Saturday, January 5, 2013

Book Recommendation- Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control

What with the HHS mandate being such a big deal these days, it's pretty easy to get drawn into conversations with Protestants about contraception and why Catholics think it's bad. From my experience, most of us are woefully unequipped to deal with arguments on the issue, though. Lots of Catholics, assuming their Protestant brethren to be pro-life, will default to arguing about the pill's abortifacient character. Even if you can get the other person to believe that (which is difficult enough), that doesn't deal with other method, like, say, condoms.

The best route might be to try and show the Protestant just how novel the acceptance of birth control is by their own religious tradition. Allan Carlson's book, Godly Seed, is the perfect guide for doing so.

Dr. Carlson basically takes the entire history of Protestant thought on contraceptive and tracks it all the way from Luther and Calvin to Billy Graham and the modern age. Very few people these days are aware of how universal the condemnation of birth control was until less than a hundred years ago. It was considered a vile practice by every stripe of Christian. When I use the word "vile," I'm not exaggerating. Some of the Protestant language about contraception makes Catholic discussion look tame by comparison.

More than just tracing the religious doctrines about birth control, Godly Seed also paints a picture of how those doctrines affected the legal landscape in the United States. How many people these days have heard of Anthony Comstock or the laws named after him? Is there anyone who would imagine that the history of legal bans on contraception in this country were entirely the result of Protestant lobbying? Doubtful.

As the book progresses, Dr. Carlson shows how the cracks began to appear in the monolithic anti-contraception mentality. Naturally, it was the Anglicans who caved first at the Lambeth Conference of 1930. But what brought them to make such a radical break with what had previously been standard Christian practice?

Essentially, Protestants were duped into the waters of antinatalism by Margaret Sanger, who really was just a real piece of filth. Sanger used a dual approach of promoting eugenics on one hand, while stoking the fires of anti-Catholicism on the other. Eventually, the mainline Protestant faiths threw up an intellectual white flag to the former, while the fundamentalists succumbed to the latter. It's pretty depressing stuff. Granted, the onset of the sexual revolution didn't help, but the main point of Godly Seed is that the foundation for any religious resistance had already been ripped from its moorings even before then. All the sexual revolution did was formalize the break and sweep away any lingering vestiges of resistance.

As an aside, it might also be surprising to many Protestants at how divisive the issue of abortion was over time. It wasn't as cut-and-dry as saying, "The Bible says 'Thou shalt not kill.'"

The first huge advantage this book has is that Dr. Carlson is not Catholic. He's Lutheran, so nobody can point fingers about denominational biases. I can't overstate how valuable this is in breaking down the initial walls of resistance.

The second huge advantage actually comes from the fact that it's not very well written, at least as far as conventional notions go. The book has very little material directly from Carlson himself. Every page is almost entirely made up of quotations from the original sources. This was annoying at first, but I can understand why it's written this way. It's almost as though Carlson went into this project knowing that a lot of his audience wasn't going to believe him, so he felt he had to over-document everything and cut out as much of his own ideas as possible. This results in a book that is entirely informational, with very little in the way of narrative or style. If you are looking for dynamic and engaging language, you won't enjoy this work. However, you will learn stuff, and for that reason, you should read it anyway.

The final advantage of the book is that it has an unintentionally topical element as well. As Protestant circles became more and more accepting of birth control, the concept of marriage itself came under scrutiny. Historically speaking, marriage was regarded in very similar terms as what Catholicism would claim. While Protestants rejected it as a sacrament, they did maintain the view that the primary end of marriage was procreation and the begetting of children. Naturally, if contraception was to be legitimized in Protestant religious practice, fertility's place had to be degraded. In other words, marriage had to be redefined to reduce children to a secondary role, while the mutual support of the spouses was made not only the primary end, but the sole one as well. After all, children were now optional altogether.

This may resonate with modern Protestants troubled by the current societal desire to redefine marriage as included homosexual unions. Regardless of their feelings on how Biblical a practice may be, perhaps the practical side of how dangerous it is to arbitrarily alter such a bedrock concept will have some influence.

Godly Seed isn't very long. It was about 170 pages, I think, but a lot of that was end notes. It is a densely-packed, thorough examination of how Protestants abandoned their heritage as Christians out of fears of too many handicapped, too many blacks, and too many Catholics. Once the lack of sexual accountability became comfortable, there was no reason to consider past arguments, and everyone was content with the new status quo. I strongly encourage all Catholics to read the book for themselves and then circulate it among your Protestant friends.

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