It is incredibly tempting to bring up the past when discussing the current birth control debate. Clever cartoonists have dominated the “what year is this?!” market by sending Congress back to the 1950s, the 1920s and even the nineteenth century. While feminists across the country and beyond have successfully prevented provisions such as the Blunt Amendment from being passed, proponents of such legislation consistently insist that the issue at hand has nothing to do with reproductive rights. It’s all about religious freedom. Because, to them, family planning is anti-Christian and, therefore, apparently anti-Christ.
Personally, being the Bible nerd that I am, whenever I hear conservatives argue against contraception (as well as marriage equality, abortion and other social issues) I think beyond the nineteenth century and back to the times of Jesus himself. That’s what they are saying, right? Why shouldn’t Catholics use birth control? “Check the Bible.” What is so bad about equality for the LGBTQ community? “It’s in the Bible!” What about abortion? “BIBLE BIBLE BIBLE!” (No one ever seems eager to offer exact chapter and verse.) The problem with the Bible—beyond the fact that it’s utterly irrelevant for the lawmaking responsibilities of our Constitutionally-mandated secular state—is that it over and again contradicts itself. I would feel much more comfortable with a conservative who answered “Why, because it’s consistent with my own personal theology and morals!” to the above questions. One would still have to ask about how they drew those conclusions and what acts of prayer, experience and deep thinking brought them to that point, but once you leave the plane of “GOD MANDATES THIS” and enter into the realm of human interpretation things suddenly become a lot more pleasant and manageable. Opinions, not facts.
To illustrate how my own personal theology plays into this debate I would like to share a passage of the Bible and my own interpretation of it. (I’ll use The Message, for those playing along at home.) In Mark 3:1-6, Jesus and his followers are being followed by the Pharisees on the Sabbath because the Pharisees are hoping to catch him working and thus breaking the Law. While they are following him, Jesus comes upon a man with a crippled hand. It is against the Law for him to heal this man, but Jesus turns to the Pharisees and asks them, “What kind of action suits the Sabbath best? Doing good or doing evil? Helping people or leaving them helpless?” Then he heals the man’s hand and the Pharisees run out, all angry and determined to destroy him.
I personally feel that this story has fantastic parallels for what is going on in Congress and across the country right now. We can call the conservatives the Pharisees because the similarities are stark—learned men tasked by their fellow citizens to uphold the laws of state—but also because really, who hasn’t been a Pharisee at one time or another? Who hasn’t judged someone they didn’t know based on actions alone, without a care to the context? I don’t see it as a grave insult to call someone a Pharisee; historically they were greatly educated and respected. What is important here is that the conservatives, like the Pharisees, are failing to ask the crucial questions Jesus has laid before them: What kind of action suits my religion and my law best? What action does the most good and helps the most people? Those fighting for “religious freedom” in Congress are so caught up in doctrine that they have forgotten that it isn’t what those words say but what they mean.
Jon Stewart recently had a fascinating interview with Cathleen Kaveny about the Catholic Church and the current birth control debate. In this interview she brought up the many good works Catholics are doing in America today: feeding and clothing the poor, providing disaster relief, even fighting against human trafficking. I looked it up and it’s true, they are doing some amazing things all around the world. Kaveny talked about how these things should be the ones we talk about when the Catholic Church is discussed, rather than the various scandals and debates. I thought about this for a while, trying to figure out why that is. The answer is simple, really: it’s all about priorities. If the Catholic Church (and other denominations of Christianity) cared the most about doing the most good and helping the most people they would be lobbying for a very different set of legislation. If they really don’t care to blur the line between church and state in issues such as abortion and marriage then why do they balk to do so when it comes to feeding the poor and sheltering the homeless? “That’s not the government’s job,” some will say. But if that isn’t the job of the government, then why is telling people who they can and cannot marry? There is a certain lack of consistency that makes it difficult for me to believe that following those words of Jesus, interpreting the law rather than simply following it, is their true priority in politics and in life. Until Christian conservatives can address these inconsistencies in their priorities and their voting records it will become increasingly difficult for the rest of society to take them seriously.