Well, it’s not a line item on our church budget called “Pastor family planning fund” or anything like that. So you can breathe now. But my health insurance through the United Methodist Church is what 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 in a lot of principles I agree with: a sacramental understanding of human existence, an affirmation of God’s sovereignty over against modernist individualism, 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.
When you have two very active, socially demanding little boys, conjugal intimacy is something that happens when it can. In other words, when neither of you are sick and neither of the kids are, when the laundry and dishes are actually dealt with before midnight, when you got enough sleep the night before that you’re not exhausted after putting the kids to bed, when you’re not so buried in the blogosphere that you’ve forgotten how to be romantic (doh!), when you get around to replacing the doorknob on your bedroom door that you had to uninstall because it was sticking. Realities like these don’t lend themselves to keeping tabs on a biological calendar as the means of avoiding pregnancy. I respect people who use the natural family planning approach the same way I respect people who have never fed their children fast food and who have never used the television as a babysitter. As the Yardbirds sang, “Mister, you’re a better man than I.”
In any case, because I work for the United Methodist Church instead of Hobby Lobby or Wheaton College or a Catholic hospital, my wife and I are able to do the thing that makes our marriage worshipful without having to add another calendar to keep track of. And if our insurance didn’t pay for birth control, we would have enough money to pay for it out of pocket. But not everyone is as lucky as I am. What about a woman who works for minimum wage washing the linens at Georgetown hospital? Let’s call her Maria.
Maria is a Baptist even though she works at a Catholic hospital; she and her husband Miguel have two children whose needs they have just enough money to cover. A third child would put them over the edge financially. Maria and Miguel have time alone together maybe once or twice a week because of their work schedules. Usually they’re too tired to do anything romantically intimate, but they recently read this book their church was promoting by some pastor from Seattle which said that sex is critical to having a Godly marriage, which is what they definitely want to have.
Maria and Miguel have to budget tightly enough that paying out of pocket for an IUD like my wife and I have or even for “the pill” is not an option. So here’s the key question — should Maria be guaranteed the right to medically control whether she gets pregnant or not? The Obama administration decided the answer to that question was yes. The default stereotype in our heads when we think about birth control is twenty-something bar-hoppers who want to have fun without consequences. But the fact is that many married, very committed Christians use birth control because of their sense of stewardship and the recognition of the critical importance of sexual intimacy that causes Paul to tell his Corinthian couples, “Don’t deprive each other” (1 Corinthians 7.5).
This is why I’m a little put out by all this talk of religious persecution by loud evangelicals engaging in opportunistic exhibitionist “solidarity” with our Catholic brothers and sisters because they want to land some culture war punches. Sexual purity has a critical self-justifying function in American middle-class identity. It’s essential to our ability to explain why we have wealth and others don’t (I kept it in my pants till I was married; those people didn’t; my tax dollars shouldn’t have to subsidize their lack of self-control). It reassures my discomfort over social inequity to believe that the minimum wage Marias out there must have gotten into their financial circumstances because they couldn’t pinch the aspirin between their knees. That’s why I need to make it into a moral outrage that I would have to pay into a shared insurance pool that buys their birth control and enables their debauchery (which I’ve projected onto them).
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.
In any case, if it’s your conviction that birth control is part of a depraved consumerist approach to sexuality and idolatry of science that has destroyed our society’s connection with God, I can respect your stance. But I am going to point out that “family values” activism can and often does contribute to the process by which the church has become a banal accessory to privileged suburban existence rather than a body of people who have been “called out” of their privilege into the new resurrected kingdom of Christ. And I will also ask your respect for the pragmatic stewardship of birth control by which my wife and I try to stay healthy in our marriage and responsible with our resources.