Blocking birth control coverage: ‘How is that Christian?’

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By Rev. Matthew Westfox
Rev. Matthew Westfox.
Rev. Matthew Westfox.
Courtesy of the author

Ed. note: Rev. Matthew Westfox, a guest on the January 26 edition of MHP and a guest writer for us in the past, has served a ministry of reproductive justice for more than six years as a preacher, activist, organizer and pastoral care giver. He is ordained in the United Church of Christ, and serves as a consultant to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice along with other justice organizations. He also serves Associate Pastor of All Souls Bethlehem Church in Brooklyn, NY.

Here’s his letter to his more conservative colleagues about Obamacare and its coverage of birth control.

In recent days, your objection to health insurance coverage for contraception for employees of the hospitals, universities, and other institutions that are affiliated with your churches has drawn a flurry of media attention. (I know that it is not only Christian groups raising such objections. But as I am a Christian myself, it is to you my co-religionists whom I primarily address my thoughts.)

Since the initial passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and its inclusion of contraception as a health care service which must be covered by insurance, numerous attempts have been made by the Obama administration to secure such coverage through a third party, so that your employees need not be denied access, while your dollars are not used to directly support a health care practice you object to. You have rejected them all. Now yet another attempt at compromise has been made, and yet again you are raising objections.

To be clear, I have the deepest respect for your religious beliefs regarding the morality of contraception. While I do not share them, I respect that well-meaning people of good conscience can come to different opinions on what Jesus calls us to. What I do not understand is why you turn to the courts and the law to press your religious claims instead of taking them where they belong–to your pulpits.

As a clergyperson, I believe there is incredible power to be found in the pulpit. Not to coerce, but to convince! If you believe so strongly that birth control is wrong and individuals should not use it, then why not take to your pulpits and your newsletters and every other avenue available to you in a free and open society and make your case?

Tell others about why you believe contraception is damaging to them physically or emotionally or spiritually, and convince them they should make another choice. Open your Bible and tell those who come to your churches which of Jesus’ teachings you believe commands natural family planning only, let others hear your words and decide whether you are right. Is that not what we are called to do as people of faith? Your current efforts render birth control more expensive for those you employ, compelling them to make the decision you wish, instead of allowing them to practice their own conscience freely. If you are so convinced of the rightness of your cause, why not trust that others will hear your arguments, hear your evidence, and decide to do what you think is right?

A part of why I love religion so dearly, and why I have found my calling as a clergyperson, is this focus on convincing and compelling rather than coercing. Central to my understanding of Christianity is the idea that each of us is wonderfully made by our Creator–and God chose to make us with the gift of conscience. In the book of Genesis, God brings each of the animals before Adam to be given a name–trusting in human decision-making.  Many times in Jesus’ ministry, someone comes to Him with a hard question. Again and again, His response is to give a parable instead of a clear answer.

Jesus’ message, echoing the message given throughout scripture, is that it is not enough to make it impossible or illegal for someone to do wrong. If you want to teach morality, you have to give someone the chance to make their own moral decision, even if they might choose what you are arguing against.

This doesn’t mean setting up pulpits in the corridors of your hospitals, or making employment at one of your universities dependent on wiliness to sit through a morality lecture; it means speaking to those you reach through your actions as a church. Embracing your power to convince, rather than using your economic power as an employer to coerce. If your goal is to prevent people from using birth control, why not simply make your case and allow each person to weigh the arguments and exercise that conscience God gave them?

To be sure, there is a time and a place for our churches to take a stand on governmental policy. There are many issues on which people and communities of faith should add their voices to public debate. On some of those issues I hope we will work together, and on some I am sure we will be opposed, yet the country and the discourse will be better for both our perspectives. Yet surely on so personal a matter as an individual or couple’s decision to use birth control, faith’s only role should be to offer assistance in that decision to those who seek our counsel. Many of those who have turned their back on faith and on our Christian version of it in particular, cite the perceived arrogance of the Church, including its desire to enforce and dictate morality, rather than teach it. Nor does health care coverage remove any individual’s ability to make their own decision.

A person who believes contraception to be wrong can simply decline to take it.  The sole consequence of your attempt to deny coverage is to deepen the economic burden of those of your employees who hold a moral position different than your own. In essence, you are using economic power to compel your own particular understanding of sexual morality on those who will have difficulty funding their own choices.

You are targeting and hurting those for whom that additional economic burden is the most difficult–the very people whom Jesus taught us to help. How is that Christian?

I understand your claim that the issue is not just what other people choose, but also your tax dollars subsidizing behavior you disagree with. But friends, I must confess I simply don’t buy it. None of us get to choose what our taxes pay for based on our moral or religious values. If we did, I would demand tax exemptions for wars that my faith tells me are deeply immoral. Furthermore, your out-of-hand rejection of the numerous attempts made by the Obama administration to find a compromise that keeps your own financial contributions pristine and purely calls your motives into question.

I have a theory, but I hope you can prove me wrong. My theory is that you have abandoned the field of moral persuasion on this issue because you know that is a fight you have lost.  For all your attempts to paint this issue as one of God-fearing disciples battling the secular birth control-using hordes, the fact is that more and more Americans are choosing to embrace contraception and responsible family planning, not in spite of their faith, but because of it. In my own ministry I see this every day–people making thoughtful, prayerful decisions about how best to live out their sexual and reproductive lives. My fear is that you have realized that more and more people simply don’t believe you. You are being left behind by those who have embraced a living God and a living theology, and you are lashing out in fear.

I truly hope I am wrong. I know that our country is better, and our shared faith is better, when there is a multitude of voices expressing a multitude of opinions from a multitude of pulpits. We are better when we allow people to express the conscience God gave us and make our own decisions. Some will turn to churches for help in those decisions, some will turn to other houses of faith, some will turn to other sources of ethical discernment, but they will be making moral–not legal–decisions.

If we can agree on nothing else, let us agree that no one should be financially punished or forced to seek other employment because they do not share the religious and moral beliefs of their employers.

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Matthew Westfox

See below Rev. Westfox’s appearance on MHP back in January.

Blocking birth control coverage: 'How is that Christian?'

Updated