On March 25, lawyers representing the owners of a large purveyor of craft supplies and a much smaller cabinetry business will appear before the Supreme Court in what has become the cornerstone case for opponents of the Affordable Care Act’s “contraception mandate.” Under the mandate, all employers—with the exception of religious organizations like churches—must include free birth control under their insurance plans. Catholic schools, hospitals, and social service agencies immediately raised a ruckus. Dozens of Catholic nonprofits filed lawsuits against the government, arguing that because their tradition forbids them from using birth control, paying for it—even indirectly through insurance—would violate their religious liberty.
The cases that will appear before the highest court deal with a different question: whether the owners of corporations can claim religious liberty exemptions. But there’s a stranger and less remarked-upon twist. The owners of both companies aren’t Catholic at all; one is Mennonite, and the other is evangelical. While Catholic doctrine teaches that birth control undermines God by allowing couples to separate reproduction from sex, Protestants—whether they’re Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Southern Baptist—have no such theological objection.
Strictly speaking, the Protestant entrepreneurs involved in the upcoming case aren’t trying to get an exemption for all 16 forms of contraception covered under the ACA. They claim—backed up by a growing multitude of pro-life activists—that Plan B and the IUD cause abortion by preventing a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus. Every year, more scientific evidence piles up to support the opposite conclusion: that contraceptives only work before the egg has been fertilized, not after. This won’t make a difference for the Supreme Court case, where the plaintiffs’ religious opposition to these so-called “abortifacients” is accepted as fact.
But some evangelical leaders, perhaps tired of explaining what happens in the murky hours between sex and conception, are no longer relying on this intricate biological argument to shoo their followers away from birth control. In a recent blog post, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, declared that evangelical acceptance of oral contraceptives happened “without any adequate theological reflection.” Evangelicals today, he wrote, are “indeed reconsidering contraception.” In Mohler’s view, contraception isn’t just problematic because it might cause abortion. Any attempt to artificially regulate fertility is at odds with a “pro-life” ethos.
Fifteen years ago, this position would have been unthinkable. But an about-face on contraception isn’t unprecedented; in fact, evangelicals’ growing doubt about birth control echoes their theological U-turn on abortion four decades ago.
It’s hard to imagine today that there was ever a moment when abortion wasn’t at the crux of evangelical political consciousness. In the late 1960s, when the pro-life movement was just beginning to coalesce, animosity toward abortion was left to the Catholics. Well-known evangelical leaders rejected the Catholic notion of fetal personhood wholesale. “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” observed W.A. Criswell, then the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in 1973.
Little more than a decade later, Criswell and others were leading the charge in an impassioned crusade against legal abortion, creating one of the first evangelical-Catholic coalitions in American political history. But birth control didn’t come along for the ride; it remained, until recently, a matter of Catholic concern. Could the same evangelical reversal be taking place today—this time, with contraception?
Catholics and Protestants weren’t always at odds over the morality of birth control. In the late nineteenth century, it was Anthony Comstock, a fiery Protestant crusader against vice, who lobbied to criminalize contraception as part of a heretical trifecta that included abortion and pornography. The “Comstock laws” of the 1870s outlawed abortion and made it a federal and, in some cases, a state-offense to transport birth control through the mail or across state lines. The laws weren’t dislodged until 1965, when the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that restrictions on birth control access violated the “right to marital privacy, and 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade.
While Comstock pontificated against the evils of contraception, most Protestants didn’t heed his warnings. The Comstock laws reined in a booming DIY abortion business—women frequently used pills and herbal extracts marketed obliquely as “Female Regulators” or “Periodical Drops” to terminate pregnancies—but illicit abortions remained common. Decent Protestant women furtively sent away for cow-skin condoms, advertised in the back pages of major newspapers even after the Comstock laws went into effect, and used “womb veils,” a kind of diaphragm.
A virulent wave of anti-Catholicism helped convince Protestant reformers that birth control was a moral imperative. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Catholic immigrants from southern Europe were pouring into the country, and native-born Protestants were troubled by the legions of offspring that was the norm for these newcomers. To white-collar Protestants living in east coast cities, large families were unseemly; children, once crucial sources of farm labor, were an expensive investment. Birth rates among “native-born white” (i.e. Protestant) women plummeted from 7.04 in 1800 to 3.13 in 1920, while the average Catholic woman was still having more than six children. If Catholics continued to reproduce at these rates, the country would be overrun by multitudes of “papists.” “There was a growing concern among Protestants that the wrong people were having too many children,” says Allan Carlson, a historian and the president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society. “They were thinking, maybe birth control is the best way to clean up the country and the human race.”
