What If Jesus Is Saying It’s OK to Pay for Things that Are Against Your Religion? (Since You Probably Always Are)

The first time I went to the hospital to learn more about maternal health services in Malawi, I’d been assigned to the family planning clinic, and was helping the nurse-midwife move supplies into the clinic to prepare for the steady, hours-long stream of women who came through the doors for contraception. I sat at the little desk with the nurse, greeting the women as they came in and jotting their information into the record book.




Number of Children?

Number of Children Alive?

It was hard to ask that last one without looking away, my voice sort of trailing off as I winced, hoping that the two numbers would match. These women were mostly very, very poor. Many had walked for 6 or more miles to get to the clinic, and many didn’t even have shoes. Many were young; some were very young.

By far the most popular form of birth control was the injection Depo-Provera, which lasts three months. Some women, however, had come in a few days late for the shot–it must be administered on a strict timetable–and when the nurse told them that they had to go get a pregnancy test before she could inject, many of them cried, because waiting at the laboratory would take much of the day, and then it might be days before they could get their next injection, but by then, they might become pregnant.

I asked the young, beautiful midwife with whom I was working–who looked and sounded a lot like Lady Sybill from Downton Abbey, except African–if women of all religions used the family planning clinic.

“Oh yes!” she assured me.

“Even if they’re Catholic, and their religion teaches them not to use birth control?”

“They do,” she insisted. “I know they’re not ‘supposed’ to, but they do.”

The box of Depo-Provera vials I’d carried into the clinic bore this seal:


I was following the contraceptive mandate debate, and I thought, how ironic.

The USAID page on family planning notes:

Family planning could prevent up to 30 percent of the more than 287,000 maternal deaths that occur every year, by enabling women to delay their first pregnancy and space later pregnancies at the safest intervals. If all babies were born three years apart, the lives of 1.6 million children under the age of five would be saved each year.

That’s a lot of children’s lives.

At home in the US, a study conducted among people most likely to get abortions has found (thanks, Adam, for pointing this out!) that free birth control dramatically cuts the rate of abortion:

4.4 to 7.5 abortions per 1,000 women in the study, compared with 13.4 to 17 abortions per 1,000 women overall.

For me, these are compelling reasons to consider widely accessible subsidized birth control as a moral imperative: It saves lives–lots of them, and allows for the flourishing of those lives. That’s why it’s been written into laws, and funded by taxes. I realize many fellow Christians disagree. It’s been making the news a lot lately.

Russell Moore and other religious leaders have just issued an ‘Open Letter to All Americans’ on “Standing Together for Religious Freedom.” It argues:

Screen shot 2013-07-03 at 9.35.09 AM

As others have pointed out, it’s pretty problematic to allow conscience exceptions for ANY organization or individual that has “religious or moral” objections to paying for “mandated drugs and services.” Can religious groups who object to blood transfusions refuse to pay on religious grounds? Those who object to vaccinations? In a society with many religions (and many ‘nones,’) all kinds of exceptions could soon overwhelm any piece of legislation.

Despite my bias (see above) I understand the religious objections to contraception. I really do. Which is why I believe that no one should be compelled, against their will, to use contraception.

Where I pause is when “religious liberty” gets defined as “I shouldn’t have to pay for something I disagree with.” The contraceptive mandate may feel or seem more “direct” than the taxes that pay for the boxes of Depo-Provera in Malawi and elsewhere, but it amounts to much the same thing: a government-mandated outlaying of money in accordance with certain laws. A tax.

“Render unto Caesar” applies here. Whose image is on that dollar bill? Uncle Sam’s. So give unto Uncle Sam what belongs to Uncle Sam. And, yes, whether at home or abroad, Uncle Sam will probably use your dollar bills to pay for things that contradict something your religion teaches. My understanding of my religion includes the importance of caring for the earth and not taking human life, but my taxes subsidize oil companies, fund unjust wars, and pay for the injections used in the execution of people on death row.

I despise that.

But I think Jesus’  point in Mark 12–which is admittedly strange, and hard to swallow–is that even if taxes are going toward something that contradicts something that he has taught (in this case, regarding people with ‘partiality,’ which a loyalty tax would contradict), you say ‘oh well!’ and pay it.

