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Religious Tolerance logo

An essay donated by Susan Humphreys

Bad theology: The HHS mandate, and
the contraceptive/abortion conflict.
Is the prime motivation manipulation & control,
or is it compassion, caring, & the Golden Rule?

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Bad Theology:

An essay appeared on the Religion News Service web site by Cheryl B. Anderson, a Methodist minister and professor of the Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. It is titled: "Commentary: The bad theology behind opposing the contraception mandate." 1

The readers of the article who added their thoughts to its comments section showed that they missed or intentionally ignored her argument. I wondered why? Do they simply not understand theology let alone what might constitute a good one or a bad one? Or is it an issue that is simply "too Hot" for them to handle? If so why?

I have two explanations:

  • People are afraid that if they get it (the theology) wrong they won’t be saved. AND
  • There won’t be any justification or sanctification (no excuses) for their bad behavior.

What is Theology? From my old Thorndike/Barnhart High School Dictionary:

Theology: 1. Study of the nature of God and His relations to man and the universe 2. Study of religion and religious beliefs. 3. System of religious beliefs.

In my interpretation of Rev. Anderson’s thinking -- which may not be her own -- she is referring to the 3rd definition: theology as the system of religious beliefs. This would include doctrines, dogmas, creeds, laws, as well as -- if you are a Roman Catholic -- Papal encyclicals, bulls, and exhortations.

I confess I am not a Biblical scholar, trained Theologian, ordained Minister, Priest, Rabbi, or a Guru. But I can think and ask questions and since no one else seems to be willing to address this argument I figure I might as well jump in. What have I got to lose? Nothing. What might I gain? The opening of the discussion. In my mind free and open discussion of difficult and controversial ideas is a very GOOD thing.

What would make a system of religious beliefs good or bad? That is the billion dollar question. I mean this literally, billions of dollars are riding on the claims of Church’s and Religious leaders, Pastors, Priests, Popes, Ministers, Mullahs, Ayatollahs, Rabbis, Gurus, etc.

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What criteria might we consider in determining if something is “good” or “bad” theology?

  1. Consistency: Are the beliefs, claims, doctrines, dogmas policies and other statements consistent with each other or are they self-contradictory with one claim is at odds with another? Claiming that God is loving and forgiving is at odds with statements that he is angry and vindictive and punishes or hates sinners. Claiming that you are following God’s word in the Bible and obviously ignoring God’s word in other passages that you can’t be bothered with is a sign of lack of consistency.

  2. Verifiable: Are the statements verifiable and if so by an outside source or from an inside source? A statement that can be verified by an independent outside source, would be better than a statement that points to an inside source. An example of the latter could be a statement about the Bible that cites the Bible as proof that it is TRUE. Is the source legitimate—recognized as an expert in the field and qualified to make such claims? Many can’t seem to tell if the voice in their heart/head that they are listening to is the Voice of God, of the Devil or of their own Ego. 2 Simply claiming that you are listening to and doing God’s will doesn’t cut it when those words and actions are inconsistent with other claims you make about God. The current and previous Popes in their joint encyclical “Lumen Fidei” 3 claimed that having faith in the Faith that has been passed down as part of the traditions and teachings of the church is justified. Yet we all know that misinformation can also be passed down to us with our traditions and the teachings of others. The earth isn’t the center of the Universe in spite of the claims made by early Popes!

  3. Productive: Does the statement accomplish what you hope or expect it to do? OR is it counterproductive, getting in the way of your goals or intent, or causing the exact opposite of your purpose or intent?

  4. Application: Is the statement applied equally to all, or does it apply to some but not to others and if so what basis is used to make this determination.

  5. Comparison: How does this statement compare with those of other religions or of secular teachings? Some might object to comparing the theology of one religion against the theology of another or against Agnosticism, Atheism or Secular Humanism. BUT whenever someone makes the claim that:
    • Their religion, their beliefs are TRUE and others aren’t merely misunderstandings but actual lies. OR

    • Other religions are the work of the Devil, OR

    • Their beliefs should be the basis for public policy decisions that govern the rights of ALL people

Then, they have opened their claims to the analysis by thoughtful people on all five of these criteria.

