Attitudes among Southern Baptist leaders shifting on birth control
Questions about the morality of birth control increasingly appear in columns and blogs by SBC ethicists and ministers.
Editor's note: This article was corrected March 11 to clarify a quote in 14th paragraph.
By Bob Allen
On the surface, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists might seem unlikely bedfellows in opposing mandated coverage of contraceptives under Obamacare, but observers say it points to ongoing reconsideration of the morality of birth control among the Southern Baptist Convention’s leading thinkers.
“Evangelical leaders are tripping over themselves in the rush to stand with Roman Catholic bishops against this perceived governmental overreach,” Jacob Lupfer, a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University, said in a Religion News Service commentary in December. “At the same time, a growing number of white evangelical leaders are attempting to sow seeds of doubt about the morality of birth control itself.”
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., responded that on that point, Lupfer “understates his own case.”
“A good many evangelicals hope to do far more than sow seeds of doubt about the morality of birth control,” Mohler replied. “Our concern is to raise an alarm about the entire edifice of modern sexual morality and to acknowledge that millions of evangelicals have unwittingly aided and abetted that moral revolution by an unreflective and unfaithful embrace of the contraceptive revolution.”
Shift in the 1980s
In a 2012 column for the Christian Post, Mohler said most evangelical Protestants welcomed the development of artificial birth control as a medical advance just as they celebrated the discovery of penicillin. A shift occurred in the 1980s, with the rise of the Religious Right and opposition to abortion on demand.
Affirming life as sacred at the moment of conception caused many to view intrauterine devices not as contraceptives but abortifacients, he said, and that conviction has extended to the use of oral contraceptives.
In 2008, Thomas White, then a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and now president of Cedarville University, made headlines in a seminary chapel sermon denouncing birth-control pills as “wrong,” “not correct according to Scripture” and — in cases where the pill functions to prevent a fertilized ovum from implanting in the uterus — “murder of a life.”
White later clarified he didn’t mean to imply that all forms of birth control are murder but only the kind that “ends life after conception.”
Unaware of effects?
Southwestern Seminary First Lady Dorothy Patterson once warned in an article that many women who believe life begins at conception are unaware oral contraceptives sometimes are effective by preventing a fertilized ovum from implanting, “resulting in what is actually an early abortion.”
“While taking an oral contraceptive is certainly not equal to purposely getting an abortion, the ethical considerations are similar,” she writes. “One function of oral contraceptives is to help prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. If life begins at conception, this function of the pill is not contraceptive but abortive.”
Patterson urged Christian women to consider if “the use of oral contraceptives truly is compatible with a pro-life stance.” For many women, she said, the issue of whether to use the pill revolves around the issue of convenience. “Is mere convenience a good enough reason to take a drug that may terminate human life, no matter how low the risk is?” she asked.
‘Full quiver’ theology
But medical considerations aren’t the only thing driving second thoughts about birth control. Some, like the Southern Baptist Duggar family from Arkansas featured on TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, subscribe to a “full quiver” theology, which leaves it up to God to “open or close the womb” without the aid of surgery or pills.
Some groups speak of a “militant fecundity” in obedience to God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 1:28.
“It is the duty of Christians to bear large families full of godly seed to populate the earth and bring forth what God intended us to have, particularly in America,” Cynthia Kunsman, a writer and blogger who specializes in spiritual-abuse issues, described the worldview at a 2008 conference at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “That’s how we’re going to get our Christian America.”
Bruce Ware, professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, suggests that “women will be saved through childbearing” in 1 Timothy 2:15 should be taken literally, noting the Greek word translated in the New Testament as “saved” always refers to eternal salvation.
Some theologians, like SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission head Russell Moore, don’t believe every act of intercourse must be left open to the possibility of conception. But they reject a “contraceptive culture” that views children not as a blessing but rather an inconvenience to be avoided or postponed.
“I wonder how many Southern Baptist parents tell their newly married children to ‘wait till you get settled’ before having children so ‘you can enjoy each other,’ as though children will mean the end of romance,” Moore wrote in 2006. “I wonder how many Southern Baptist churches greet a family with four or more children with a snide comment from a Baby Boomer about whether ‘you know what’s causing that.’”
“I wonder how many churches recruit older women to teach our girls that the greatest success they can find is not to be the first Southern Baptist female president of the United States or to tithe more money as a monied Southern Baptist bank executive but to be a wife and mother,” Moore continued. “Is it indicative of how far we’ve fallen from the American dream that it would be controversial in some conservative Southern Baptist churches even to say this?”
Mohler asserts the contraceptive culture has weakened the institution of marriage. “The pill was the chemical agent for making the sexual revolution possible,” he observed in 2010. “The pill made sex outside of marriage far easier to conceal, lowering the social cost of extramarital and premarital sex.”
Moore wondered in 2011 if American evangelicals “unwittingly traded the Blessed Virgin Mary for Margaret Sanger,” originator of the phrase “birth control” and its best-known advocate, who died in 1966.
In 2005, Mohler told the Chicago Tribune a decision by a married couple to refrain from having children was a violation of God’s will, adding that rather than being concerned about overpopulation, he was concerned about under-population.
“We are barely replenishing ourselves,” Mohler said. “That is going to cause huge social problems in the future.”
Miguel De La Torre, a professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver and regular contributor of ABPnews/Herald commentaries, read Mohler’s reference as “a race-based warning” of upcoming demographic shifts.
Observing in a 2005 commentary on EthicsDaily.com that the United States population is growing but growth rates are much higher among blacks, Asians, Hispanics and other races than whites, De La Torre accused Mohler of using “white-supremacy code language advocating for the increase of white babies.”
De La Torre termed Mohler’s argument “a call for white fecundity, lest America becomes overrun with ‘colored’ children, which would only lead, as Mohler puts it, to huge social problems in the future.’”
Moore says Southern Baptists need to increase their birth rate if they are going to keep up with growing denominations like Mormons and the Church of God. “Let’s outbreed the Mormons and out-preach the Pentecostals,” Moore encouraged Southern Baptists in 2006.
© 2014 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.