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Birth-Control, Religious Freedom and Obamacare

I can’t believe how many Protestants have suddenly become Roman Catholic in their anti-Obamacare arguments.

Please listen carefully, all you who oppose the Affordable Care Act. I’m not weighing in on whether overall Obamacare is a good thing or not, whether or not it will work in the long run. Rather, I’m dismayed by how religious arguments are now being used by many evangelical opponents of Obamacare. People and institutions, many of whom I respect, and all of whom share a common Lord with me, tell me that their obstinacy toward Obamacare is really about issues like “religious freedom” and “protecting life”—hardly trifling topics. Frankly, I think it is more about stoking the fires of fear that keep the dollars flowing in.

Discussions about the beginning of life and religious freedom are too poignant, too complicated, and too important to be trundled out for blunt-force efforts to stymie Obamacare. Bringing almost-sacred topics into what is really just a corrosively partisan fray feels analogous to taking the Lord’s name in vain.

For Protestants to assail all forms of birth control is a bizarre notion. It demonstrates the folly and danger of taking things to their “logical” extreme. To be anti-abortion doesn’t mean that “every sperm is sacred,” as Monty Python once spoofed. If some Protestants want to mimic Roman Catholics (or more accurately, the Roman Catholic hierarchy), then they need to import or adopt a whole different system of moral reasoning. 

Opposition to the “morning-after pill” usually signals more about distrust of women than protection of life. It is not an abortifacient. When I hear people speak against it, it isn’t long before attitudes surface of “enforcing consequences,” “instilling responsibility” and “they had their fun, now they must pay.” Too often anti-abortion Christians take the low road of shaming women, rather than the high road of caring for the vulnerable. (I understand that RU-486, which is an abortifacient, is morally problematic.)

Christians, especially Reformed Christians, have always recognized moral ambiguity. It is what Jason Lief recently called, “The In-Between Spaces” Can we charge usury? Well, that’s complicated… Divorce? Not ideal, but in the grace of God… War? Sinful, but sometimes tragically necessary… These have been Reformed responses. 

In our polarized political world, morally ambiguous questions about the beginning of life must have absolute answers. A zone of enforced non-conversation. Issues, policies, and practices that are connected in only the most extremely tangential way, the Pluto of that solar system, are made to carry huge significance. This might suit perfectionists or pietists but doesn’t comport well with a Reformed way of thinking.  

Just as I want to be a serious and thoughtful participant in conversations about the beginning of life, I also understand that “religious freedom” should always be a genuine concern. In any nation, under any regime, the state is prone to seep into the realm of the church. But when opponents of Obamacare play the religious freedom card, it is like using a bazooka when a sharp pencil with a good eraser is the more appropriate tool. And given the slurs and code-language many evangelicals have hurled at this president, when “religious freedom” is tossed into this discussion, it isn’t heard as something complicated, where fair-minded Christians can disagree. Instead, it comes across as a scare-tactic, ringing with those cataclysmic images from Christian pulp fiction, where brigades of secret, secular brownshirts are just waiting to seize our Bibles, and arrest those with fish stickers on our cars. 

Straining at gnats—that’s what this Christian resistance to Obamacare is. I am left to conclude that the deeper issue is desperately wanting to deny this president his “signature accomplishment.” We all know that issues of life and religious freedom are complex. But this intransigence toward Obamacare is less about these complexities, and more about pungent antipathy for the person who occupies the White House.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel James Meeter says:

    Go Steve.

  • Jim Schaap says:

    Well said, Brother Steve. Motivations for my alma mater's law suit against the AFC act are said to stem from church/state issues. Maybe. Then again, maybe not. It's tough not to think that taking on Obamacare is a good political move in the northwest corner of the state where you and I abide.

  • Michael Borgert says:


    Thanks for this post. It raises many good questions.

    I'm sure that there is no denying the political realities in your part of the country, but antipathy toward the President is not the only reason for opposing Obamacare. I regularly hear the sorts of comments you likely do as well and wonder about the motivation behind them. I share neither the antipathy toward the President or the moral absolutism regarding certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act, I do think that their are valid reason for opposing it. The provisions that now prevent coverage from being dropped, etc. are long overdue, but why are there no monetary limits on malpractice awards, the cost of which dramatically increases insurance for physicians? In addition, fear of being sued leads to a cover-your-ass approach resulting in expensive and often unnecessary tests, further driving up costs. If a person does have a genuine "religious freedom" objection to particular portions of the ACA, those objections need to be considered and taken seriously. I don't think it is beyond the capacity of intelligent, well-meaning people to arrive at a place where employers provide their workers with substantially similar coverage, less the objectionable portions of a package and then respecting the right of conscience of the worker, allow them (if they wish) to purchase a rider which would cover the procedure or pharmaceutical the employer had a "religious freedom" objection to. The ACA doesn't currently allow for such an arrangement. These (among a number of others) are big gaps in the ACA.

    I currently live in Canada where high quality health care is delivered to every citizen and many non-citizens (like me and my family) at a fraction of the cost of the US (a large portion of that savings is represented by a relatively low – by US standards – cap on malpractice awards), which keeps malpractice insurance rates for doctors lower and also limits the number of potentially unnecessary and expensive CYA tests they order. The system here is by no means perfect, just as the ACA has its flaws. I knew (previously in theory, but have now experienced in reality) that most other people in modern, industrialized democracies look at the US health care system and the numbers of uninsured (even after the introduction of ACA) and shake their heads. To be fair they may also look with envy on all the research, technology and "wonder-drugs" and (for lack of a better term) "toys" that at least certain players in the US system have access to. But for the wealthiest, most dynamic economy in history not to be able to find a way to provide (at the very least) basic health care for all of its citizens can only realistically be attributed to greed.

    For many people the ACA is a lot better than what they had before.

    I wonder too about the hypocrisy of many who call themselves fiscal conservatives but didn't nothing to oppose or amend President Bush's Medicare drug benefit, which addressed a need, but prevented the program from negotiating with drug companies for lower prices in the way the VA does. From one perspective it looks like a huge give away to those who strongly supported a political campaign.

    I agree that as Reformed Christians we should inhabit these in between spaces, but as we're asking for an acknowledgment of nuance and ambiguity from those with whom we disagree, let's be willing to grant the same to their arguments and objections.

    Grace and Peace,

  • Steve MVW says:

    Michael, thank you for your helpful comments and simply entering the conversation. Just to clarify, I wasn't really trying to opine about whether Obamacare is good or bad, will work or won't work. Even now that it is underway, it is already either "bearing fruit" or "crashing and burning"–depending on the "expert" you listen to. I'm more concerned that recently some of the anti-Obamacare people have "sacralized" their opposition, which seems rather disingenuous at this point. Christians should continue to watch and discuss concerns about religious freedom and the beginning of life, but to the degree possible let's have those discussions be more than just a "card to play" in partisan wrangling.
    Jim, I'm glad to be Iowan, but only you live in the northwest part of our state :).

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