Birth Control And The Sham of Theological Diversity

One of the things that Progressive Christians like to say about themselves is how welcoming and tolerant they are.  Compared to their more conservative cousins, progressives can pride themselves in being able to think for themselves and to have a place where all ideas and beliefs can be shared without fear. Why, your progressive church even welcomes Republicans!

But in reality, all of this talk of diversity is a complete shame.  We are no more tolerant of other viewpoints than our conservative relatives.  What we are good at is lying to ourselves about how good we are.

Case in point is the current discussions over birth control and the new federal health care law.  Catholics and Evangelicals were upset at the initial rules which came out a year ago that mandated birth control in all health care plans.  The exceptions were religious places for worship like churches or mosques.  However, religious bodies such as a hospital or university would have to include birth control in their health plans regardless if they found such things goes against their faith as they understand it. The Obama Administration has offered a compromise solution that seems to fall of deaf ears of the opponents.

Now, I need to say straight up here is that I support people using birth control.  I think it can help prevent unwanted pregnancies, which is a good thing.  That said, even though I think birth control is a good idea, that doesn’t mean that I think anyone who has a problem should just shut up or that the government should force groups to go against their beliefs.  If people of faith have really discerned the issue and they believe that mandating universities or hospitals to include birth control in their health plans goes against their faith, the those of us who might have an other position should within reason stand to support them.  Not because we agree with them, but for the simple reason that Christians should be able to express their faith without the state forcing them to go against their beliefs.

Very few progressives were up in arms about the proposed changes a year ago and not much has changed.  Methodist pastor Morgan Guyton shares in his somewhat overly candid Huffington Post piece his satisfaction that the United Methodist Church covers birth control.

Apparently, the Obama administration just announced a rule change in the contraception mandate to allow broader exemptions for religious employers beyond churches themselves. Well, that’s fine and all, but I’m actually grateful that my health insurance through the United Methodist Church pays for my wife and me to have our IUD that keeps us from having more babies. And I think it’s time someone named the fact that family planning is a legitimate part of the equation of Christian sexual ethics rather than always being a demonic conspiracy against God’s will for humanity. Birth control is part of how my wife and I try to be faithful stewards of our bodies and our relationship for the sake of both our family and the ministry to which God has called each of us.

I’m very attracted to Roman Catholic theology for a lot of reasons. The Roman church’s theology of the body is derived from a lot of principles I agree with: a sacramental understanding of human existence, an affirmation of God’s sovereignty over modernist individualism and a suspicion of the worship of science. At the end of the day though, I’m a pragmatist. My wife and I are at the age where we would risk having a child with serious health problems if we did not use birth control. We would receive a child like that as a blessing from God and love him or her with all our hearts, but it would result in our relative lack of availability for ministry beyond our family, which is why having an IUD is appropriate stewardship for us.

Again, I’m not personally opposed to having birth control as part of a health care plan.  Good for the United Methodists for including it.  But not everyone thinks that way.  Should we just ignore them because they get in the way of our pleasure?

Guyton says birth control is part of Christian sexual ethics.  I’m not saying it can’t be part of a Christian sexual ethic (it should), but how?  Guyton doesn’t say.  He keeps saying that having his wife use an IUD keeps them from having another baby that could be subject to health issues.  He then lifts up a Latino couple who are low income and might not be able to afford the IUD.  Okay, but why are we acting as if this is the only option?  Has Morton ever heard of a condom?

Guyton then goes to focus on the evangelicals who oppose the mandate and basically says their opposition is probably racist and very selfish:

Fifty years ago, the threat that black male libido posed to white girls was the main justification for the social order of segregation (if they come into our neighborhood and our schools, how will we keep our women safe?). Though the racial dimensions have been sublimated (somewhat), the threat of sexual transgression has carried over into our era as the primary underlying anxiety behind middle-class evangelical family decision-making whether it’s about homeschooling, suburban living, or finding a church with a strong youth program so my kids won’t go to the drinking sex parties that every non-Christian high school student attends every weekend.

The irony is that the culture war over sexual purity is not at all the counter-cultural stand that it purports to be; it’s completely accommodating to the mythology about the underlying causes for the social order that privilege needs to tell itself. It reassures a population of middle-class parents that focusing on their nuclear family to the exclusion of everything else is exactly what Jesus wants them to do (the same Jesus who said, “My mother and brothers and sisters are those who do my Father’s will” [Mark 3:35]). This reassurance is one of the most important obstacles to kingdom living among Christians today.

So, it’s pretty obvious that the kingdom of God includes IUDs and selfish conservatives should wake up and smell the coffee.

The problem with Guyton’s piece is that he makes no attempt to even understand the other side.  He has made up his mind that the other side is profoundly evil and if they want to be good Christians they need to give up their upper middle class priviledge and support birth control coverage.

A year ago, Episcopal Priest and commentator Frederick Schmidt wrote about the contraception mandate issue.  He wrote:

What should be troubling to Protestants is that there aren’t more people in our circle voicing support for the Catholic bishops. It is true that the intersection of secular government and religion poses peculiar tensions and the church cannot afford to treat the government as if it were a surrogate for Christian activity. But, for the same reason, no part of the church can afford to compromise its freedom to take specific religious positions—regardless of what other churches or even its own membership might think. The issue of precedent is at stake here, not just the specifics of this particular policy decision.

Furthermore, simply because Protestant churches may not completely share the Catholic position this time around, does not mean that they will manage to avoid jeopardy at some point in the future. Presidents come and go, but precedents are forever—unless the Supreme Court reverses them—and religious leaders everywhere would do well to remember that. What would the same progressive Protestants argue if some future administration reinstituted the draft and eliminated conscientious objector status?

