The Baptist war on contraception

Is the new head of Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission anti-birth control?

By Jacob Lupfer

This week, the Christian right observes a leadership change in one of its most important institutions.

Last year, Richard Land announced his retirement as president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land’s successor is Russell Moore, formerly dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Moore's inauguration is a generational changing of the guard — a fresh face with a winsome tone replacing an aging partisan known for inartful statements.

What conservative group wouldn't want Mike Huckabee at the helm after Rush Limbaugh went off the rails one-too-many times? Already, Moore has earned high praise for his intelligence and sincerity.

At first glance, it may seem irrelevant that the ERLC presidency is turning over at a moment when, for the first time in decades, white evangelicals are involved in a public debate about birth control.

Ever since January 2012, when the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidelines requiring certain religious employers to provide contraception coverage on their group health insurance plans, evangelicals have stood with Catholics and other religious-liberty advocates against the HHS mandate.

On the surface, the protest has been over religious liberty, not contraception. After all, along with every religious group, the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals approve of contraception, at least for married couples.

But there is a quiet revolution brewing among a growing segment of fundamentalist Protestants. Certain sects, usually hyper-Calvinist and often identified with "Christian patriarchy," Dominionism or the "Quiverfull" movement, are wooing mainstream evangelicals and exhorting them to let God determine the size of their families.

Once seen as a pesky denominational nuisance, Calvinism is on the rise in today's SBC. A commission of prominent Baptist leaders recently released a statement that legitimates Calvinist theology in Baptist churches and institutions.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler, easily the most respected and influential voice in the SBC, has offered a contradictory statement on birth control: “Christians may make careful and discriminating use of proper technologies, but must never buy into the contraceptive mentality. We can never see children as problems to be avoided, but always as gifts to be welcomed and received.”

Except when married couples want to avoid conceiving a child, apparently. Mohler’s relatively frequent diatribes against the “contraceptive culture” give cover to other Baptist elites who want to do away with contraception altogether.

Moore, the new ERLC president, has gone even further. Knowing, as smart religious leaders do, the vital role of birth rates and retention (not just conversions) in denominational market share, Moore exhorted Southern Baptists in 2006 to "outbreed the Mormons and out-preach the Pentecostals."

In 2011, Moore endorsed a controversial anti-contraception book by Allan Carlson, an intellectual leader in the Christian patriarchy movement. "This provocative volume by one of the world's foremost family-issues scholars suggests that perhaps American Evangelicalism unwittingly traded the Blessed Virgin Mary for Margaret Sanger,” Moore wrote in his review. “The arguments are hard-hitting and unrelenting. Reading this book is like seeing an unwelcome reflection in a mirror. But it might just start a conversation that is well worth having."

It's not exactly clear what part of evangelicals' engagement with the birth-control issue is so unwelcome to Moore or what kind of conversation he wants evangelicals to have. But his sympathies for the anti-contraception movement should at least provoke the religious media to ask him to clarify his views, which so far they have not.

It is undeniable that the decoupling of sex from procreation was a dramatic technological change with profound social, moral and theological implications. Southern Baptists should want their top ethics expert and chief lobbyist to have grappled with the issue. But the 15 million Southern Baptists for whom Moore now speaks have the right to know if he thinks they are sinners for using contraception to control the number and spacing of their children.

Conservative Protestants have adopted Catholic positions on other sex-related issues. Perhaps it was only a matter of time until evangelical elites began pushing back against birth control. If they think they can convince the rank and file, they should take a good, hard look at the Catholic hierarchy’s absolute failure on that score.

Baptist clergy and laypeople will be pleased that Moore is mostly a stylistic improvement over Land. Their policy positions do not differ significantly. But the anti-contraception movement has gained some steam, especially in the wake of the HHS mandate.

Is the new ERLC going to be part of it? Baptist churches whose offering plate dollars fund the ERLC have a right to know if they will soon be financing a war against birth control.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.