Margaret Sanger, the birth control activist and founder of Planned Parenthood, took advantage of anti-Catholic sentiment, casting the Catholic Church as a sneering villain in the struggle for women’s reproductive autonomy. Slowly, the major Protestant denominations fell into line, beginning with the Anglican Communion in 1930. Some Christian hard-liners were less easily cowed. William Bell Riley, one of the scions of the fundamentalist movement, called birth control a “menace to society.”
But by the time the pill went on the market in 1960, evangelical leaders had, on the whole, made their peace with contraception. In the wake of World War II, fears about overpopulation had supplanted anti-Catholicism as the social rationale for contraception. In 1959, Billy Graham told reporters that he saw “nothing in the Bible which would forbid birth control.” Some evangelical sex manuals even celebrated contraceptives as a way for couples to strengthen their marriage through frequent, satisfying sex, free of anxieties about unwanted pregnancies.
When state legislatures like New York and California began to debate legal abortion in the late 1960s, evangelical leaders were caught off guard. Already anxious about the sexual revolution, they were concerned that the contraceptive pill—which was just becoming available to single women as well as married couples—would further encourage promiscuity. Abortion, meanwhile, hadn’t been a relevant public policy issue for nearly a century.
Faced with growing confusion about how evangelicals should approach abortion and reproductive technology, the editors of Billy Graham’s flagship magazine, Christianity Today, convened the Protestant Symposium on the Control of Human Reproduction in 1968. The attendees, 25 scholars—mostly with evangelical pedigrees—overwhelmingly sanctioned birth control for married couples. They were more hesitant about abortion, but agreed that it should be legal, although it was rarely morally acceptable. Catholic notions of fetal personhood were dismissed out of hand. A professor at a conservative seminary in Texas summed up the consensus: “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.”
In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution calling on its followers to work for legal abortion in a broad range of circumstances that included not just rape and incest, but “damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Two years later, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion outright, there was little backlash from evangelical Christians. A reporter for the Southern Baptist Convention’s newspaper concluded that because the decision to terminate a pregnancy was now left to an individual woman’s conscience, “religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.”
Despite the Southern Baptist Convention’s blasé response to Roe, other evangelical scholars saw the decision as a moral catastrophe. Distressed by the immediate uptick in the number of abortions that followed the Supreme Court decision, Harold O.J. Brown, an editor at Christianity Today, exhorted evangelicals to see Catholics as their allies in the pro-life fight. Francis Schaeffer, a philosopher who spent many of his adult years presiding over a Christian commune in Switzerland, had returned to the U.S. in 1960s, convinced that because of the sexual revolution, the country was rejecting its Judeo-Christian values. There was, for Schaeffer, no clearer evidence of this decline than the legalization of abortion, which he saw as the final secular devaluation of human life.
In 1976, Schaeffer enlisted C. Everett Koop, a doctor who later served as surgeon general under President Reagan, to create a documentary series called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? In the films, Schaeffer and Koop warned that a society that tolerated abortion would soon make infanticide and euthanasia routine. One scene showed Koop standing along the shores of the Dead Sea, surrounded by thousands of abandoned baby dolls. The film’s message, says Molly Worthen, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, was that abortion represented the beginning of a tumble into cultural depravity, much like the Roman Empire’s. “Schaeffer and Koop preached to evangelicals that they should picket abortions clinics not just to save the unborn, but to save Western civilization.”
Under pressure from its membership, the Southern Baptist Convention reversed its position on abortion in 1979, throwing its institutional weight behind a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion unless it was necessary to save the mother’s life. The following year, abortion was at the center of the Moral Majority’s campaign to sweep conservative politicians into statehouses, Congress, and the White House. “It’s hard to underestimate how big this shift was,” says Dan Williams, a professor of history at the University of West Georgia. “At the time of the Roe decision, no one saw it as a watershed moment. By the late 1970s, many evangelicals would say 1973 was a time when the government sanctioned legalized killing. It was the ultimate sign that the government had rejected God.”
Two competing narratives explain why evangelicals’ shift on abortion was so sudden and spectacular. The Christian Right’s critics allege that Schaeffer and others calculated that abortion could be the issue that capture evangelical Christians’ diffuse anxieties about the sexual revolution, the beginnings of the gay rights movement, and the Equal Rights Amendment—and catapult them into political power. Its defenders argue that evangelicals’ acceptance of abortion was conditional even before it was widely available. After a few years of legal abortion, evangelicals had seen enough to recognize it as a moral abomination. “Once the horrors of slavery became known and the humanity of African-Americans became evident, northern Christians increasingly become single-minded in their opposition to slavery,” wrote Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, in a blog post in 2012. “That has more or less been the history of contemporary evangelicalism regarding abortion.”
