Cavemen, Contraception, and Christian Controversies

A reflection by Sarah

Within the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how easy it can be to polarize discussions of controversial issues, particularly those that impact multiple groups of people with varied needs and interests. Conversations become more about adhering perfectly to religious or political dogma than learning from engagement with opposing viewpoints. When this happens, the level of verbal gymnastics a person has to perform in order to avoid being identified with the “wrong” side of a particular debate can get out of control very quickly. And if the controversy relates to your life in some direct, practical way, watch out. Unless your own perspective aligns completely with the party line at either extreme, there’s a fair chance your voice will get lost amongst those who are louder and more ideological.

When I was about thirteen, my already-unmanageable menstrual cycle became debilitating. Despite trying every supposed cure and method of symptom relief at my disposal, nothing helped the pain subside. Heat packs, herbs, over-the-counter medications, supplements, hot toddies: you name it, we did it. It’s possible that we could have done more if my family had been able to access more resources, but we had tried everything we could afford. I had reached a point where I was experiencing severe symptoms for half of every month and was unable to sustain a reasonable quality of life. I fainted at school, had persistent anemia, and was frequently doubled over with cramps. My deeply conservative mother (who had experienced more than her own share of reproductive health troubles) sympathized greatly with my pain and, after she had exhausted all of the alternative options, scheduled my first gynecology appointment. From the moment my mom first set up the appointment until the moment we entered the doctor’s office, she was concerned and warning me that the gynecologist might prescribe birth control pills. That’s exactly what happened. After the doctor had examined me and heard my symptom history, she reached immediately for her prescription pad to write a script for Ortho Tri-Cyclen.

My mother’s greatest worry was realized, and she made it clear to me on the drive home that we must never tell another person outside of the family that I was taking birth control pills. She stated that she didn’t think I was sexually promiscuous. However, she warned me that if anyone else found out, he or she would automatically assume that I was a whore. I had no doubt about my mom’s message: like it or not, I had to choose between being seen as a good Christian and being branded the loosest girl in the 8th grade. We couldn’t discuss birth control if there was the slightest possibility of anyone else hearing us. In my mother’s opinion, my voice was bold enough to be heard across a room even in my most hushed whispers. Her solution was to ask me to come up with a codeword for the pills. I wasn’t very fond of this idea, and though I couldn’t imagine any reason I would need to tell another person about the birth control pills, I felt a sense of shame unlike any emotion I’d ever experienced around receiving other prescriptions in the past. But I gave in and eventually suggested we could call my new medication “the caveman pill” (BC, of course. Yeah, I know…quite original). My little pink compact of caveman pills stayed in my top dresser drawer next to my hairbrush. Each morning, I would open my drawer, take the medication, and then put it out of my mind for the rest of the day. However, anytime I had friends over, my mother would panic about the compact in my dresser drawer. She would urge me to let her keep it until everyone left so that none of my friends would find out I was on the caveman pill. All this because morally upright people supposedly never talk about needing to take birth control because discussing the subject publicly brands one as promiscuous. Or at least that’s how things worked in Eastern Kentucky in the 1990s.

Few things set Facebook and Twitter alight with polarized commentary like contraception and homosexuality. The recent Supreme Court decision in favor of Hobby Lobby highlights how people can be deeply divided over intersections between public policy and religious belief. While reading initial reactions to the SCOTUS ruling, I experienced a vivid memory of how my mother responded to my need to take birth control pills. Those who share her perspective would say that “good, conservative Christians” know that you keep prescriptions for these medications discreet if you need them to treat a medical condition. Yet, as the recent Hobby Lobby case shows, both conservatives and liberals are more than willing to assert beliefs on contraception so long as the issue is framed in a polarized manner. At one extreme, there are people arguing that if one cares at all about women’s health, one should be absolutely appalled by the SCOTUS ruling. At the other, there are people claiming the decision as a victory for religious freedom in the United States and chiding feminists as overly entitled whiners. The space between the two extremes is a no man’s land as both sides continue to hurl slurs at one another: “No true respecter of women would ever approve of the Hobby Lobby decision. If you’re not appalled by the decision, then you’re a misogynist and a bigot.” Or, “If you’re not celebrating the decision as a major cultural win for conservatives, than you’re a progressive liberal out to destroy America. No true Christian should have any reservations about the ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby. If you empathize at all with the idea that free birth control might be a good thing, then you’re an enemy to life.” The polarization is deep, and there is virtually no room for moderate opinions. At least on the internet.