Just let Caesar have your money, Jesus is saying. That’s Caesar’s picture on it; so that stuff belongs to him anyway.

Give yourselves to the one whose image is on you.

Americans have the freedom to do that. We have the freedom to love and worship God, to love and serve our neighbor. We won’t always agree on the ‘best’ or ‘right’ ways of doing those things; of bearing God’s image and rendering it unto God.

Sometimes, happily, we get to help pay for things that support practices we like, that further human flourishing and align with ‘kingdom work': Clean drinking water, right outta the tap! Education! Firefighters! Libraries! Eradication of deadly diseases! Thanks be to God!

But we’re also pretty much guaranteed to always be paying for things (one way or another) that support practices we abhor. And maybe we just have to be okay with that.

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42 thoughts on “What If Jesus Is Saying It’s OK to Pay for Things that Are Against Your Religion? (Since You Probably Always Are)

  1. To me this feels like a fight over ideology not reality. For those organizations that only hire and people that are of their same religious background (real church based organizations) either people will follow the religious teachings or they won’t. But it is about the religious teaching and agreement more than the money.

    But for those organizations that hire people from outside their religious background I just can’t see what is different between this and any other corporate employment mandate. I don’t hear a lot of people asking OSHA to remove hard hat rules for Sikhs that work in construction.

  2. I haven’t followed this issue too closely (being a Canadian an’ all…) but I feel like there’s something of a tension in your post between religious freedom conceived as an individual reality or as corporate reality. Within contemporary American culture (thoroughly protestant as it is), and I think in your post, individual freedoms are prioritized – freedom as an individual reality dominates, conceptually. But if religious freedom is to have any real meaning, it must be the right of religious communities to form members meaningfully in the practices and virtues of their religious tradition. I think this is what Catholic communities are trying to preserve. If such a thick account of religious freedom isn’t preserved it will simply be more of the same in the American context – freedom of religion will simply mean the right to privately worship whatever God you wish. Outside of that, everyone must conform to the dominant moral and ethical assumptions. I realize this simply raises more questions, but I just want to highlight the necessarily communal dimension of Christian faith and identity.

      • Hey. I realize that you haven’t offered a sustained treatise on this issue, and my comments were kind of opaque. But I guess I was referring to things like this in your post, in which you seem to see the issue through the lens of what you think or of what “fellow Christians” think (which I take to be focussed on the individual and her or his freedom and beliefs):

        “For me, these are compelling reasons to consider widely accessible subsidized birth control as a moral imperative: It saves lives–lots of them, and allows for the flourishing of those lives. That’s why it’s been written into laws, and funded by taxes. I realize many fellow Christians disagree. It’s been making the news a lot lately.”

        When this focus on the opinions of different individuals (you also focus on ‘Americans’, which I think reinforces this) is linked up with an absence of discussion about what it means to live faithfully as the Body of Christ (to be defined by a shared pursuit goodness and truth with him), I think a (very protestant?) individualism defines the approach to moral and ethical questions. In that case I worry that the church simply ceases to be the church – almost as if American polity required it. Or: I begin to define my life and freedom not in terms of my life in the Body of Christ but in terms of what the American system graciously grants me.

        Hauerwas has an new, interesting post on the ABC Religion and Ethic site that gets at some of these issues in a way that I can’t possibly match… //www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/07/02/3794561.htm

        For what it’s worth, and knowing all of this requires a lot more conversation and time.

  3. You touched on the same inconsistency I’ve seen, Rachel. Pacifists pay taxes that support the military all the time. Income taxes for federal military spending, and state sales tax that supports the local National Guard. No one says a business owned by a religious pacifist shouldn’t have to collect and pay those taxes.


    • i have met a whole bunch of people who are anti-violence or pro non-violent in this country who remove a percentage of the money owed as taxes [the percentage that goes to the military] and send a letter with their taxes [risking fine or imprisonment] explaining that the refuse to support that aspect of military spending – whether it makes an actual difference is possibly neither here nor there but there are a decently huge number who back up their beliefs with how they use their money…

      • I know of those people too. But try to withhold sales tax next time you’re at the hardware store or buying clothes. Can’t be done. But those taxes support the state’s national guard just the same.

