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March 17, 2014 1:13 PM Will Conservative Evangelicals Try To Kill the Pill?

By Ed Kilgore

If, like me, you are fascinated with the process by which conservative evangelical Protestants joined traditionalist Catholics in condemning abortion and questioning contraception, Amelia Thomson-Deveaux has an absolute must-read at the American Prospect today. She not only provides a succinct account of the sudden and in some respects shocking enlistment of conservative evangelicals into the previously Catholic-dominated antichoice movement during the late 1970s, but also reports that Protestant Christian Right activists are beginning to repudiate a once-strongly-established acceptance of “artificial contraception,” and not just on the grounds that some birth control methods are actually “abortifacients.”

It’s always been a bit strange that sola scriptura Protestants with no strong connection to “natural law” theories, no “teaching authority” traditions, and no Vatican, became far more committed to the antichoice cause than rank-and-file Catholics. As Thomson-Devaux explains, the conservative evangelical campaign to make abortion a litmus-test and political mobilization issue, pioneered by Francis Schaeffer and Everett Koop, and then popularized by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, was grounded less in the sort of bioethical arguments typically made by Catholics and much more in the conviction that abortion represented the leading edge of an alarming trend towards rampant sexual permissiveness and cultural secularism. So while it was theoretically possible for conservative evangelicals to continue to smile on contraception while condemning abortion as homicide, the strong grounding of the Protestant wing of the antichoice movement in cultural panic over female sexuality always made that distinction vulnerable.

And so, Thomson-Deveaux reports, even though most conservative evangelical antichoicers (e.g., the plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case) continue to rely on the “abortifacient” argument in resisting some but not all forms of birth control, there are signs they are headed over the brink into the Vatican position on contraception generally:

[S]ome 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.

With vast majorities of conservative evangelical women currently using some form of “artificial contraception,” Mohler’s position is provocative to say the least. But then as their exceptionally rapid acceptance of anti-abortion ideology in the 1970s shows, conservative evangelicals seem far more likely to follow their leaders on the entire subject of reproduction than Catholics, despite not having a Pope or a magisterium:

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.

That’s another way of saying that conservative evangelicals represent a self-conscious counter-culture hostile to any sort of reproductive rights for women, far more than American Catholics. But it’s too soon to say if the “servant-leader” men in the Protestant Christian Right can really convince many millions of women in their churches to give up their pills.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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