Saturday, September 29, 2012

Review: Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973

In Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873–1973, Allan Carlson documents the change from a “no birth control” to “pro-birth control” mentality within the evangelical community.  In other words, he notes “how American Evangelicals, so defined, moved from fierce opposition to quiet affirmation of the practice of birth control” (11).
He  begins the book by stating:

For most contemporary Americans, contentious questions about birth control are considered a peculiar “Catholic” problem. With the use of contraceptives at some point being nearly universal among fertile adults (and quite common among teenagers as well) and with birth control enjoying a blessing of state and federal governments as the alternative to both “unwanted” births and abortion, only a minority of especially devout Catholics seem to be left to puzzle occasionally over the issue. Even their interest is commonly understood to be a consequence of medieval thinking codified in Pope Paul VI’s reactionary 1968 Encyclical, Humanae Vitae.
Mostly forgotten is the fact that, as recently as one hundred years ago, it was American Evangelical Protestants who waged the most aggressive and effective campaigns against the practice of birth control within the United States; Roman Catholics quietly applauded on the sidelines. It was Evangelicals who—starting in 1873—successfully built a web of federal and state laws that equated contraception with abortion, suppressed the spread of birth control information and devices and even criminalized the use of contraceptives. And it was Evangelicals who attempted to jail early twentieth-century birth control crusaders such as Margaret Sanger. All the same, by 1973—the year the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the abortion laws of all fifty states—American Evangelical leaders had not only given a blessing to birth control; many would also welcome the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade as a blow for religious liberty. (1–2)

He then very briefly traces the position of the church on birth control from the Fathers to the Reformers, as they argued against both variations of Gnosticism (antinomian and ascetic) that moved against the act of procreation, and then proceeds to note that it was Protestants, not Roman Catholics, who led the charge against birth control throughout history, the last notable figure spearheading the crusade against it being Anthony Comstock, to whom an entire chapter is devoted, and who Carlson calls “the last and—in a certain respect—the greatest of  the Puritans” (15). 

After discussing the biography and amazing accomplishments of Comstock, as well as the uniformity of all Christendom (Evangelicals and Catholics and even the Social Gospel advocates alike) in what was clearly as much of a hostile environment when it came to sex as our current culture (with the exception of having much support in more civilized places within society as opposed to our current state which sees these things as normative for mainstream society and not just from within the lowest sectors of it),  Carlson moves on to discuss the part that the Post-Millennialism (the dominant view held by most American Evangelicals during the nineteenth and early twentieth century), combined with an Anglo-Saxon ethnocentricism, played in the acceptance of birth control in society as a whole.  
Carlson argues that this idea, that society was moving, and needed to continue to move, toward a majority of evangelical Christians led to the idea that, although wrong for evangelical Christians, who were largely Anglo-Saxon, stunting the now growing population of other religious and irreligious groups, which were largely made up of the immigrants coming into America, was a part of the work of the kingdom—thus sanctioning the use of birth control for those groups.
Furthermore, birth control had been “silently” accepted within evangelical circles largely due to three main shifts in thinking within the movement: 

1.      The removal of marriage from an understanding that saw it as a sacred event under God.
2.      The Protestant emphasis on the individual that eventually overshadowed seeing the family as the “germ cell” of society and lifted up individual concerns over that of familial ones.
3.      The move from defining marriage as primarily for purposes of procreation , and instead, emphasizing the institution as one which was primarily meant to foster companionship.
On the last point, Carlson comments:
While innate to understandings of Christian marriage since at least the time of Augustine, the mutual relationship of husband and wife was always linked, or even subordinate, to procreation. Over the course of the nineteenth century, though, Protestant writers tended to give more emphasis to the companionship ideal. Typical was George Weaver’s The Christian Household, published in 1856: “The grand idea of companionship is unity, and companionship is perfect just in the degree that unity is secured.” Procreation and the nurture of children subtly gave way to a focus on the moral, physical, psychological, and intellectual development of the couple. In turn, this tended to legitimate sexual pleasure as an end in itself, making companionship “a significantly receptive value for conception control” (63).