  4. The problem with the HHS mandate is that it requires organizations to directly pay for services they find to be morally objectionable. It is one thing to render unto Ceasar in general and another to have Ceasar make you spend your money in a specific way.

    • I think that the Mark 12:13-17 passage is pretty instructive. Those taxes rendered unto Caesar were rendered in violation of a fundamental teaching of Jesus': to “not regard people with partiality.” Giving taxes to Caesar was tantamount to worshiping him: ie: Christians’ money going to something that Christians emphatically do not and cannot affirm. And yet, Jesus says, do it.

      • I don’t dispute that, but the HHS mandate is not a tax. It doesn’t have anything to do with rendering into Caesar. Keep in mind that the central issue is not making sure that impoverished women have access to birth control; the issue is that employers are being required to pay for birth control on behalf of their employees – people who have jobs that come with health insurance (i.e. decent jobs). These are, for the most part, people who can pay the very low cost of their own birth control.

        As far as I know no one is objecting to the corporate and income tax dollars that end up in the coffers of USAID, providing birth control (and many other services) overseas. And don’t forget, our tax dollars are already generously funding Planned Parenthood’s “family planning” services.

      • Is insurance part of compensation? If it is, then this is a matter of employment law and Christians need to follow employment law as they do with other issues like overtime, work safety rules and government non-discrimination rules.

        If it is not a part of compensation what is it? Because it is the employees that get the benefit and decide what and how insurance is used. Employers do not have the right to tell you that you cannot use your paycheck to gamble, drink or smoke, whether they agree with those actions or not.

  5. Fascinating post. I’m glad you addressed the fact that our taxes pay for lots of other things that don’t respect human life (war, the death penalty, etc). However, I don’t know if I agree that that means we just have to make peace that the government is going to take and spend our money on things that contradict our values. It reminds me somewhat of the constant debate over giving money to homeless folks or street corner beggars. Many won’t give because they don’t want their money to be used for alcohol, drugs, or other bad habits. Are we responsible for what others do with our money? When we give to the government are we supporting what they do? Are we responsible for funding their wars? These are tough questions that I don’t know the answers to. I pay my taxes and plan to continue paying my taxes, but how do we call out injustices even as we “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s?” And just so you know, I’m with you on this contraceptive debate…but it does bring up a lot of ethical and legal questions.

    • It’s a very good question, and one I wanted to address, but didn’t want to exceed 900+ words in this post! I think that the relationship between citizen of whatever country and citizen of the kingdom of God can be tricky to negotiate, but ultimately I would say that our engagement can’t be limited to electoral politics or paying our taxes. If we have a strong call to aid the poor, we should not consider our duty done when we pay taxes–we should find ways of engaging. The proceeds of my book, though, support an organization that lobbies the government for expanded aid to those suffering hunger. We can protest government spending, for sure. What I’m objecting to specifically is saying “my religious LIBERTY is at stake because my taxes pay for something I disagree with.” Does that make some sense? I hope so because I have to run off to serve dinner! Thanks for reading. ;)

  6. Very thought-provoking post, Rachel. Thank you. Coming out of the ultra fundamentalist Christian Homeschool Movement (not to be confused with homeschooling in general), there are a lot of homeschool leaders touting the full-quiver movement for all so we can have soldiers for Christ. I wonder if they’d say the same thing if they lived in Malawi?

    • I doubt it because of the scarcity of land and resources! In fact, some of our theological students have named overpopulation as a real problem in Malawi and consider it Christian stewardship to use birth control.

      • I am no expert on these issues. Social Justice issues are something I am just in the last few years getting into having attended a Jesuit university and been influenced by it. Are Malawi women considered property of their husbands? Can they not say no, they do not want sex when they are fertile? Can human beings not practice abstinence at certain periods in a woman’s cycle? Natural Family Planning (NOT rhythm) is 98-99 percent effective if taught and practiced accurately and prevents pregnancy intelligently and naturally without any artificial chemicals with side effects being introduced into a woman’s body. I have practiced it successfully all my life and I am 48 years old. That is real liberation for women. Education takes longer than giving someone a shot or a pill, it is not the easy way out, but it is a lifelong solution that does control population in accordance with a healthy, spiritual outlook on life and not offended any Catholic or Christian’s ideology. If someone knows something that has been good for them and changed their life for the better (like Natural Family Planning) then they could love their neighbor enough to share that knowledge with them so that their lives could be ameliorated too. I usually don’t post on blogs, but when I saw this on Facebook that a deacon friend of mine whose opinion I respect had posted, I read the article and all the replies, was riveted, and felt the desire to reply. Sorry for being so long winded! Rachel, I admire the fact that you are doing missionary work. I am currently in Catholic Church ministry and may one day undertake missionary work when I retire. Blessings!

