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Contraception, the NAE, and what a Conversation Does

July 2nd, 2012 | 8 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Last week Marvin Olasky released his story that the National Association of Evangelicals had taken a grant from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, an organization with a mission of helping single people gain access to contraception.

One of the efforts that the program resulted in was the panel on abortion reduction at Q that I wrote about earlier this year.  The President of the National Campaign, Sarah Brown, was one of the participants in that panel.  The money trail seems to be a bit tricky, at least from what I can tell.  Gabe Lyons made it seem like Q wanted to do the panel independently of the NAE’s sponsorship, but that the NAE never disclosed their material connection with the National Campaign.1

Officially, the NAE takes no position on the question of contraception for unmarried folks.  From what I can gather, though, they are pro-abstinence and for including contraception as an option that is considered during the “conversation” about prevention.2   As they said in a statement responding to Olasky, “Evangelicals are conflicted about contraceptives outside of marriage because we never want to promote or condone sexual immorality. But we are told that contraceptives can reduce abortions and we want to stop abortions.”

I have personal reasons, though, for believing that they are interested in letting diverse voices play as well.  After all, I too am a recipient of the NAE’s funds.  I wasn’t on the (in)famous panel, but I did co-facilitate a discussion on sex and the church that took as its reference point the NAE’s statement on the subject.  The session was with a smaller group of attendees at one of the “Q Briefings,” which are practically minded fora and exercises for attendees of the conference.3

I make the point because it adds an important bit of texture to Olasky’s story and to people’s perceptions about the NAE.4 The NAE and Q both knew that I’m a conservative sort of fellow, especially on matters of sexuality, but that didn’t bother them.  The conversation our session had was, I thought, rigorous and constructive and focused on everything I wish the panel had talked about–the theological and ecclesiastical underpinnings of our sexual culture, and how to pursue reform in our local contexts on both fronts.  If I remember right, we barely mentioned contraception–which in a conversation about reducing unplanned pregnancies within the church, is precisely how it should be.  The problems that lead to unplanned pregnancies and abortions lie far deeper than the alleged solution of contraception will ever reach.

Which is to say, the NAE’s arm that does all this is a Forumand they seem to take the name seriously enough that they’d host disagreeing voices at the same conference, even if not on the same panel.

And yet, it’s important to understand the implications of inserting contraception as an option into the conversation about evangelical sexual ethics.

Most evangelicals, including me, take it as a given that because the Bible is against unmarried sex that a Biblical sexual ethic would be opposed to contraception for unmarried folks.  That’s a position that I have planted my flag on and I will defend it until convinced otherwise or they pry my keyboard from my fingers.  (And that’s not because contemplating the alternative will kill me, though it might knock a few years off).

Yet it’s clear from the Q attendees poll that we have reached the point where the given is now in question, where the traditional view is no longer considered by young evangelical leaders to be so obviously right that the alternative can plausibly be ignored.  On the one hand, this is terribly dispiriting to me.  The faith that our fathers died for was hardly one that sanctioned a lack of sexual restraint.  The church will never understand nor be able to emulate the depth and power of Augustine’s Confessions as long as we enable our people’s cry for “chastity, Lord, but not yet.”   Judging by the Q poll, that cry is precisely what young evangelicals want.

However, questioning the givens has its advantages as well.  Because it is no longer safe to assume that evangelicals oppose contraception for single people, we have to more clearly understand why they should.  That means inquiring into the nature of human sexuality in a deeper, more careful way, in order to better understand its internal dynamics and its ordering toward God.   All that is a more difficult task, but a fruitful one for all evangelicals to undertake.  And those of us who oppose contraception for unmarried people have to, I think, scrutinize ourselves to see whether our failure to pursue such understanding is partly to blame for the creation of a culture where the alternative is more plausible.

In other words, there is something to be gained once the givens are questioned:  more clarity and conviction about why they eventually became givens in the first place.  It is ironic that the National Campaign funded the NAE to make contraception more plausible for single people within the church.  Because their position happens to be the wrong one, the “conversation” that they paid for will invariably work against them.5  I’ve always thought that the truth will endure, and if the responses I’ve received to all my writings about this are any indication then there’s good reason to believe it will.

Like Chesterton once wrote about the emergence of orthodoxy within the early church, a consistent biblical ethic of sexuality will grow even stronger and more attractive as our sexually obsessed culture wheezes its way to total and utter exhaustion.  The dull sensationalism of a world that can not say “no” will be left by the wayside, and the truth of the church’s witness to the profound power and beauty of purity will remain, reeling but yet standing tall.

I’ve no doubt that such is the NAE’s goal, as it is mine.  I wish they would speak with more conviction against contraception for single Christians than they have.  But now that the question has been opened for all of us, the only path through is forward, by cutting through the thickets and weeds that have overgrown our intuitions about sex and marriage in order to discover and expound the transformative goodness of grace and chastity that we know lays beyond.

And for moving me along that journey, I say “thank you” to the NAE.


  1. 1. One note about the NAE’s response:  When asked why this was all coming out now for the NAE, Leith Anderson suggested that the controversy about the HHS contraception mandate has spilled over its banks into this.  As the first person to write a critique of the panel, I want simply to note that for me this never had anything to do with the HHS contraception mandate at all.  Not in the least.  And I can’t speak for World or Mr. Olasky, but there’s not a hint anywhere that I can find that the two are connected.  The panel was controversial to me for a very simple reason:  no one on the panel said anything against advocating contraception for single Christians and 2/3 of the room left thinking that doing so would be a good idea.  And it’s not.  Really. []
  2. That’s it:  I’ve reached the saturation point for the phrase “We just want to have the conversation about [x].”  I’ve said it and I regret it.  Every time I hear someone else say it, I repent of my use of it.  I am sorry, world.  Now stop it. []
  3. For my trouble, I had part of my travel compensated by the NAE, and either the NAE or Q decided to let me in for free.  I am genuinely grateful to both organizations for their kindness.  I didn’t disclose any of this in my previous writings about the conference because, well, I was making a fuss and it didn’t seem relevant.  Both organizations have been very kind to me since those initial posts, a point that I am grateful for. []
  4. Yes, this is a lot of footnotes.  I am not sorry.  Full disclosure: I told Mr. Olasky this prior to the story’s publication but it didn’t make the cut.  That’s understandable given (a) I’m not all that important and (b) people don’t read long stories much anymore.  I blame you, internet. []
  5. It’s like a drug.  Seriously, I can’t quit.  Call for help. []