He also cites an article which noted the shift in attitude within our society when it came to parents with large families. It stated that “once such fathers and mothers [of large families] were considered by the wise, the good, and the great as public benefactors; but now their conduct is not only questioned and censured, but by some they are regarded almost as human monsters” (64).
Hence, despite the call to advance the purity of culture through evangelization and procreation, most nominal Christians had so practiced various forms of birth control that the population that was made up of the descendents of the Puritans was reduced to an “insignificant minority” (67), a phenomenon among these evangelicals that Carlson notes soon gained the designation “race suicide” (68).
The answer of some of these leaders was to elevate the conditions of the lower masses and reduce their population.  Carlson notes that this essentially was to “open a crack between Protestant and Catholic leaders and theologians on the birth control question” (75). 
Carlson ends his chapter by concluding that “the Christian consensus on the sinfulness of birth control (other than through abstinence) was subtly undermined by Strong’s new ‘law of population’.  Margaret Sanger would soon discover how to widen that fissure into a virtual canyon, and so transform America” (Ibid.).

On that note, he begins his discussion of Margaret Sanger and her role in dividing the church over the issue. Sanger grew up in an atheistic, feminist, and socialist home, where her father despised Roman Catholicism especially. She originally, and this perhaps displays her movements raison d'être, argued that women needed to be freed from men, and that children bound women to men. They needed to have the same ability that men had to have sexual pleasure without the consequence of a child that would hinder their advancement within society. She would argue that women shouldn’t give any more slaves to society, and that they ought to have no masters and no gods. She was heavily anti-religious at first, but then realized that her dream of having birth control legalized and widely used by all women would never be realized in a largely religious society if she was marginalized for her atheistic stance. Hence, Carlson argues that she used prior animosity and fear of a Roman Catholic Empire to gain evangelical Protestant support. She largely pretended that this was only a Roman Catholic issue of domination and that the Protestants were largely on her side. In point of fact, as Carlson notes, no Protestant denomination supported her, and all formally condemned the use of birth control as evil. He states that “another of Sanger’s brilliant strategic techniques was simply to ignore Protestant writers, preachers, and churches that continued to denounce birth control. By demonizing the Catholic Church alone . . . by claiming to defend the Protestant conscience from Roman oppression, she left the impression that Protestants were on her side, in apparent hope that this would become a self-fulfilling prophecy” (87).

This would change when, using another commonly held belief among Protestants concerning their post-millennial hopes, she argued in favor of the use of birth control as a vehicle to bring about those hopes through eugenics. Most Christians at this time were heavily in favor of the eugenics movement in order to bring about a more civilized, Christian race and usher in the kingdom of God. As such, her arguments soon won favor among the parachurch organizations that had largely mobilized for those purposes. Carlson points out that Sanger, the founder of the American Birth Control League (later joining together with the Birth Control Federation of American, otherwise known today as Planned Parenthood) had a direct hand in this change of thought within these groups, and would have a direct hand in the sudden turnabout of the Anglican Church concerning the issue at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, where Carlson states: “So ended the 1,800-year-old consensus on birth control” (103).

But he further notes that the vast majority of Protestants in America still rejected the practice as evil. Heated debates broke out between liberals and conservatives within all of the mainline denominations over the issue. Carlson further notes that the evangelicals, who were now called “fundamentalists” due to their adherence to distinctive doctrines that fought against the modernity adopted by liberalism, were largely silent (with the exception perhaps of institutions like Moody Bible Institute). It wasn’t until a major noted leader of fundamentalism moved toward a more conservative-liberal hybrid position, now ironically called “neo-evangelicalism,” even though its ethical positions began to be in conflict with the mindset of historical evangelicalism, that we begin to see a turn within evangelical denominations toward a pro-birth control stance. The name of that leader was Billy Graham.

In his chapter entitled, “Birth Control in the Age of Billy Graham,” Carlson notes that most evangelicals condemned birth control as evil until around the 1960’s when hysteria over apocalyptic visions of an overpopulated world were once again at the fore. He notes that the turnabout in an article published by Christianity Today in 1968 that argued that contraception was not only morally acceptable, but was even a good to be performed.

But Carlson notes that it was “at a decisive moment” that “[Billy] Graham would also enter the debate over birth control” (117).  Carlson recounts that Graham woke up in the middle of the night to craft a magazine that would “give theological respectability to evangelicals” (118). That magazine, born with the help of Carl F. H. Henry in 1956, would become Christianity Today.