      • Thanks for commenting, JoAnn! Unfortunately, women are regarded as property and the idea that rape is even *possible* within marriage is new and radical: in other words, women do not have the right to refuse sex.

  7. I’ve yet to meet a full-quiver type who wasn’t comfortably middle-class (or above). As always, it takes a substantial defense budget to raise an army!

    • At the risk of going completely off topic from the original post, I’d add that the Quiver-Full idea of God’s army is decidedly unbiblical and based on a horrible understanding of eschatological doctrine.

    • I have met scores of full-quiver families barely surviving. I tell you what, I’d like to Tweet and tag this post with a few of those who staunchly promote this idea. You’ve got my brain itching to do a blog post on this topic now. So thanks for that, everyone. I think :)

      • Julie Anne, that is a good point. I read somewhere that while quiverfull families like to point to the Duggars and other middle class quiverfullers, the truth is that many qf families live well below the poverty line, especially in places that are (in general) less expensive to live. We don’t encounter many in New York, for example–which is why all the qfs my dad has met have been comfortably middle class…

  8. As Christian it is absolutely great to see someone who may not be a believer not only quote a scripture but to also apply it accurately, kudos to you. There are also many verses abt submitting to authority, not only to our Father in heaven but also our leaders and government. If more of my fellow Christians would follow this and simply PRAY for their leaders instead of criticizing ans critiquing them, our country wouldnt be so much of a hypocrisy. Also believers and atheists might actually agree on something, to respect each others beliefs (or lack of) and just get along.

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  10. As is so often (almost always really) the case, it’s cafeteria religion. People pick and choose the parts they like and ignore the rest.

    When was the last time you saw an uproar about people working on the Sabbath? And that’s one of your “commandments.” The bible doesn’t even mention birth control.

    And even if it did, so what? This is not, as the fundies will tell you, a “nation founded on Christian values.” Read the writings of the founding fathers, and you’ll understand that.

    Your so called “religious freedom” shouldn’t interfere with common sense legislation that’s for the benefit of society as a whole.

    • But greenifiers, Sabbath keeping is not one of the commandments under the New Covenant. You’ll find it under the Old Covenant, but not something that is mandated after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

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  14. It seems like you are conflating two separate issues and debating them as one.
    Issue #1 – Is taxpayer money used to provide birth control in impoverished counties OK? Your data and evidence are overwhelmingly supportive of the benefits of this program and you have made a strong case that “Caesar’s money” is Caesar’s. Although, as an aside, the early Christians certainly disagreed with Roman tax monies being used to fund gladiator games and their moral objections eventually resulted in the games ceasing.
    Issue #2 – Can the government arbitrarily require private companies/individuals to use their own money (not tax-payer money) to provide free pharmaceuticals they are morally opposed to – specifically the “morning after” abortion pill? And can the government assess fines of over a million $$$ a day to companies/individuals who object on moral grounds while the issue is still working its way through the legal system? That is what the HHS mandate required and, at this point, numerous court decisions are supporting the companies’ position, not the government’s (one – Hobby Lobby – was just handed down this morning).
    As an aside – why did the HHS require THIS be provided by employers at no cost to employees? Why not free vaccines? Or free blood transfusions? Or free pacemakers? Why not free surgical abortions? That there was an ideological component as well as a medical component *must* be seriously considered and is another discussion topic altogether.

    Nothing you offered as (well-argued) support for issue #1 transfers as an argument against issue #2. Instead you leapfrogged over it to the conclusion that because people benefit from many tax-payer funded programs, they should have no moral/religious objections to being forced by the government to use their own money in any way that government dictates.

    PS – I love your blog, which I just discovered a few weeks ago. I especially appreciated “How NOT to help…”. Great stuff!

