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How birth control became part of the evangelical agenda

Trump’s latest birth control rollbacks seem like a victory for the religious right. But why?

Birth control has not historically been an evangelical issue

The Trump administration announced Friday that it would roll back the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers cover workers’ birth control. During the Obama administration, the initial wave of companies granted an exemption from the rule argued that paying into a plan that covered birth control would violate their religious beliefs. But the new normal in American health care looks to be a victory for the religious right, particularly evangelicals, the only religious group in which a majority opposed the mandate, according to a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll.

Hours later, the Christian advocacy group My Faith Votes, whose founding honorary chair is Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson, released a statement praising Trump’s decision, saying, “The Affordable Care Act mandate forced countless business owners to pay for abortion drugs and contraceptives, even if doing so went directly against their deeply held religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

Yet among evangelical Protestants, at least, birth control — and who has access to it — has only recently become a major political issue. Unlike Catholics, whose catechism denounces use of most forms of contraception as a sin, evangelical Protestants by and large do not. (Because of the disparate nature of evangelical Protestantism, which includes hundreds if not thousands of separate denominations, it’s difficult to speak of a “formal stance” in the way we can of Catholics.) But alongside Catholic organizations like Little Sisters of the Poor, it’s evangelical-led companies like Hobby Lobby that have been on the forefront of opposition to the ACA birth control mandate.

In this, the evangelical stance on the ACA birth control mandate reflects a wider issue: the increased convergence of Catholics and evangelical Protestants — hardly historical allies — on social issues in the past few decades, as issues like the same-sex marriage debate and abortion have united the two socially conservative groups. As David Talcott, professor of philosophy at King’s College and an expert in Christian sexual ethics, told Vox, “Catholic and conservative evangelicals have become allies of certain kinds,” each defending the interests of other, as theological and philosophical overlap between the two.

Recent research supports the idea of overlap between traditional Catholic and Protestant thought. Earlier this fall, a Pew Research Center study found that average Protestants more often than not assert traditionally Catholic teachings about, among other things, the nature of salvation or the role of church teaching, reflecting a cultural crossover — however unconscious — between the two groups.

In contrast to the Catholic stance, the current set of evangelical objections to the ACA birth control mandate have less to do with any formal doctrine about birth control per se than they do about wider cultural issues, including the abortion debate, the aftermath of the sexual revolution, and precedents for religious exemptions more generally.

Hobby Lobby and similar groups object to the use of birth control that could be considered abortifacients, not birth control itself

When Hobby Lobby filed its 2012 lawsuit objecting to the mandate on religious grounds — with the Supreme Court ultimately ruling in its favor — it didn’t do so because of a general objection to birth control. Rather, it did so because certain forms of birth control, including Plan B, also known as the "morning after pill,” could be considered an abortifacient because it prevents implantation of an already fertilized egg. Hobby Lobby founder David Green wrote in a 2012 op-ed for USA Today: “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 extent to which this line of reasoning applies to other forms of contraception has been a subject of debate among evangelicals, particularly in regard to the pill, which critics have argued — often in the absence of conclusive scientific evidence — may prevent the implantation of an already-fertilized egg. But these are often academic arguments — confined to scholars or pastors at conferences — rather than ones that apply to the average evangelical Christian’s lived experience.

As Talcott put it: “Most evangelicals accept [contraception]. If you go ask any evangelical or evangelical pastor, they’ll say if a married couple wants to use contraception or use the pill, then that’s fine. It hasn’t really been a moral issue within evangelicalism ... if you ask random evangelicals, whatever, they’re going to use the Pill and not think about it."

The evangelical right’s anti-abortion stance is more recent than you’d think

Meanwhile, despite the evangelical right’s current commitment to anti-abortion policies, this was not always the case. As late as the 1960s, abortion seems to have been a debated issue among the Christian right. According to an excellent article by Rob Shryock at Salon, a 1968 document produced at a conference co-sponsored by Christianity Today and the Christian Dental and Medical Association treated the question as unresolved: “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.”

But amid the culture wars of the late 1970s and the ’80s, evangelicals disillusioned by Jimmy Carter’s first term used the 1973 Supreme Court decision for Roe v. Wade as a rallying cry for conservative Christians to deny him another one. Evangelical Protestants joined their Catholic brethren — whose position against abortion and contraception had long been more established — in understanding life to begin at conception.

