The GOP candidates are still deep in the ritual dance of podium-pounding and posturing to determine who among them will take on President Barack Obama. Yet an unexpected display of unity is upon us: The three most viable candidates have raised their voices in harmonious opposition to the federal law that will compel all private health insurance plans — including those administered by religious employers — to cover birth control (though the Obama administration altered the rules somewhat Friday).
Mitt Romney accused the president of "using Obamacare to impose a secular vision on Americans who believe that they should not have their religious freedom taken away." Newt Gingrich decried the law, complaining that "every time you turn around, secular government is closing in on and shrinking the right of religious liberty in America." Rick Santorum, a father of seven who has already declared that contraception is "not okay," called the law an assault on freedom of conscience and free speech
In a campaign riven by sectarianism, this appears to be an issue on which conservative Catholics, Protestants and Mormons can agree. However, the roots of this alliance are anything but ecumenical. The early battles over birth control pitted Protestants against Catholics and were "culture wars" in their own right, so inflamed by ethnic and religious bigotry that they make today's partisan debates look like, well, a tea party.
To many American Protestants in the late 19th century, having legions of children was not the cultural norm. They believed that dragging around armloads of screaming tots was — like massive street parades for the Virgin and bloc voting for mob politicians — an old-fashioned and vaguely threatening thing that only Catholic immigrants did. Protestant women volunteered with the temperance league and contented themselves with an heir and a spare, or maybe a couple of spares: Between 1800 and 1920, the birth rate among native-born white (read: Protestant) women declined from 7.04 to 3.13, while Catholic families were still averaging 6.6.
While upstanding Anglo-Saxon Protestant women were buying condoms made from sheep intestines, douching with dubious solutions like "Cullen's Female Specific," and having furtive abortions, those Catholic babes in arms were growing up into a veritable papist army. Evangelical activists' concern over rising Catholic census numbers was one factor in the cocktail of Victorian moralism and anxiety about sexuality that motivated states and the federal government to ban the dissemination of information about birth control and the sale of contraception devices, and to stiffen antiabortion laws in the late 19th century.
The laws were partly intended to prevent white Protestant women from shirking their duty as mothers of the fittest race. But ethnic prejudice fueled the other side of the birth control debate, too. Liberals in the eugenics movement applauded the potential of modern birth control and sterilization to purify humanity of "criminality" and "feeblemindedness," traits that they usually found most often among poor Catholics and people of color.
A few decades later, Margaret Sanger and her colleagues maneuvered to win Protestant support — or at least silence their opposition — by capitalizing on anti-Catholic sentiment and casting Rome as the enemy of women, free thought and progress. (She aimed her invective at the Vatican, not Catholic women themselves, for whom she had deep sympathy.)
In 1921, she denounced Rome as "a dictatorship of celibates" and urged "all who resent this sinister Church Control of life and conduct … (to) choose between Church Control or Birth Control." After the Anglican Communion moderated its position on contraception in 1930, the rest of liberal Protestantism soon fell into line. Initially evangelicals and fundamentalists fulminated against birth control, but soon their protests quieted.
By the mid 1960s, the taboos of earlier years were a distant memory for most Americans — and in the afterglow of Vatican II's reformist spirit, liberal Catholics had high hopes that their church might finally join the consensus. But Pope Paul VI dashed these hopes in 1968 by roundly condemning birth control in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. This stubborn rebuff to a changing culture — long before Rome's botched handling of the child abuse scandal — severely undermined the church's authority in the West.
Immediately after the encyclical's publication, priests across North America announced their refusal to force parishioners to conform to the pope's decree. Today, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women say they have used some form of contraception, as have the vast majority of evangelicals.
So, despite decades (centuries!) of religious strife, it turns out that conservative Christians do agree on something: Almost all of them use birth control. The GOP candidates' display of unity in opposing this law has nothing to do with what their constituents actually do in their own homes. The law is a rhetorical opportunity, a chance to wave the banners of "family values" and "religious freedom" to rally the red state troops.
Molly Worthen teaches religious history at the University of Toronto.
© 2012 Slate