What’s especially interesting to me is that people on the left rightly consider it absurd when the religious right claims gay rights legislation is a slippery slope toward state-sanctioned human-animal marriages, yet they make almost the exact same assertion about the Hobby Lobby ruling: that the decision is a slippery slope towards a society where employers are free to engage in widespread religious discrimination of all kinds. And neither side seems to be aware of how its own rhetoric removes any possibility for meaningful dialogue. On the day of the Hobby Lobby decision, I was called idiotic for mentioning the importance of religious freedom in one conversation and a heretic for discussing why society might benefit from greater availability of contraception in another. It seems impossible to have an intelligent, nuanced conversation about any controversy within the current American political and religious climate.

Thus far, this post might not seem very relevant to the general purpose of our blog. However, as we’ve pointed out on other occasions, conversations about LGBT Christians are equally polarized. We mention frequently how the manner in which LGBT issues get discussed in Christian contexts leaves little space for moderates or those who care more about talking and listening than shouting. Lindsey and I regularly find ourselves pulled in all directions. Several of my more liberal Christian friends tell me I should just get over my internalized homophobia, dump the idea of a celibate vocation, and marry Lindsey even though that would involve defying the teachings of our Christian tradition. Some are quite blunt in telling us that we should leave our Christian tradition as it is not sufficiently welcoming to the LGBT community. Similarly, several of my more conservative Christian friends express their opinion that talking about “LGBT issues” (as opposed to “struggling with same-sex attraction”) places me outside the realm of orthodoxy, or at least precariously perched on the border gazing fondly toward “heresy.” Both camps are likely to proclaim, “Either you’re with us or you’re against us!” with one side saying, “You shouldn’t be talking about this at all,” and the other asserting, “You should be talking about this, but you need to have the conversation within progressive political parameters.” And no matter what we say, taking a more moderate approach leaves some people seeing us as wishy-washy and others claiming that we position ourselves on a moral high ground from which we silently judge one side, or perhaps both. In some ways, the linguistic mess that is the current dialogue on LGBT issues in the Church reminds me of the verbal gymnastics required for talking with my mom about the “caveman” pill: you can talk about these issues publicly if and only if you know the special code words that sound benign to everyone else around you.

The polarization of these conversations is extremely harmful. It’s harmful to tell a young girl who needs to take birth control pills that she must never talk about this medication to anyone lest she be perceived as a whore. It’s harmful to label everyone cheering the Hobby Lobby ruling as a bigot and misogynist. Similarly, it’s destructive to brand everyone who has a problem with the ruling as an enemy of the unborn and of and religious freedom. It’s damaging to say that the conversation about LGBT people in the Church only has two types of participants who are diametrically opposed on every issue. This is especially pronounced where one side insists that being LGBT is an illness of some kind that needs healing and the other argues that any person who does not fully affirm every aspect of an LGBT person’s life is an enemy. It’s a shame that people who do not identify as culture warriors for either side are dismissed from the discussion. When the poles are so present within every topic for debate, it’s hard to see any room for learning, growth, or the process of conversion.

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15 thoughts on “Cavemen, Contraception, and Christian Controversies

    • And thanks for commenting again, Susan. I hope that someday we can move beyond binaries into a greater appreciation for the complexities of every moral situation we face as a society. -Sarah

  1. Thank you for writing this post. Coming from the UK, I find myself utterly nonplussed by the whole situation (that is not a comment on US vs UK politics, simply that I’m more aware than ever of our cultural differences), and it’s really hard to figure out just what could be done.

    I think one thing is clear, you are very right to point out the polarising nature of such debates hinders any true progress, or indeed any kind of real victory (yes some might consider this a victory for religious conscience, except for the fact that amongst my atheist and feminist/womanist – amongst others from a range of religious, philosophical and political beliefs – associates in the US, it has confirmed to them the danger of religion in public life and that religious institutions are not to be trusted when it comes to issues affecting women and the LGBT community). I really don’t think it is culturally healthy or sustainable for any community to go from backlash to backlash but it can be exhausting standing up against it.

