Much ink has already been spilled about the recent uproar over the Obama Administration’s decision to require employer-provided health insurance plans to cover contraceptive drugs for women. The initial decision carved out an exception for explicitly religious employers (e.g., churches and other congregations with faith-based objections to contraception), and the follow-up compromise also allows religiously affiliated charities (e.g., hospitals and colleges) to decline to provide contraceptives directly, said responsibility then falling on the insurance companies themselves. By all objective analyses, the latter arrangement would result in a significant overall cost savings to the insurance companies, because it’s cheaper to prevent a woman from getting pregnant than it is to provide her with the necessary medical treatment during and after her pregnancy.
Despite the prior exception and the subsequent compromise, many conservative religious groups have objected to this perceived trampling on their First Amendment rights, most prominent among those groups being the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church (not so much the rank and file). Most of the commentary on either side of this debate has focused on whether the central issue is really the government’s infringement of the free exercise of religion, or whether the central issue is the right of women to equal access to health care and control over their own medical choices.
However, what I haven’t seen much of in the stories and commentary I’ve read is an examination of the beliefs behind the objection to contraception. Yes, this is America, and everyone has a right to their own religious beliefs and practices, no matter how retrograde those beliefs and practices may be. That right, however, does not extend to being able to control the actions of other persons in society, despite what many Presidential candidates wish to claim. Also, if your religious beliefs explicitly contradict the personal liberty and freedom of others guaranteed by law, then you do not have a Constitutionally protected right to act on those beliefs to the detriment of other citizens. [Egregious but illustrative example: My religion requires me to offer a virgin sacrifice at the harvest festival. If I act on my beliefs, the First Amendment won’t save me from being prosecuted for murder.]
But what about this retrograde theology? What explains the religious objections to contraception? Or put another way, why can’t religion and sex get along? I have a theory, and I’ll apologize in advance for its somewhat Freudian roots, but I think that analytical psychology can shed some revealing light on this issue (if you want to know more, go pick up a copy of The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker).
Consider the official (though widely ignored by its membership) Catholic Church stance against birth control. Why is this Church doctrine? Because according to the theological potentates in the Church, God intends sex to be a means of procreation. That’s right, God didn’t give us sex to have fun, God gave us sex to “go forth and multiply.” The Christian Church dating back at least to Augustine, if not implicitly to St. Paul, has said that sex is for procreation, not for pleasure.
It’s important to point out that it’s not just the Catholic Church that believes this. Hints of this theological approach run throughout various evangelical Christian groups, as well as conservative Muslim and Jewish groups. All of these groups view sex as a necessary evil - something that we do so that we can perpetuate ourselves as a species - but we shouldn’t enjoy ourselves too much while we’re doing it.
And as an aside, adherents of conservative religions also condemn homosexual sex acts and find them repulsive, because they are inherently non-procreative. Homosexuals are considered to be sinful because they aren’t having sex for procreative purposes, but solely for pleasure and emotional bonding and expressing love and all of those other reasons that, actually, most of us think of as being pretty good reasons for sex.
But why do such religions reserve sex only for procreation? Because consciously or unconsciously, sex reminds us of our earthly, creaturely, finite, mortal nature. It makes us aware that we’re animals too, and not some set-apart, specially-spiritually-endowed creation. Our difference from “the animals” is one of degree rather than kind. We too are inextricably linked to our bodies. Thus the well-known French phrase “la petite mort,” translated as “the little death,” a metaphor for sexual climax.
Seriously. That’s the problem that religion has with sex. When we engage in sexual behavior, we’re inescapably reminded that we too are animals, and thus that we too have finite lives, and our mortality weighs heavy upon us, and we only allow sex for procreation because it propagates our species, thus continuing our species’ life (if not our own individual lives) infinitely and giving us a measure of immortality through our descendants.
How can we get beyond this? By acknowledging that we are indeed mortal creatures, and that we inhabit physical bodies with all of their foibles and limitations and embarrassments, and embracing all of that messiness anyway, and even rejoicing in it, because that’s the true nature of creation. That’s the deep truth that lies at what could be the healthy intersection of spirit and sex.