Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873–1973
by Allan Carlson
Transaction, 172 pages, $29.95
Seeing our five sons, strangers in the grocery store ask us, “Do you know what is causing that?” What other times and other cultures considered a small family now looks like a television reality show. More surprising are the comments we often receive from fellow Evangelicals, usually the older set of the boomer generation: “What, are you Catholic or something?”
John Calvin, Martin Luther, and their compatriots took issue with much in the Roman Catholic Church, but contraception was simply never a point of protest. In Godly Seed, Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, sets out to discover what led American Evangelicalism to embrace a libertarian ethic on contraception and family planning.
More important, he shows just how recently a laissez-faire attitude toward contraception became so normalized within conservative Protestantism as to make any question about it look like a Roman detour from the sawdust trail. Carlson suggests that Evangelicals unwittingly traded in the Blessed Virgin Mary for Margaret Sanger.
Carlson notes the Evangelical commitment (at least in theory) to the principle of sola scriptura, the norming authority of the canonical writings over any church tradition or conciliar pronouncement. What is striking about the history he records is not that Evangelicals concluded, contra Rome, that the Bible allows for contraception.
Surprisingly, they did so with little sustained argument over the biblical text itself. And what is even odder is how rapidly the heirs of Calvin and Luther, the Billy Graham generation of American Evangelicalism, followed the Lambeth Conference, the 1930 bishops’ meeting that made the Anglican Church the first Christian denomination to allow contraceptive use.
The Christian consensus, summed up by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, was not the target of theses nailed to the door but instead the victim of a slow deprivation of cultural oxygen. Behind the early Evangelicals’ movement toward contraception, Carlson argues, was a eugenic argument that resonated with conservative Evangelicals worried about the cultural instability that might come with ever-growing and heavily Catholic immigrant populations. While Evangelicals did not embrace the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch and others, the Social Gospel enabled the contraception lobby to speak in terms Christians—especially Evangelical Christians—could understand, and to frame contraception as itself pro-family and pro-child.
Beneath all of this, though, lies a deeper issue. Never engaging in sustained reflection on questions of human reproduction, the Evangelical mind and conscience lost the means to reorient its plausibility structures. After contraception became normalized in American culture—to the point that country musician Loretta Lynn celebrated the liberating powers of “the Pill” in song—to question it seemed strange and alien, perhaps as strange and alien as Latin or incense or statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The questions raised by Carlson in this book will make some Evangelicals uncomfortable, especially because those questions may prompt us to ask whether other issues of family ethics might be decided in the same manner of cultural accommodation. Will similar books be written in 2065 about how American Evangelicals came to accept same-sex marriage?
Godly Seed could be strengthened by looking beyond the world of Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today, and the constellation of Billy Graham’s institutional Evangelicalism to the more rooted and enduring expressions of Evangelical identity in America. Relatively little attention is given, for example, to the parsing of ethical debates (or lack thereof) within the largest American Evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, or among the world’s largest Evangelical movement, Pentecostalism.
I would also like to see more attention given to an area Carlson has written extensively and provocatively about elsewhere: the relationship between economics and family. How did post–World War II prosperity change expectations of family sustainability for baby boomer Evangelicals? How did post–Great Society debates over welfare and personal responsibility shape the way Evangelicals, and other Americans, viewed family size? I suspect these factors were much more influential in the contraceptive choices of ordinary people than the “population boom” ecological questions Carlson focuses on in the book.
Evangelicals are a populist people, and a pragmatic people, too. There’s quite a difference between the perceived social and economic “cost” of a family of six children among cotton-picking sharecroppers at a revival meeting in 1926 Mississippi and that of the same family sitting in the pews of an upwardly mobile suburban Dallas megachurch.
There’s also a very different personal cost. The stress levels of a young mother of four children, alone with her husband in some city to which he’s been transferred for his job, are quite different than those felt by her grandmother, who had an extended family and a lifelong community doors from her house.
