Evangelicals & Contraception

[I’ve encountered a few things worth digging into a bit, and have been left with too little time for collections. I’ve not foresworn them, though.]

The Spring 2012 Human Life Review opens with 21st-Century Evangelicals Revisit Contraception and Abortion.

You need to realize that the Review is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. That’s just a fact. The Founder was Catholic, his Catholic family carries on the work, most contributors are Catholic (the regulars on the masthead are 4 Catholics, 1 Orthodox, 1 Episcopalian, and 1 Jewish atheist) – and frankly, almost all of the really rigorous prolife thought has been Catholic during my lifetime at least. Thank God for them.

Add that Evangelicalism is decentralized in the extreme, and changes, chameleon-like, to remain “relevant” and I was skeptical that the piece could say much. But it’s one of the great marketing coups of our time that Evangelicals think they’re united, and have largely succeeded in getting people to identify their peculiar sensibility as “Christianity” rather than as a subset or sect. And since there are a lot of folks with that sensibility, if you want a political movement, it will generally be good to enlist them.

I was right about the article not measuring up:

While the evidence is largely anecdotal, there appears to have been an increase over the past two decades in the number of Evangelicals who are reconsidering their support of contraception as they seek to develop a more consistent pro-life witness.

“Anecdotal” is a near necessity, I suppose, as it would be hard to do a study of Evangelicals that wasn’t methodologically dubious.

But the article did pull up some interesting history, parts of which have delighted the “progressives” who aren’t religiously illiterate (think Slacktivist, for instance). I’m going to summarize, with my own personal observations italicized):

  • The Reformers joined Rome (as far back as Augustine, pre-schism but proto-western in his thought) in their condemnation of Onanism – which is about the best one can do at gauging what their view of contraception would have been.
  • Evangelicals (at least as the author views them – consider that caveat as applying to each subsequent occurrence of the term and its cognates) were among the earliest and fiercest opponents of birth control in the late 19th Century. This came as news to me.
  • Anthony Comstock was Evangelical, not Catholic. This, too, came as news to me.
  • Opposition to birth control was generally seen as a reformist and heroic cause.
  • After Comstock’s death, his nemesis Margaret Sanger became ascendant, and the Episcopalians broke millennia of Christian tradition in 1930 by a timid endorsement of contraception for those who can’t remain abstinent, so long as they adhere to Christian principles – principles that the endorsement itself was ambiguating. Soon, “most Protestant groups came to accept the use of modern contraceptives as a matter of Biblically allowable freedom of conscience” (Wikipedia).
  • After World War II, worries about overpopulation became pandemic.
  • By 1950, arch-fundamentalist Dr. Bob Jones Sr., of Bob Jones University, was demanding that newlywed aspiring dorm parents promise to practice birth control if they got the position.
  • By 1973, many Evangelicals viewed Roe v. Wade as a blow for religious liberty. The Southern Baptist Convention was particularly equivocal. (I was then unequivocally Evangelical, and was vaguely uneasy about pro-abortion clergy – none of them Evangelical, in my experience – playing Harriet Tubman to “enslaved” pregnant women. But I was not activated until 1980.)
  • Beginning in late 1979 or so, Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop enlisted Evangelicals in the anti-abortion cause with their film and book, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? I was one of those enlisted.
  • Evangelicals, however, were still very friendly to contraception.
  • By hanging out with Catholic pro-lifers, some Evangelicals anecdotally are reconsidering contraception, and one of the niche Evangelical markets is “the Quiverfull movement.” But the leaders he cites in support (all three listed here, with a fourth) are generally fringe figures in Evangelicalism – serious Calvinists, in my experience, aren’t entirely certain whether they remain “Evangelical.” 

I have always, since my earliest days of enlistment in the pro-life cause, thought the Bible case against abortion, if all we had was Bible, was one that Evangelicals would never buy if an argument of equal strength told them to do something they found uncongenial. But then, with Bible only, I doubt that Evangelicals would believe in the Holy Trinity or have a remotely correct Christology. They owe a very large unacknowledged debt to the Church that preceded them, and that they typically think is quite corrupt and paganized. Sigh.

But the Church has always opposed abortion, and I’ve come to appreciate the strength of theological arguments (in addition to things I learned in biology class) that are not narrowly Biblical.

In theory, at least, Evangelicals don’t like theological arguments of that sort, so I don’t know how much staying power their renewed opposition to contraception and abortion will show.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

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