Schmidt continued to note that Progressive Christians have lost the theological language to speak on issues, especially those dealing with sex and marriage:

So, is there any other reason that progressive Protestants aren’t more actively engaged? Yes, there is one: We don’t have any language for the presenting issues of contraception, choice, and abortion, except for the political vocabulary that we’ve been using all along. So, while the administration has run a coach and horses through the First Amendment, we find it hard to explain why that might be a problem, because we are convinced that what the administration just did was strike a blow for what is not just politically, but theologically appropriate.

Shame on us. The right to choose, control over our bodies, and access to treatment are all political issues–and they have a place in the conversation.

But in using that language alone, we have neglected the hard theological work that is properly the church’s task. From the theological point of view the stewardship of the bodies that God has given us, being made in the image of God, giving birth to those made in the image of God, chastity, the sacrament of marriage, and the purpose of life are all in play as well. How those values are honored in a complex world is the stuff of Christian conviction and practice.

Progressive Christians who are dead sure that the Catholic bishops have conflated church and state should remove the beam in their own eyes before reaching for the microscope to help others. Far too often Protestants have bought the so-called Erastian notion that the church is subordinate to the state and that faith, therefore, is a private affair. Now we are in danger of taking those notions to their logical, self-destructive conclusion: The only theological vocabulary we have is the vocabulary that the state gives us.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that many secularists and their liberal Christian counterparts, want to defend the gains in sexual liberation made in the 1960s.  Here’s what he said relating to two legal cases on the public display of religion:

I do want to make a general observation: In all these cases the authorities accused of violating the plaintiffs’ rights operate with a definition of religion as a private matter to be kept out of public space. There is here a general issue of government overreach, as clearly illustrated by the (still unresolved) attempt by the Obama administration to force Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health plans. Beyond that, though, there is a very ideological view of the place of religion in society. In other words, religion is to be an activity engaged in by consenting adults in private. The attorney for the Judeo-Christian side in the aforementioned American case had it quite right when he compared the treatment of his client’s religion with measures of disease control. This is not an attitude one would expect to find in a Western democracy. It is curiously reminiscent of policies toward religion in Communist countries and toward non-Muslims under Islamic rule….

Let me venture a sociological hypothesis here: The new American secularism is in defense of the sexual revolution. Since the 1960s there has indeed been a sexual revolution in America. It has been very successful in changing the mores and the law. It should not be surprising that many people, especially younger ones, enjoy the new libidinous benefits of this revolution. Whether one approves or deplores the new sexual culture, it seems unlikely to be reversed. Yet Christian churches (notably the Catholic and Evangelical ones) are in the forefront of those who do want to reverse the libertine victory. Its beneficiaries are haunted by the nightmare of being forced into chastity belts by an all too holy alliance of clerics and conservative politicians. No wonder they are hostile!

Now, I benefited from that sexual revolution.  If that never happened, I would never be able to be an openly gay man.  So, I’m not against the loosening of sexual standards.  But why are they good?  Why should we use birth control?  What is does marriage mean for the Christian community?  What about divorce? What about sex outside of marriage?  The answer doesn’t have to be no (though sometimes it can be) but we need to do some thinking theologically as to why Christians can take these stances instead of just baptizing any left-wing idea as holy and good.

Which brings me back to the subject of theological diversity.  If we really have a spirit of discernment and an openness to what God might be saying, then there will be room for other views and a willingness to allow for space for different views.  However, when we adopt the language of politics, we divide folks into like minded groups and hinder any chance of diversity.

Which is what Guyton is doing here.  Instead of trying to understand the other side and explaining in theological terms why he thinks his view has merit, Guyton wades into demonization.

If Progressive Churches are basically suppose to be chaplains to the Democratic party, then let’s be honest about that.  Just don’t dress it up in religious garb.  I’ve had enough of that, thank you.

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3 thoughts on “Birth Control And The Sham of Theological Diversity

  1. I keep thinking about this post, and it keeps leaving me feeling sad. You make some interesting points, but what I more want to comment on is the entire theme of this post, and how you are tying birth control into the sexual revolution without even acknowledging anything else. I imagine progressive christians could do a lot of good in terms of helping more people recognize that access to birth control is *not* all about access to sex. Instead I see you talking about the exact same things the conservative christians are talking about, with all christians apparently ignoring those of us who want to talk about women’s sexual and reproductive health and how that ties into access to hormonal birth control as something apart from whether or not we are actually having sex.

    • Andraya,

      I’m not arguing that those who want to talk about women’s sexual and reproductive health should be silent. What I am saying is that if we really value that other persons of faith have differing views on these issues, we need to be willing to listen to them instead of rejecting them out of hand. I would argue that conservatives need to do the same thing as well, which they aren’t always doing.

      Second, if we are going to talk about reproductive health, we have to find ways to talk about it that uses the language of faith and not the language of politics. I’m all for talking about this, but to often what Progressive Christians do is borrow the language of progressive politics without thinking how and why Christians should support birth control. What progressive Christians are not doing is thinking about this theologically and we need to do that.

      Finally, I do believe in access to birth control. My issue here is that I have issues with forcing people who might think this goes against their religious beliefs to have to carry something that violates their conscience. I tend to believe that religious organizations should have some way of opting out of having to pay for something they are opposed to. I think a much better idea and a way to get this out of the political realm is to allow contraception to be available either over-the-counter or at least behind the counter of a pharmacy. Of course, there are limits to respecting conscience. I don’t think a Hobby Lobby can opt out just because the owners are conservative Christians.

      I’m not asking that you or others shut up. I am saying we do need to listen to the other side. Not everyone on that side hates women or sex. There’s a little bit of truth everywhere-even among conservative Christians-and we need to hear what they have to say on these issues and think about what should be our faithful response.

  2. Pingback: Diversity in Name Only | The Clockwork Pastor

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