I am not claiming that these are the only criteria by which the concept of “good” or “bad” theology can be evaluated. If other people have an idea for additional criteria I’d like to hear what it/they is/are.

I mentioned Ms. Anderson’s essay in a comment on an earlier essay that I wrote -- titled “A Matter of Conscience”. For those that missed that essay I repeat here what I said there and expand upon it.

In her Commentary Ms. Anderson opened her essay with a passage Matthew 23:3-4:

“... but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

The plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case are complaining that the Affordable Care Act places a “heavy burden” on them but refuse to acknowledge that they in turn are placing a “heavy burden” on their women employees. This would be a violation of criteria 4 -- Application. The plaintiffs seem to have a double standard, rules that they think should apply to themselves while refusing to apply the same rules to others.

The plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case insist that IUD’s, and Plan B pills as well as some others are actually abortifacients. Ms. Anderson didn’t address this point in her essay but it has been a common comment in the essays and commentary of others. The Medical profession claims that they aren’t. This claim is at odds with criteria 2--Verifiable with qualified outside sources. 4

Ms. Anderson mentions the benefits of hormonal contraceptives and spacing of pregnancies and says:

“As members of a faith that calls for compassion, Christians should be looking for ways to extend these benefits to all women and all communities.”

Here she is addressing criteria 3—Productive and criteria 4—Application. The arguments of the plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case are counterproductive to the basic teachings of Christianity. To not practice compassion is to drive people away from Christianity. And Christians must be consistent in applying their principles to all people.

Later she writes:

“As people who practice a faith that values justice, we must be troubled by the fact that the rate of unplanned pregnancies among poor women is five times higher than it is among women whose incomes are 200 percent or more above the federal poverty level…”

Here she is using criteria 4--Application, unequal application of a principle.

Later she says:

“Nothing in the Christian tradition requires that we deny poor women health benefits and services that are readily available to the rest of society.”

Here she is applying the first criteria--Consistency: If God is a God of love and compassion, denying women access to health benefits and services and placing a heavy burden on those that are least able to carry it is inconsistent with basic Christian teachings. Check out Matthew 25:31 and the call to care for the hungry and down trodden, those that are suffering or in need.

She writes:

“Nothing in the Christian tradition suggests that an employer’s scruples deserve greater consideration than an employee’s health.”

Here she is applying criteria 1, 3 and 4 AND I think she invites comparison, criteria 5 with what other religious and secular groups would do.

I pointed out in my earlier piece that the Bible is full of other admonitions about “right” behavior that the Hobby Lobby plaintiffs have chosen to ignore:

Matthew 6: “Beware of practicing your piety before others, in order to be seen by them….”,

Those pesky Ten Commandments that many think should be displayed in public spaces, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor”. A sign of intelligence is whether one can extrapolate from one situation to another, this means apply a wise policy about one situation to other appropriate situations. In this case telling lies and spreading misinformation about the IUD and the pills in question, calling them abortifacients when they aren’t. 4 Spreading lies is BAD Theology.

One of my favorite Matthew 25:31 to the end of the passage “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

And, of course, there is the wonderful Ethic of Reciprocity which is often called the Golden Rule in Christianity. The Hobby Lobby folks are claiming that others are forcing them to act against their will BUT they seem to think they can force others to act according to their will and the others against theirs. It gets confusing!

Maybe the Hobby Lobby folks think that spreading misinformation is justified in order to prevent a greater evil; abortion, or the use of hormonal contraception, or sex for pleasure rather than procreation. After all as I pointed out in my other essay about a “Matter of Conscience” many see tolerance as silent approval of what they consider a sin and that their “holiness” in Gods eyes will be tainted IF they don’t show their objection to sinners and/or try to keep them from sinning or punish them for their sins. This goes against a passage in John 8:7 where Jesus stops men from throwing stones at an adulteress with the admonition, “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.” And another passage in Matthew 15:11 “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

There are passages in the Bible that tell the Believer not to associate with sinners or they will become “polluted” by their sin. 1 Corinthians 5: 13 “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”And there is the fear that If we (as in the virtuous Christians) don’t clean up our society, God will do it for us by bringing on a natural or man caused disaster, and we the “virtuous” and “righteous” ones will go down with the sinners, (be caught in the crossfire).

