Revolutionary Con(tra)ceptions: Evangelicals, Family Matters, and Presidential Politics

by Carol Faulkner

For readers of Religion in American History, Saturday’s online New York Times juxtaposes several interesting articles. The first is a Room-for-Debate exchange on Newt Gingrich’s response to his ex-wife’s allegation that he asked for an open marriage (“False!”), which received resounding approval from a South Carolina audience this week. The second is a column by Mark Oppenheimer on how evangelical voters celebrate the large families of the Republican presidential candidates.  The third is an opinion piece on Gingrich’s marital revelations by Gail Collins. Collins and the other NYT writers all puzzle over the evangelical voters’ tolerance of hypocrisy and contradiction. These articles also present a unified portrait of the conservative evangelical vision of marriage and the family.

Gail Collins is funny and on-target, as always, writing:

South Carolina is probably not the ideal state in which to be accused of breaking the matrimonial bonds, then smashing them and jumping up and down on them until they’re just a pile of marital powdery dust. But Newt has framed his sexual history — the parts he isn’t totally denying — in terms of a redemption story. (“I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness.”) Everybody likes a story of the fallen man who rejects his wicked ways and starts a new life. Remember how well George W. Bush did with the one about renouncing alcohol on his 40th birthday? There is, however, a lot of difference between giving up drinking on the eve of middle age and giving up adultery at about the time you’re qualifying for Social Security. Cynics might suggest that Newt didn’t so much reform as poop out.

In Mark Oppenheimer’s article, Newt Gingrich’s other weakness might be his two children (his current opponents have 5-7 children each). According to Oppenheimer, for most of the twentieth-century, evangelicals viewed large families as undesirable: a sign of Catholicism, poverty, and/or backwardness. In more recent years, however, some evangelicals have embraced large families as God’s will.  An essential part of this worldview is the submission of women. Though not all (or even most) evangelicals share this view of contraception, Oppenheimer writes:

Today, however, even those evangelical Protestants who use contraception — the vast majority, it would seem — have developed a cultural respect, in some cases a reverence, for those who do not.

Oppenheimer refers to a book by Allan Carlson called Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973, which, according to Oppenheimer, argues that prior to 1920 American Protestants rejected the use of contraception as sinful and a violation of God’s order to be fruitful and multiply. After 1920, Carlson suggests, evangelicals fell away from this belief and quickly endorsed the use of contraception.

A brief glance at the book’s description indicates that Carlson is talking about evangelical leadership rather than lay people, but even so, his argument is somewhat puzzling for anyone familiar with the history of American fertility and birth control. American fertility rates began declining as early as 1760, and, in the well-known demographic transition, dropped steadily over the course of the 19th century. By 1900, American families had an average of 3.5 children. Susan Klepp’s excellent Revolutionary Conceptions shows why and how this decline happened (see my review of Klepp’s book here). What is very clear is that it could not have happened without the enthusiastic participation of Protestants, including evangelicals.  In addition, as historian Andrea Tone has demonstrated, even at the height of the Comstock laws, Americans—men and women, Protestant and Catholic—purchased and used contraception. Today, the numbers for contraceptive use are overwhelming: 99% of American women, and 98% of Catholic women (see 

 Today’s evangelicals who condemn contraceptive use are bucking three centuries of family limitation.
Devices and Desires - Andrea ToneThe Room-for-Debate exchange asks: If more people considered such openness an option, would marriage become a stronger institution — less susceptible to cheating and divorce, and more attractive than unmarried cohabitation?

The writer
Dan Savage points out that Americans, including South Carolina evangelicals, accept adultery as a sad fact of marriage: The lesson in Gingrich’s angry denial and the applause that greeted it: An honest open relationship is more scandalous, and more politically damaging, than a dishonest adulterous relationship.

W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project believes that tolerance for adultery is bad for women and children. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá hope that greater tolerance for different types of relationships will emerge, asking,
How many outspoken defenders of “traditional marriage” (whatever that is) must be exposed as adulterers before voters just roll their eyes at those two words? They also inform readers that “esposas,” the Spanish word for wives, also translates as “handcuffs.” Nice.

As Collins suggests, South Carolina Republicans may endorse Gingrich’s tale of marital redemption. In doing so, they are celebrating a gendered vision of marriage and the family in which the man reigns supreme.  It may be “traditional” in that this view of marriage harkens back to the cultural ideals of the nineteenth century. While the ideal wife was submissive and sexually chaste, not to mention economically, politically, and legally dependent on her husband, the husband had few restrictions on his sexual behavior (in or outside the marriage).  These conservatives might consider, however, that even in nineteenth-century Christian marriages, wives controlled their fertility.


Anonymous said…
great post!!! i really enjoyed how you brought the articles, books, and other resources together for such an interesting take on approaches to marriage, reproduction, etc. Sending link to bunches of friends.
Carol said…
Thanks Ed! I can't stop thinking about these fascinating articles/opinion pieces.
Art Remillard said…
Thank you for the excellent sources and insights. This all brings to mind Jill Lepore's article in the November New Yorker, "Birthright." Central to the article is the unpredictable history of Planned Parenthood. Lepore pays close attention to Margaret Sanger and her legal battles over contraception. Readers also traverse the twisty ideological road to and from Roe v. Wade, with a key landmark being Nixon's decision to "divide the Democrats" by picking sides on the issue and winning over the "Catholic vote." It's a brilliant article, contextualizing an issue that so many of us think has always been this way...
Carol Faulkner said…
Thanks, Art. I loved Lepore's article. At one point, Lepore discusses the strange (and ahistorical) tendency of pro-life life activists to invoke Susan B. Anthony and other early women's rights activists. What Anthony and others wanted was rights for women, which, as Lepore suggests, is impossible to reconcile with rights for the fetus. Another excellent recent book on the topic is Leslie Reagan's Dangerous Pregnancies, which also points out the widespread support (including among Protestant ministers) for support for abortion reform, especially in the wake of the German measles epidemic.
Chris said…
Definitely an interesting post. I gave a paper on nativism (not birth control) at a conference last fall. The commenter for my session mentioned that Protestants started using birth control only after its supporters started to link it with the pope's decrees and Catholicism. I posted last night my questions regarding the Gingrich win. Apparently, a severe lack of moral judgment on many accounts is more appealing than having a Mormon(or Ron Paul) as president.
One of the reasons that evangelicals approve of large families has little to do with their religious values and everything to do with our changing culture. Where once, fundamentalist Christians might have seen a large family as evidence of Catholicism or poverty, now it is seen as being nostalgic. American families were larger 100 years ago, and so having a large family like Rick Santorum harkens back to an agrarian, presumably Protestant historical past.

Popular Posts