How much did cultural shifts, increased mobility, the pursuit of economic status, and the “welfare queen” rhetoric of the 1980s change the way Evangelicals perceived the economics of family? That’s a conversation worth having.
I wonder, for example, whether a large part of American—and Evangelical—cultural disapproval of large families comes from the same source as American cultural disapproval of obesity: a feeling of self-interest. If I’m paying for your health costs, I feel some stake in your choices as you walk by with a fifty-four-ounce cup of sugared soda. If I think I might be paying for your food stamps, I may see your cartload of children as my expense and thus my business.
Carlson ends his book, strategically, at the precipice of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision legalizing abortion on demand nationwide. This heightens the difference between Evangelical cobelligerency with Catholics on abortion and the near-total absence of alliance on the related issues of contraception and family planning. Evangelicals, as Carlson and others point out, initially dismissed abortion too, as merely a “Catholic” issue—and this not only on the fuzzy margins but in the pages of Christianity Today and in the pulpits of some influential conservative preachers.
On abortion, though, the Catholic bishops and lay activists were able to win over their Evangelical brothers by appealing to two things Evangelicals immediately understood: the authority of the Bible and the humanity of the unborn. The sanctity of human life is evident in the Scriptures, from the Psalmist’s awareness of being knit together in his mother’s womb to the prenatal encounter between Jesus and John the Baptist to the simple exposition of “Thou shalt not kill.”
The contraception debate is much more complicated, especially when we are looking solely at Scripture. It requires not only an acceptance of the biblical concept of children as a “blessing from the Lord” but also a complicated distinction between “natural” family planning and “artificial” family planning. There are no tabs in the Bible concordance for such questions. But the Bible does speak to what it means to be human and what it means to flourish as God’s image-bearers.
Evangelicals may never agree with the Catholic Church on whether artificial contraception is sometimes warranted or biblically allowed. But Evangelicals are increasingly listening to Catholic voices on the need to develop a comprehensively Christian theology of the body. After all, the pro-life debate has moved beyond the level of “Abortion stops a beating heart” to engaging the complicated philosophical questions about human nature and human dignity that underlie opposition to abortion.
Evangelicals of the next generation are starting to rethink some of the assumptions of the past. In the whirl of megachurch pop Evangelicalism, of course, this rethinking is almost invisible. Like medieval allegorists finding the Trinity everywhere in the text of Nehemiah, popular Evangelical preachers wow audiences by locating vibrators and G-spots in the pages of the Song of Solomon. But American Evangelicalism consists in more than the sum of its marketed celebrities.
A previous generation of Evangelicals sought desperately not to seem “freakish” to American culture, in order to win America to Christ. Increasingly, it is impossible not to seem “freakish” merely by holding onto the most base-level commitments of Christian ethics. If being married, and staying married, already marginalizes Christians from their peer groups, maybe embracing the gift of children isn’t all that far a step to take. If you are already outside the borders of what American culture considers the “good life,” a van full of children doesn’t seem so crazy anymore.
The media often present the rethinking of children in Evangelicalism in terms of its fringes. See, for instance, the focus by progressive scholars on the tiny “Quiverfull” movement, which eschews even natural family planning in favor of God’s sovereignty in the spacing and bearing of children. Such a hyper-Calvinism of the cradle has little in common with the old Christian consensus on the family, or with any recovery of it.
Instead, there is another movement of Evangelicals—small yet as a man’s hand, but no less real—who want to reconsider what it means to be blessed. They may not agree with their Catholic or Orthodox cobelligerents on everything about the morality of artificial birth control, but neither do they accept their parents’ assumptions that an “extra” child is “too expensive.”
At the same time, American Catholics continue to practice contraception at rates comparable to those of mainstream America. Perhaps the day is coming when a traditionalist Catholic mother of four may find herself asked in the grocery store, “What, are you born again or something?”
Russell D. Moore is the dean of the School of Theology and professor of Christian theology and ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.