    • Well, I don’t think the HHS mandate is identical to a tax, exactly, but it is part of employment law: that employers must provide a comprehensive service from which employees may or may not choose to partake of a birth control benefit. That the birth control is “free” to the consumer is a much a function of how insurance policies work as anything else: it’s been determined that offering contraceptives without co-pay ultimately reduces costs to the insurance company. In other words, they GAIN by offering contraceptives for “free” because they end up not paying the higher costs associated with pregnancy and birth.

      As to what is “free” and not free to employees under HHS mandates; I’ve no idea. But it probably relates to the above: that it simply is good policy.

      Moreover, it’s been demonstrated a number of times that FREE contraceptives are perhaps the BEST way to reduce abortion. So there’s that. I don’t understand why we can’t ALL agree that that is an unqualified good, even if perhaps we do not ourselves think that birth control pill is morally permissible.

      And the unfortunately named morning after pill is emphatically NOT an abortion pill (as is RU-486.) It works with a super-high dose of progesterone that blocks ovulation. A good number of babies have been born happy and healthy after “Plan B” didn’t work.

      I *do* find it interesting that the Affordable Care Act (AKA ‘Obamacare’) was decried as “a tax by another name” when it was declared constitutional (specifically related to the individual mandate portion) but that increasingly it is being distanced from tax to be understood as something more “direct”–as in employers “directly” paying for things they object to. I don’t see how the mandate is really substantively different (more “direct”) than employers paying salaries that will then be used to procure birth control…or illegal drugs…or abortions…or nights of gambling.

      Anyway, just some thoughts here. Others may have something to add; you may have more to say, and thanks for feeling free to say it here (as you certainly are!) And thanks very much for your kind words about my blog, and for reading!

      Peace to you.

      • Well…just a couple more comments. :-)
        * Employment law doesn’t require a “comprehensive plan”; in the sense insurers are required to cover every medical procedure plus the kitchen sink. And it certainly doesn’t require payment for specific things out of pocket (except in this case) with no employee co-pay.
        One of the complaints that some unions are currently making about ACA is that their current health plans are “too comprehensive” and their members will LOSE benefits.
        * The HHS birth control mandate is not part of employment law which would have been passed by Congress (as ACA was in 2009). It was relatively arbitrary determination by the Sec. of HHS in Jan 2012 with substantial penalties attached. The mandate also covers sterilization which, of course, Catholic organizations would have issue with (I’m not Catholic BTW or opposed to birth control).
        All of this is a completely separate issue from the perceived health and/or financial benefits that could be argued.
        And, of course, the issue is further complicated by the administration granting numerous exemptions to the ACA insurance mandates based on financial considerations while refusing religious objection exemptions and imposing fines of up to 1.3 million a day (Hobby Lobby).
        If it is good policy for all American to get free birth control, then perhaps that should be a “Caesar” initiative.
        But, again, it can’t really be ignored that the government chose THIS benefit to be imperative and then required private/religious organizations and business to comply or face stiff penalties. And knowing that it treads on PERSONAL religious freedom, one *must* question if there was a reason beyond public health considerations. A bellweather, if you will.

        PS – As far as this all being not much different than people using their salaries for morally objectionable activities….I hope that you really do see there is a difference between what people choose do of their own initiative and what the government forces them to do. No snark there….but there should be a serious, clear demarcation between those two.

  15. Hi Rachel,
    Thank you for this post. I always appreciate seeing someone else argue for contraception, and in particular for insurance coverage of contraception, from a pro-life point of view. (I’ve been blogging about this for a while – //www.allourlives.org/tag/hhs_mandate/.). I’m a nonbeliever myself, so I worry that my rejection of the “freedom of religion” argument in the case of the contraception mandate comes across as hostility toward religion. If it’s hostility toward anything, it’s toward the idea that an employee’s compensation really belongs to the employer, not the employee, and should be used as the employer sees fit.

    Of course, there’s also a lot of misinformation about the mandate requiring “abortifacient” drugs to be covered, when so far the evidence hasn’t demonstrated that emergency contraception does anything except prevent fertilization.

  16. Ugh, I think my comment got eaten by WordPress’s login page, so I’ll just quickly say again that I’m glad to see another person arguing in favor of insurance coverage of contraception from a pro-life point of view.

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