As the conservative evangelical reconsideration of contraception continues, several related issues are coming into clearer focus.
My January commentary on the subject suggested that evangelical leaders' preference for large families is driven in part by institutional maintenance concerns and a desire to enforce traditional gender roles. I also argued that widespread concern over the HHS Mandate offered elites an opportunity to encourage lay evangelicals to rethink their near-unanimous support of hormonal contraceptives.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler responded, saying, "Today's generation of evangelicals is indeed reconsidering birth control." Though moderates and most conservatives have been slow to question birth control, a lively conversation is beginning to happen in Southern Baptist life and elsewhere in the neo-Calvinist wing of evangelicalism. In The American Prospect, Amelia Thomson-Deveaux describes some evangelicals' agreement with Catholic concerns about "the murky hours between sex and conception."
Adding to the discussion, Chelsen Vicari, Evangelical Program Director at the Institute on Religion & Democracy, made an evangelical pitch for natural family planning in a recent commentary in The Christian Post. Widely considered a birth control method only for traditional Catholics, Vicari recommends NFP for evangelical couples concerned that hormonal contraceptives might have an abortifacient mechanism.
So far, however, not many are concerned. Polling data routinely shows white evangelical approval of birth control at or above 85 percent. Compare this to smaller percentages that are considered large majorities of evangelicals: 64 percent believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. 78 percent voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.
Some leaders try to manufacture the illusion that evangelicals are divided on contraception but united on abortion. Actually, the opposite is true: Evangelicals have a surprising diversity of views on the criminalization of abortion but almost unanimously approve of contraception.
Catholic priests and bishops (mostly) toe the line on the Church's prohibition of artificial birth control even as Catholic fertility has nearly converged with the U.S. average. Vicari says "perhaps our Catholic neighbors are onto something," but what they are on to is the Pill (or sterilization, or IUDs) at rates approaching Protestants.'"
I am neither Catholic nor evangelical. I am simply a student of public opinion. Even so, I am sensitive to the reasons why birth control is a matter of controversy among some Christians.
Vicari blasts the Christian Left for its support of contraception. She also laments gynecologists' recommendations that their female patients use hormonal contraceptives even if not sexually active.
Yet as a matter of fact and public health policy, contraceptive access and use has a direct negative impact on incidences of unintended pregnancy and, thus on abortion rates. Presumably, Vicari herself cheered the recent decline in the abortion rate, which was attributed to increased contraceptive use. Of course, only some Christians who support contraception identify with the Christian Left. But sometimes they – and not Pill prohibitionists – are the ones who actually support pro-life policies.
Still, Vicari's discussion of NFP raises valid points I would echo and encourage others to consider. Surely there are benefits to sacrificing spontaneity (that chief modern value) and cultivating intimacy outside of intercourse. Surely periods of deliberate abstinence develop counter-cultural virtues in the couple and in the self: Discipline, forbearance, delayed gratification, etc.
If the Pill has lulled us into the idea that you can have consequence-free sex with whoever you want whenever you feel like it, maybe we are worse off than before. But not everyone who concedes the compelling arguments Mary Eberstadt makes in her book Adam and Eve after the Pill will necessarily believe that evangelicals' embrace of NFP can somehow mitigate the social costs of the Sexual Revolution.
NFP is still birth control. A husband and wife who practice it perfectly for a lifetime may – may – have only two or three children. Has this couple with its calendars and thermometers not also bought into what Dr. Mohler calls the "contraceptive mentality," which regards children as "impositions to be avoided rather than gifts to be received?"
The broader point is that financially secure married couples are likelier in positions to joyfully receive the children they conceive. We can lament the promiscuity that the Pill has enabled. We can lament that the state and extended families often bear the burdens of providing for fatherless children. But I fear the evangelical obsession with "the murky hours between sex and conception" is a distraction from proclaiming the cultural, economic, and spiritual benefits of a marriage culture.
NFP may ease the consciences of couples that believe using hormonal contraceptives is tantamount to infanticide. But very few people actually believe that. Regardless of what birth control methods people choose, we should all reflect deeply on the purposes of sex in marriage and on how our churches and our society can best encourage strong, healthy families.