Carlson notes two important background issues that contextualize the move toward accepting birth control (and abortion) as legitimate: (1) Neo-evangelicalism during this period became identified with the “American way of life,” and by this time, many Americans in secular but conservative culture had adopted a more “family planning” mindset. The fact that the movement had become amazingly, in the words of Martin Marty, “theologically inclusive and ethically disengaged” likely explains the popularity of Graham as the representative of the movement (Ibid.) With the advent of the Draper Report that argued that family planning should be a part of American development aid programs, to be more respectable within American society and politics was to advocate the same. Hence, neo-evangelicalism followed suit. (2) The neo-evangelicals now emphasized a radical distrust of institutional authority, relied therefore more on parachurch organizations to feed them their beliefs on issues due to a new and more radical form of sola Scriptura, which excluded all other authorities rather than just set it up as supreme. By doing this neo-evangelicalism was able to reinterpret passages for its own culture and shake hands with those within the Protestant mainline who had come to accept birth control (now called “family planning” in order to put a better face on what constituted the intent of the practice) as morally legitimate and a matter of “responsible parenthood.”


When society had become hysterical with reports that the world would soon be overpopulated, leading to starvation, wars, and many other unimaginable horrors, neo-evangelicals considered it just as much of a crisis as did anyone else. This fear was necessary to move them to adopt the practice as something that would stay the hand of such an apocalyptic vision.

What follows in Carlson’s book is an account of one denomination falling after another to societal influences that originally caused the mainline liberal churches to adopt these practices, only for evangelicals, abortion would be included as that which was considered morally responsible together with other forms of birth control. Carlson summarizes by saying that the neo-evangelical argument now became one where “the two purposes of the sexual act were ‘separable’ and, in a way, procreation became subordinate to companionship” (124). Seeing relationships in this way, then, allowed one to argue that there was no moral obligation to have as many children as God gave him, or even have children at all, since marriage could rightly be fulfilled by a healthy companionship with one’s mate instead [Note that, although Carlson does not point this out, this is the argument that seeks to legitimize homosexual marriage as well].

Carlson writes that many evangelical leaders began to say that the Bible said nothing toward the issue, and therefore, it fell under the category of Christian liberty. There was also a conscious effort to re-read the Bible in light of the imagined crisis of overpopulation in order to look for a legitimization of the sexual act separated from its procreative function.

Billy Graham, therefore, concluded in an interview with the New York Times that there was nothing wrong with using birth control and it was very much needed across the globe in order to fight the crisis of overpopulation and its terrifying and tragic effects. Soon after, Graham and Henry began to use their magazine to paint a neo-Malthusian picture of the contemporary world and the absolute need for birth control. This became an obsession, particularly for Henry, who believed it would be, not communism, but overpopulation that would destroy America. Carlson notes the irony that “in an odd way, evangelism was blurring into birth control” (128). Indeed, Carlson notes that the world had gone mad with overpopulation paranoia, so much so, as to affect even a liberalization within the Roman Catholic Church as well.

Therefore, in 1966, an article by TEDS professor John Warwick Montgomery, sought to “lay out a case for a distinctive New Evangelical acceptance of birth control” (130). As is often typical amongst neo-evangelicals, Montgomery took the middle ground between Catholics and secularists to be the balanced position. His argument was essentially to argue against the lex naturalis as having the ability by itself to convey a normative ethic and then to argue that Genesis 1–2 was not the central marriage passage in the Bible, but instead, Ephesians 5 had replaced it as center. Hence, it was not to be seen in terms of a union primarily for the purposes of procreation and family, but primarily as an analogy of Christ’s relationship with His Church. Hence, the Christian can pursue birth control as a means to subduing the earth for Christ, as marriage is fulfilled as a love relationship.

Carlson notes that evangelicals pointed to Montgomery’s article as the new justification for using birth control. Indeed, based upon Montgomery’s argument, the response in an editorial in Christianity Today to Humanae Vitae argued that “the Bible says clearly that marriage alone sanctifies sexual intercourse.” They rejected the notion that the goal of procreation legitimized the sexual act, and the millennia old interpretation that Onan was killed for his use of a contraceptive method. As Carlson notes, the novelty of the new evangelical  interpretation went unnoted by the editorial.

Carlson also notes a haunting statement by Billy Graham in his response to the encyclical: “In general I would disagree with it . . . I believe in planned parenthood” (133).

Carlson further alludes to Christianity Today’s continual war to advocate for the use of birth control among Christians by using the same tactic used by Sanger in downplaying that Protestants had opposed the practice for the previous 450 years as well. Instead, it was merely presented as a Catholic issue.

Carlson notes a string of scholars who now began to argue for the pro-birth control side, marked by a special symposium that included arguments from Bruce Waltke, Paul Jewett, Kenneth Kantzer, and a host of other evangelical leaders. They argued that the Bible did not prohibit the control of reproduction, including the use of abortion; and instead, that its use might even be the means through which we subdue the earth.