It’s worth noting that not all evangelicals support Trump’s wider efforts to court the religious right through similar “religious freedom” initiatives. On Friday, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty released a statement to journalists criticizing Trump’s Department of Justice memo on religious liberty, released the same day as the birth control decision, which focused in part on religiously-motivated business’s rights: “The [new] guidance treats complicated legal issues, such as the definition of ‘substantial burden’ on religious exercise and the interplay between religious autonomy and government funding, in an overly simplistic way.” This reflects the committee’s general wariness toward the conflation of government and religion. The same group filed an amicus brief in this summer’s Trinity Lutheran v. Comer court decision, over state-level funding for a church playground, arguing against the potential for setting a precedent for “coercive government” interfering in individual religious affairs.

Some evangelical attitudes toward birth control reflect wider attitudes toward the sexual revolution

While, for most evangelicals, birth control (within a heterosexual marriage) is a non-issue, some cultural changes among evangelical Protestants have politicized contraception.

“There are a lot of people who think that the social and cultural changes of the past 50 years especially related to sex have been pretty bad,” Talcott told me, “the whole process by which we find partners, get married. I think both men and women find it unsatisfying for the most part.” While he cautioned that such evangelicals did not represent the mainstream, he noted that for some, the widespread availability of contraception contributed to their uneasiness with the sexual revolution more generally.

Talcott noted that objection to birth control among evangelicals had been more prevalent prior to the developments of the 20th century. Christians disenchanted by the outcomes of the sexual revolution, he said, might find themselves “attracted to the older view, the historic forms of marriage and Christianity and trying to see what resources are maybe there for trying to help us figure out what to do today in this sort of Wild West of Christianity. ... The marriage debate, transgender issues, are [all] forcing on the conservative wing evangelicals to think about what marriage is, and how birth control can fit into that.”

For those evangelicals, birth control — particularly the Pill — represents the worst excesses of the sexual revolution: a change in mentality from one that venerated reproduction and family life to one that focused on the individual’s (and, particularly, the individual woman’s) right to transcend their personal biology in pursuit of personal or sexual fulfillment. As Agnieszka Tennant, writing about her disillusionment with the Pill in Christianity Today, puts it: "Could Mircette have changed not just the hormonal makeup of my cells, but also what cannot be seen under a microscope? Could it have served as one more safety lock on the door not just to my womb, but also to my figure, my marriage, my home, my career, my gym routine?”

Likewise, evangelical couples like Sam and Bethany Torode published books like 2002’s Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception, which argued that taking medical steps to delay childbearing went against God’s plan for creation and contributed to an ethos of selfishness (the two ultimately divorced after nine years and four children, retracting their position on contraception and leaving the evangelical church).

A 2015 article in Al Jazeera profiled a number of evangelical Christians who took this stance, including Andrew Walker, director of policy studies at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who said, “The idea of talking about children as a ‘scare’ and viewing them as an obstacle to the American dream, that’s not a Christian way of looking at family. ... That’s what I like to tell young couples: The family is actually a pretty adaptable institution. It doesn’t necessarily have to put a brake on your life.”

For some evangelicals, furthermore, birth control is synonymous not just with the sexual revolution but with feminism more generally. In 2001’s Lies Women Believe, a popular evangelical book by Christian radio host Nancy Leigh DeMoss, treats contraception as indicative of a much more insidious feminist mindset, coding it as a diabolical celebration of female selfishness that leads "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 thereby destroy life.”

This perspective reached its apex with fringe movements like “Quiverfull,” whose best-known representatives, the Duggars, rose to reality TV fame. This movement mandated that good Christian families devote themselves entirely to raising as many children as possible in the faith.

Evangelical suspicion of Obama more generally intensified this trend, as the debate over the ACA combined two different hot-button questions: Is birth control acceptable and what should the government pay for? A distrust of government intervention — particularly that of the government of a “liberal” president — as well as a desire to solidify the evangelical stance on religious exceptions more generally, made the ACA birth control mandate an ideal political weathervane.

As Ron Henzel, an evangelical pastor at Midwest Christian Outreach, told me, “If there are any [evangelical] moral objections to subsidizing contraception, they're generally not based on the notion that birth control ... is evil, but rather on the more ideological question of what the government should or should not be paying for. Is birth control a legitimate form of health care, and is it the role of government to pay for it? ... Here is where evangelicals who do not have a problem with contraception are now broadly sympathetic with Roman Catholics who oppose it. ... We don't want to see anyone being forced by the government to compromise their religious views, even when we disagree with their religious views.”

But that will make little difference to the women working for these employers if — or when — they are denied the coverage they need.

Correction: The article has been updated to clarify the context of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty’s statement.

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