Both explanations are, to a certain extent, true. Evangelicals were wary about abortion from the beginning; it didn’t take much to convince them that legalizing the procedure was the harbinger of broader moral decay.
But in the 1970s, Republican strategists were also searching for ways to harness evangelicals’ anger and fear about cultural change, from incursions on school prayer to the rise of feminism. Abortion was the issue that could both galvanize evangelicals and peel Catholic voters away from the Democrats. In the 1980 election, the Moral Majority helped topple pro-choice Democratic incumbents in the House and the Senate, and brought the first pro-life president into the White House. Although the face of Christian conservatism, which quickly formed the core of the Republican Party, was Jerry Falwell, a Southern Baptist pastor, the movement was ecumenical from the beginning. It was Paul Weyrich—an Eastern Orthodox deacon who was born Roman Catholic—who coined the phrase “moral majority.”
The battle over the contraception mandate has only intensified the decades-long partnership between conservative Catholic leaders and evangelical Protestants. Support from evangelicals helps bolster the Catholic case that the secular supporters of the Affordable Care Act are bent on dismantling the treasured American ideal of religious liberty. “We recognize we have common cause with Catholic University of America and other Catholic institutions in defending religious liberty,” said Wheaton College’s president, Philip Ryken, when the lawsuit against the Obama administration was announced. “We're, in effect, co-belligerents in this fight against government action.”
Just as they adopted the Catholic notion of fetal personhood, evangelicals are now using Catholic rhetoric to argue that birth control is incompatible with a pro-life philosophy. Catholic doctrine teaches that sex can’t be separated from procreation through artificial means. Although the Catholic Church sanctions natural family planning, a form of birth control that works by tracking a woman’s fertility, pious couples must always be ready to accept an unplanned pregnancy.
Until recently, few evangelicals shared this view. The Quiverfull movement, where couples eschew family planning, leaving God to fill their “quiver” with children, is the best-known example of a group of evangelicals who openly embraced “be fruitful and multiply” as a scriptural imperative. The Duggar family, the stars of the TLC show 19 Kids and Counting, gave the movement some cultural currency. But Quiverfull’s goal is not just Biblical loyalty; they hope to use their large broods to overwhelm secular American culture.
Now, qualms about contraception—not just alleged abortifacients like Plan B and the IUD, but the pill as well—are filtering into the mainstream. More and more evangelicals, especially women, are beginning to advocate for natural family planning. Artificial birth control methods, they argue, violate the openness to life that’s central to a Christian existence. “Being pro-life isn't only about opposing surgical abortion,” wrote Agnieska Tennant, an editor at Christianity Today. “It's about opening ourselves to the risk and mess and uncertainty that accompany any God-sent guest we allow into our lives. The least we can do is leave our doors unlocked.”
Is this shift organic, or merely politically expedient? Randall Balmer, a professor of religious studies at Dartmouth University and the author of Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America, says that just as abortion served as a convenient symbol for evangelical anxiety with the cultural and political changes of the 1970s, the new opposition to contraception is a calculated move to strengthen evangelical arguments against the Affordable Care Act. Whether individual women use contraception is irrelevant; the goal is to convince evangelicals that a Democratic president is infringing on their religious liberty. “This is naked politics,” he says. “It’s jumping on the Catholic bandwagon to score points against Obama.”
Allan Carlson sees things a little different. According to him, evangelicals are spontaneously embracing a holistic approach to the “culture of life” that makes contraception less appealing. “We’re seeing reconsideration of what birth control means,” he says. “It’s about an openness to human life, and a new suspicion of why we would want to restrict human fertility in the first place.”
Even if more evangelical leaders and writers are publicly rethinking birth control, it seems unlikely that a radical shift is happening in individual couples’ bedrooms. Surveys show that only two percent of Catholic women rely on natural family planning; 68 percent of Catholic women and 74 percent of evangelical Protestant women use an IUD or a hormonal form of birth control like the pill. Protestants are also more likely than members other religious denominations to opt for male or female sterilization.
Given its pervasive use, it will be much more difficult to convince evangelicals that contraception carries as much of a moral stain as abortion. But if more evangelical leaders begin to conclude that birth control does, indeed, violate the “culture of life,” they may have a more receptive audience than their Catholic counterparts. American Catholics routinely ignore doctrinal commands; majorities favor abortion and gay marriage. But right-leaning evangelicals are primed, after years of anti-abortion activism, to reconsider the uncertain boundaries about where life begins. A small but vocal minority of evangelicals could turn contraception from a foregone conclusion into a potent political force.