the answer appears to be no.

The arguments of evangelicals who reject birth control do not mirror Catholic arguments. Catholic objections to birth control are usually framed in terms of a natural law argument, which declares that it’s wrong to detach sex from the possibility of procreation. Evangelicals are more likely to frame their argument in personal terms and emphasize the importance of an individual’s trust in God. In that context, birth control is portrayed as a sign of desiring to control one’s destiny rather than turning one’s life over to God.

That’s the approach taken by Agnie­szka Tennant in a 2005 piece in Christianity Today. She writes of her growing concern that use of birth control was creating a “hostile uterine environment” and signaled a selfish life. A few years into her marriage, she decided to abandon birth control. It should be noted here that whatever her uneasiness with birth control, her sequence of decisions—choosing to stop using birth control a few years into marriage in order potentially to conceive a child—is utterly conventional and would be similar to that of many women from an array of religious backgrounds.

Moore’s attack on a “contraceptive culture” reflects another evangelical approach to the issue: a concern that contraceptives encourage sexual permissiveness. While Moore’s argument mirrors Pope Paul VI’s worry about birth control causing a “general lowering of moral standards,” evangelicals have a long-standing and vocal disagreement with culturally permissive trends in sexuality that is largely independent of a Catholic influence. That perspective surfaces in the way evangelicals tend to oppose sex education, abortion, premarital sex and homosexuality. Extending this concern to birth control is rarer, but it can fit into the same set of concerns.

Whatever uneasiness with birth control is voiced in some corners of evangelicalism, the issue does not appear to have much traction for most believers, male or female. A Guttmacher Institute study reports that 75 percent of evangelical women say that they use birth control, and a recent Gallup poll showed that 91 percent of evangelicals believe that hormonal and barrier methods of birth control are morally acceptable.

Jenell Paris, a cultural anthropologist at Messiah College and author of Birth Control for Christians: Making Wise Choices, says that arguments about “trusting God with your womb” can be persuasive for evangelical women but that most don’t see trusting God and using technology as mutually exclusive. “Evangelical women work; their families rely on their incomes. They see that birth control is good for marriages and good for families.”

To understand current evangelical thinking on birth control, it would be crucial to hear more from evangelical women themselves. It’s revealing that when Oppenheimer wanted to get a better understanding of evangelicals’ views on the topic, he called up several megachurch preachers—all of them men. Granted, evangelicalism by its nature has no official spokesperson, but on this issue it seems particularly misguided to seek the views only of prominent male preachers.

Comments

confuse

I never understood the logic of the Catholic church over birth control is the same as a abortion. If it is not ending a life, then how can this be a bad thing? Coul someone explain this to me ?

Pretty reductionist

The catholic stream of tradition is one of the world's richest. It covers everything from the mystics to Opus Dei. It includes periods of dogmatic imperialism (see Gallileo) as well as the flowering of syncretic expressions of spiritual life. Joyce said it well: "Here comes everybody." And while the current leadership in Rome seems to be having a spasm of control issues, the notion that one could reduce this vibrant, multifaceted stream of tradition to two issues marked largely by repression regarding issues of sexuality is really misguided.

As the statistics cited note, Catholics are largely divergent from their leadership's position on sexuality. But, as Andrew Greeley notes, they remain Catholic because they like being Catholic. In other words, there's a whole lot more to be said for the faith tradition than a given construction of sexual ethics.

Frankly, I think most evangelicals will have a very difficult time making the transition to Catholicism. It will give some the structure over which they obsess. But it also will bring them into contact with a lot wider set of understandings of the faith than the average evangelical, accustomed to lock step theology and politics, is comfortable with. David Tracy pointed toward these divergent ways of seeing the world in his work on analogical (catholic) v. dialectical (Augustinian protestant) worldviews. The bottom line is that there's a lot more to being catholic than the politics of sexuality.

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