    • I agree entirely. I think in America, at least currently, political rhetoric is far more polarizing than it is in most other places. It is indeed exhausting to keep pointing out that this isn’t helpful and feel like one is speaking into an echo chamber. -Sarah

  2. This is a very nice piece Sarah. Indeed, there’s a lot of pressure out there from all “sides” to craft our expression to suit their sensibilities and agenda. But I believe the world and the church need to hear the complex and beautiful stories of real lives, as truth indeed will set us free and build up God’s church. I’ve just started a blog about my life as a gay evangelical Christian to give voice to the journeys of people like us. I’m glad to have found your blog.

    • Thanks! It’s great that you’ve started a blog. I just found it, and I am excited to hear more of your story and learn from your experience. Lindsey and I plan to become two of your regular readers. 🙂 -Sarah

  3. Aren’t some businesses already suing to say that they don’t have to abide by non-discrimination for LGBT people because of RFRA? sadly I think liberal fears of a slippery slope from the SCOTUS ruling are not unfounded.

    • Hi Deborah. I’m not any kind of legal expert. I know very little about law, in fact. But I’ve been talking about this with several friends who are experienced lawyers, with both liberal and conservative leanings. From what I’ve been told by lawyers I know on both sides, the fact that a business is suing in order to be able to discriminate against LGBT people does not mean that the suit is likely to be successful. It also doesn’t mean there’s a direct connection between the Hobby Lobby case and those types of lawsuits. From what my friends tell me, there’s very little from the Hobby Lobby case on which a company could successfully draw to argue its case. This article isn’t from a liberal perspective, but a liberal lawyer friend of mine sent it to me and says that it does a pretty good job explaining away some of the left’s concerns about the Hobby Lobby case: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-07-02/answers-to-all-your-hobby-lobby-questions. I’m not denying that there are companies that hope to earn the right to discriminate against the LGBT community. Some such businesses do exist, and that reality pains me. But after doing a lot of reading on this, I just don’t see how the Hobby Lobby case in and of itself is the start of a slippery slope toward discrimination. -Sarah

  4. This. Every word of it. I wholeheartedly agree.

    I see the polarization as potentially more damaging than a “wrong” decision from either side’s perspective on any of the key issues is likely to be, because polarization destroys empathy. Empathy is hard enough for humans to come by as it is, and without it, we lose our recourse to the crucial little things that make less-than-ideal situations livable: respect for human dignity, any sense of common ground, and ultimate charity.

    The lack of empathy in public discourse is acutely disturbing to me. As a studying/aspiring novelist, I’ve learned that empathy is the heart and soul, point and purpose of fiction. It’s the trade secret; it’s what I’m trained (and am, admittedly, very much still training) in. My value for it might therefore be a tad myopic, but at least I didn’t come up with that value by myself; here’s Steve Greydanus quoting Roger Ebert and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross:

    “One of the qualities [Roger Ebert] most celebrated in a film was its ability to ‘take us outside our personal box of time and space and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects. I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.’ (If his celebration of empathy sounds over the top, consider that St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) arguably goes further: Empathy, she maintained in On the Problem of Empathy and other writings, is foundational to personhood and community, to knowledge even of the self, as well as others.)”—Steven D. Greydanus, “How I Believe in Roger Ebert

    …anyway, I could go on and on about that forever, but mainly I just wanted to say that a post like this on the internet is always hugely comforting. Anyone who has felt drawn and quartered by dualistic public discourse has full rights to not just my imperfect empathy, but my wholehearted sympathy. 🙂

    • Empathy is shamefully undervalued these days. It seems most of us would rather rip each other to shreds than even attempt to consider the possibility that those we disagree with might have logical reasons for doing so. Thanks for sharing that quote with us. 🙂 -Sarah

    • Gosh, that’s a tough one. There are so many. Could you tell me more about what you’re seeking in terms of perspectives, approaches, sexual ethics, etc.? Or are you interested in everything you can find?

      A few other blogs I can think of at the moment:

      For more traditional approaches to sexual ethics, you might want to read Eve Tushnet’s blog on the Patheos Catholic Channel, Julie Rodgers’ blog, Mudblood Catholic, and Spiritual Friendship.

      For more progressive approaches to sexual ethics, you might want to read Sacred Tension, Registered Runaway, Freed Hearts, Crumbs from the Communion Table, and Believe Out Loud.

      You might also want to check out the Gay Christian Network website. GCN supports people who hold a traditional perspective as well as people who hold a more liberal perspective.

      There are so many more resources out there. Please contact us through our contact form if you would like to be directed to more resources.

      Sarah

  5. You took a very libertarian position talking about the importance of religious freedom and about the benefits of greater access to contraception.

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