I pointed out that this attitude leads to hate crimes, ethnic cleansing, witch trials, and unholy holy wars and seems counter to Christian teachings of love, compassion, forgiveness— “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” Matthew 6 and from the Ten Commandments“Thou shalt not murder”.

IF they believe in the Rapture, than it won’t matter if there are sinners in their society for the virtuous will be taken into heaven where they will be safe from the coming disaster and the sinners will be left to suffer. A problem with Criteria 1, inconsistent doctrines.

If there is any Truth to the concept of God’s Grace, then forgiveness and salvation will be granted to everyone, saints and sinners, with NO strings attached. If there are strings attached, you have to believe the RIGHT beliefs, practice the RIGHT sacraments, adhere to the RIGHT doctrines/dogmas/policies, attend the RIGHT church, confess your sins and ask for forgiveness, even be a believer at all then what you have on God’s part is bribery and coercion, NOT Grace and it encourages the receiver to lie or be deceitful in order to receive it. That is certainly Bad Theology. You don’t want to set up a situation that encourages the bad behavior you are trying to get people to avoid in the first place! Criteria 1, 2, 3, and 4 are at work here.

I think Ms. Anderson has it right, the plaintiffs' arguments really are Bad Theology, on many counts. Most importantly I think the many positions taken by religious leaders such as the Pope and the Catholic Bishops, and the Hobby Lobby folks about birth control are seen by many as attacks against women and their right to self-determination. Policies towards same sex marriage, homosexuality, social services for the poor and unemployed, fiscal policies that favor the rich, are also problematical for Christians. In other essays I mentioned a problem many Christians have claiming that God is PERFECT in every way and then proceeding to endow God with all of their own human imperfections: he is jealous, narcissistic, angry, vindictive, judgmental, self-centered, self-righteous, hypocritical, ignorant of Science and history. All of this is driving people away from Christianity and the God Christians claim they worship. Even an Atheist like me can see that is Bad Theology and Good for Atheism!

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Cheryl B. Anderson, "Commentary: The bad theology behind opposing the contraception mandate," Religion News Service, 2014-MAR-24, at: https://www.religionnews.com/
  2. Staff on this web site conducted a pilot study to see if people could assess the will of God through prayer. Results were surprising.
  3. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, author 1st draft; Pope Francis, author of additions; "Lumen fidei," The Vatican, 2013-JUN-29, at: http://www.vatican.va/
  4. Everyone agrees that any device or medication that prevents pregnancy from starting is a contraceptive; any device or medication that terminates a pregnancy that is already underway is an abortifacient. But people disagree about when pregnancy begins.

    All or almost all physicians define the start of pregnancy as occurring at the time that a blastocyst -- a fertilized egg -- has implanted itself in the wall of the uterus. Religious conservatives generally define the start of pregnancy many days earlier, at conception.

    Originally, researchers thought that emergency contraception -- like Plan B, the morning after pill -- might possibly sometimes work by impeding implantation. However, subsequent research found that that it is a true contraceptive and only works by delaying ovulation or impeding fertilization. Most religious conservatives reject the more recent findings, believe that it sometimes or always works by inhibiting implantation. Thus, they believe that it acts as an abortifacient according to their definition of when pregnancy begins.

    Physicians agree that both copper and hormonal IUDs are true contraceptives. They work by preventing conception. 5 In addition, hormonal IUDs can block ovulation. Most religious conservatives believe that IUDs blocks implantation and are thus an abortifacient.

    Unfortunately, no dialogue appears to be underway between medical personnel and religious conservatives, so these conflicts will probably not be resolved in the near future. Further, the end result of many women not receiving free birth control will be the continuing very high rate of unwanted and unexpected pregnancies of which about 42% are terminated by abortions. A Toledo study showed that hundreds of thousands of abortions could be prevented yearly if women had access to free contraceptives.
  5. "How does an IUD work?," Planned Parenthood, 2014, at: http://www.plannedparenthood.org/

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Originally posted: 2014-MAR-29
Latest update: 2014-MAR-29
Author: Susan Humphreys,
with references and notes by B.A. Robinson
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