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:

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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.

Where’s the Controversy in Saving Lives?

I have to admire Melinda Gates’ chutzpah. In her recent TED talk and on her blog, Impatient Optimist, she insists that “contraception is not controversial”–when, in the last year, it has been explosively controversial, with many Christians (not just Catholic Christians) seeing the “contraceptive mandate” as a real threat to religious freedom. Yesterday, the law took effect, meaning that most employers must now provide free birth control coverage in their health insurance policies. Whether it constitutes a threat to religious liberty remains to be seen: faith-based groups with religious objections to the law have a “safe harbor” until Aug. 1, 2013. Whether HHS will create an extension of this harbor remains to be seen.

Regular readers of this blog know where I stand on health insurance. As to the contraceptive mandate specifically, I’d prefer not to wade in those particular waters–David Gibson at Religion News Service has a good piece if you’re interested in the question of whether the mandate kills religious freedom. However, I do want to consider two small points about contraception that leans me toward the (self-identified Catholic!) Melinda Gates point of view:

Point 1: contraception doesn’t take life

Point 2: women want contraception

Frequently, discussions of birth control come back to the question of eugenics and attempt to suggest that Margaret Sanger and other early birth control advocates wanted to keep poor people and immigrants from having babies. While it’s always dangerous to speak in general terms, it seems to me that Sanger (and others) were attempting, in good faith, to answer a need, a call for help–not to impose their will on less-educated, less-wealthy women. Here is the tri-lingual (English, Yiddish, Italian) poster from the early days of the movement:

Despite these efforts, the very unfortunate discrimination in Sanger’s (and others in the early birth control movement) thinking seems to taint contemporary discussions of birth control, perhaps understandably so.

But even that history doesn’t change this: just meeting current demand for contraception could cut maternal deaths by 1/3. Which means maybe 100,000 lives per year–or more–just by meeting the unmet, self-identified needs of women.

Where my family and I are headed–Malawi–the contraceptive prevalence rate is just 40%; recently, Malawi’s Vice President pledged to try and raise the rate to 60% by 2012, partly by raising the legal age of marriage and partly by enacting policies which–with help from organizations like the Gates Foundation–will increase access to contraception.

This is not the wealthy, white, West forcing the Pill–much less sterilizations or abortion–on Africans, Indians, or anyone else. We are talking about working in partnership to help women meet their self-identified needs. It’s not about rejecting God’s gift of fertility. It’s about stewarding it well in a complicated world.

I just don’t see the controversy–religious or otherwise–in that.