Here Carlson notes something of which most evangelicals are unaware. The fear of overpopulation and the desire to be respected by mainstream America, together with the argument that the Bible does not explicitly condemn controlling birth, led most evangelical leaders to conclude that abortion was a perfectly acceptable practice. In fact, Carlson notes that most evangelicals were in full agreement and had nothing but praise for the decision made in Roe v. Wade. John Scanzoni argued that abortion was not the killing of a human being, but even if it was, there were perfectly acceptable cases in the Old Testament where one was justified in taking human life, the most notable cited as being a wanted child, which trumped the right to life.

Some arguments were made from genetics. Some from poverty. Some from Christian freedom. But all in the end concluded that there was ample justification for the Christian to use birth control and abortion as he or she saw fit.

Whereas people like Montgomery argued that abortion was murder, he believed that to be simply a Christian position that should not be pressed upon secular society through law, and that, therefore, abortion on demand should be legal with no stated limits (138).

At the same time, Carlson notes that some were distorting the ethics of Luther and Calvin in order to gain a hearing amongst the more conservative Lutheran and Reformed elements of the church, and they argued that love was the very essence of marriage for the Reformers, not procreation and family. Carlson notes how completely incorrect this truly is.

Carlson notes that the conclusion of many evangelical leaders that contraception and abortion are permissible options left up to the individual Christian conscience had made Margaret Sanger’s victory complete. But a question one woman asked of the subsequent articles in Christianity Today that followed the previous symposium is sobering: “Why was the question of God determining and limiting the number of children in a given family of believers not mentioned even once in the articles on contraception and abortion?”

Carlson notes the irony that the evangelical view, far from being in the middle, was even more liberal than that held by the more liberal mainline churches at the time. He states that the mainline churches at this time condemned abortion, sterilization, and emphasized the covenantal nature of marriage that should seek children when it can. The evangelicals, by contrast, attempted to legalize abortion, embraced sterilization, and emphasized freedom of self conscience in the gospel to do as one sees fit.

The next argument that Carlson makes as his reason for above is even more sobering. The neo-evangelicals, who thought their foe was Roman Catholicism, were actually encountering a far more threatening belief system: Christianity’s ancient foe, the sexual anarchy of the Gnostics.

Carlson now turns to his final chapter where he discusses the fact that neo-evangelicalism, in its adoption of Sanger’s position, has returned to a Gnostic view sexuality. In fact, he notes the eerie uses of Gnostic terminology in court decisions determining the privacy of marriage the right not to procreate therein. He notes that, by 1972, the courts essentially removed “the substance of publically sanctioned marriage and its grounding in the natural law” (150). Finally, in 1973, the abortion laws of all fifty states were swept away at the applause of many evangelical leaders.

Here Carlson notes the work of Harold O. J. Brown, Francis Schaeffer, and C. Everett Koop, who successfully convicted neo-evangelicals finally to condemn abortion. The free sexuality with which evangelicals had flirted was stayed by arguments condemning abortion and gay marriage. However, as Carlson notes, “at the same time, though, contraception or birth control was rarely—if ever—discussed. The implication was quiet approval. In short, following a delay of several decades, Evangelicals had followed the Protestant mainline in this accommodation to the new sexual order” (155).

Carlson ends his book by noting that there may be roots of a return within evangelicalism to the position that all of Christendom has held from the beginning. He states that “thousands of Evangelical young adults have renounced the use of birth control—even the rhythm or natural family planning method—and have placed decisions regarding family size back ‘in the hands of God’” (159).


My Thoughts:

I enjoyed this book thoroughly. In fact, as soon as I got it, I could not put it down. I, of course, am well acquainted with the subject, but even I was unaware of many of the leading figures who had sold out on the subject. Carlson’s book is more descriptive than prescriptive, as it is a history, not an ethical treatise. Still, there are so many things he notes in the book that should give any evangelical today pause in his or her use of contraception, I can’t but help feel that this book is a great argument against the use of contraception in and of itself. I highly recommend it, not only because it serves to give an understanding of the history of evangelicalism’s modern relationship with contraception, but also because it ties all of that in to the movement’s larger shifts in thought throughout the past century and a half.

In a day when sexual ethics are still at the forefront of most conversations, what is needed is more, not less, understanding of how we got where we are today in our thinking about the sexual act. Carlson’s book fills a gap, even one in my own book (as I only very briefly cover this period), that is very much welcomed by anyone who would free his mind from the enslavement of our sexually-antinomian culture.

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