How Did Evangelicals End Up on the Wrong End of the Contraception Debate?

On issues of the Liturgy — what public Christian worship should look like — Catholics often find themselves lined up, more or less, with the “mainline” Protestant churches.  We use a Lectionary, have structured worship, a liturgical cycle (with Advent, Lent, and the like), and so forth. On these issues, we tend to disagree with Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. But on fundamental issues of morality, our values are more aligned with the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, rather than the mainline churches. If anything, they’re often stricter, declaring all sorts of things (like moderate drinking, dancing, swearing) sinful, while Catholicism permits these things.

Which is why it’s all the more striking that Evangelicals and Fundamentalists sold out on birth control.  If you were to take a time machine back one hundred years, to the early part of the 1910s, you’d find in Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism something very similar to Catholicism today.  That is, you would find all, or nearly all, of the religious leaders against birth control, even while some in the congregation ignored their religious instruction.

What went wrong? A friend of mine forwarded one of the best answers yet.  The Howard Center’s Dr. Allan C. Carlson sought an answer to this question, and after some pretty thorough research (even reading through the unpublished papers of Christianity Today editors from the 60s, to see where their thoughts were), he presented his answer in a great piece called “How Protestants Swallowed the Pill and Evangelicals ‘Out-Libertined’ the Mainline.”  The short answer is that (1) Evangelicals were as terrified of the “population bomb” as their secular counterparts, thinking that the Baby Boom would last forever, and (2) they have a theology that permits “re-discovering” what Scripture does, and doesn’t, say.

It’s not a coincidence that this happened to Evangelicals.  Four of the defining features of Evangelicalism are that it (a) is willing to come to conclusions in contrast with centuries (or millennia)  of universal Christian teaching, (b) gives very little weight to the notion of Tradition, (c) tends towards a belief that anything not explicit in Scripture is not a part of the Faith (or at least, a non-fundamental part), and (d) is very much tied to a particular time and place (here, modern America).

The reason I raise this is that there was a time when it would have been unthinkable to imagine Evangelicalism embracing birth control.  Then it became thinkable, but only in certain extreme circumstances.  Eventually, it ceased to be considered a moral issue at all.  Right now, it’s unthinkable to imagine Evangelicalism embracing abortion.  What reason do we have to think that this will hold?

As Carlson notes, as far back as 1968, Christianity Today was weighing the possibility of whether abortion might not be okay in at least some circumstances:

Running concurrent with Catholicism’s civil war over Humanae Vitae was an August 1968 consultation on “The Control of Human Reproduction,” sponsored by Christianity Today and the Christian Medical Society and involving a Who’s Who of evangelical leaders. 
[…] 
Four of the papers were published in the November 8, 1968, issue of Christianity Today. Bruce Waltke of Dallas Theological Seminary tackled the question of contraception and abortion in the Old Testament. While Assyrians of the 1450–1250 era B.C. had treated the fetus as a person and had so prohibited abortion, he said, “the Old Testament . . . never reckons the fetus as equivalent to a life.” Indeed, according to Waltke, “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.” 
[…] 
“The Relation of the Soul to the Fetus” came from Paul Jewett, professor of systematic theology at Fuller Seminary. He boldly stated that while the mother’s “humanity cannot be doubted,” the humanity of the fetus “cannot be demonstrated.” […] Jewett conceded that there is a problem with Psalm 139:13–15 (“For thou didst form my inward parts. Thou didst cover me in my mother’s womb. . . . My frame was not hidden from thee, when I was made in secret.”), and acknowledged that “the psalmist did not think of his humanity as uniquely tied to the moment of birth.” So the fetus should be seen as “a potential person” or perhaps a “primordial person.” This meant “that the Christian answer to the control of human reproduction” should focus on “the prevention of conception,” with abortion as “a last recourse.” 
[…] 
Robert Meye of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary examined “The New Testament and Birth Control.” He acknowledged that “primitive” Christians had held to Judaism’s “reservations” about birth control and “disavowal” of abortion; yet “this does not at all mean . . . that such practices are contradictory to the heart of the New Testament faith and practice.” Meye rejected the arguments of Augustine: “Neither the Old Testament nor the New speaks of procreation as the end of the sexual union.” The true end was “one flesh,” with the sexual relationship itself—not the bearing of children—“assigned a redemptive significance.” Regarding birth control, New Testament passages “on balance . . . seem to leave the door open for its responsible use.” Regarding abortion, he insisted that the New Testament said nothing. Hence, on these matters, “the Christian is not bound by a legal code; he is free to walk in the spirit through the world and to take the measure of all possible practices.” 
[…] 
Other papers reflected a surprising affinity for abortion. John Scanzoni, a Wheaton College graduate who taught sociology at Indiana University, rejected the argument that abortion is the “killing of a human being.” Indeed, he agreed with earlier writers that abortion is “a very effective birth control method.”

So Evangelicals from some of the most famous Evangelical colleges and seminaries (Dallas, Fuller, Northern Baptist, and Wheaton) were ready to permit abortion as a “last resort” or even as “a very effective birth control method.”  And Christianity Today, the flagship Evangelical publication, was ready to present their arguments as if they were permissible views for Evangelicals to take.  Again, that was 1968. Things have gotten better since then (due to the organized pro-life movement, funded and organized in large part by the USCCB, particularly in its early years), but seeing how close Evangelicalism already came to accepting abortion as permissible is horrifying.

5 Comments

  1. “…but seeing how close Evangelicalism already came to accepting abortion as permissible is horrifying.”

    I fear that this means that there is a high chance they could take that stance again … afterall, if, as you speculate, it was the organized pro-life movement that was funded predominantly by the USCCB that stopped the trend, then once the novelty runs out (or when they figure that they want less to do with the RCC)there’s gonna be nothing to stop them from considering it again.

  2. I worry that you may be right. In addition to the logical connection between birth control and abortion, and the lack of an Institutional backbone shepherding Evangelicals away from these conclusions, there’s another threat: many forms of chemical birth control are likely abortifacients.

    I know of at least one pro-life Calvinist who tries to convince himself that life begins at implantation (which is, scientifically speaking, nonsense) to justify he and his wife using chemical birth control. Because otherwise, the sheer risk that this might be killing your kids is something no pro-lifer can stomach.

    If you take those sort of self-serving arguments about life not really beginning at conception seriously, the Evangelical battle against abortion is lost.

  3. An interesting tangent to me about this is that Evangelicals are generally steadfast in their condemnation of pre-marital sex. But, really, the Biblical text are no more clear about this than it is about contraception. One might point out that God made an enormous fuss about Bathsheba, but didn’t even comment on the fact that King David had scores of concubines. On sola scriptura grounds, doesn’t this imply that pre-marital sex is ok?

    In fact, John Sentamu, the second most senior cleric in the Church of England, has seemingly taken this position, saying that he could understand Prince William and Kate Middleton’s desire to “test whether the milk is good before they buy the cow” as it were. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/royal-wedding/8481736/Royal-wedding-Archbishop-backs-William-and-Kates-decision-to-live-together-before-marriage.html

    And there’s not much more counter-cultural in Evangelicalism than the ban on pre-marital sex. Surely they could be much more “relevant” and attract more youth if they let that slide. And if they could change their mind about contraception against all of Church history including Luther and Calvin, why couldn’t they change their minds about this?

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