J. Herbert Nelson is Director of the PCUSA’s Office of Public Witness in Washington D.C. It is his job to advocate on behalf of the PCUSA to legislative branches of the U.S. government (as directed by actions of the General Assembly) and also to educate and inform Presbyterians of current legislation and equip the membership of the church for their own advocacy efforts.
His recent statements about the Supreme Court decision in favor of Hobby Lobby were posted recently by the Presbyterian Mission Agency—Office of Public Witness. Nelson’s comments are, egregiously, filled with misinformation and hyperbole about both PCUSA policy on contraception and the impact of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decision on women. His letter reads much like the social media rhetoric of the culture which we, as Christians, are called to stand against. One expects a more measured and informed communication from an office that speaks on behalf of the whole denomination.
Did Nelson really mean that a woman can determine “whether or not to become pregnant?”
According to the posted article, Nelson said:
“In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we affirm that each person is created in God’s image, and that each woman is endowed with God-given moral capacity and authority to determine whether or not to become pregnant.” (emphasis mine)
I'm sure Nelson knows that no woman can determine whether or not she will become pregnant. The power to create nascent life in the womb (i.e. “determine pregnancy”) belongs solely to God. No one can become pregnant by her own decision. No matter the methodology, women who desperately want a child and remain infertile after using every means available at great expense and effort can attest that becoming pregnant is completely outside their own power. Once pregnant by God’s grace (Genesis 4:1, 21:1-2, 25:21, Psa. 127:3) the decision is whether or not to kill the child.
No, I’m pretty sure Nelson was thinking of recent GA statements that have affirmed a woman’s ability to make decisions about sexual activity that might result in pregnancy and her legal ability to decide whether or not to abort her child. For example in 2010 the PCUSA General Assembly said:
“The 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirms females' right and capacity to make responsible decisions regarding their sexual lives, including the right to use contraception, to reject sexual activity, to continue a pregnancy, or when necessary to end a pregnancy…” [Minutes, 219th GA, PCUSA, pp. 72, 73, 399]
While all of us would agree that a woman should not be forced into sexual activity against her will, we have strong disagreement about the morality of choosing to end a pregnancy in abortion. One feels a certain sympathy for Nelson that his job requires the defense of such flawed church statements as this one from 2010. The Bible and 2,000 years of Christendom declare God’s ownership and authority over life. Although Nelson correctly reflects the PCUSA’s affirmation of a woman’s ability to make decisions regarding pregnancy, the 2006 GA also reminded women that we are accountable to God for those decisions. No one of us, outside the gifts of the Holy Spirit can make good moral decisions. God’s Word to us in Scripture is the guide for decisions that are righteous in His eyes.
"Humans are empowered by the spirit prayerfully to make significant moral choices, including the choice to continue or end a pregnancy. Human choices should not be made in a moral vacuum, but must be based on Scripture, faith, and Christian ethics. For any choice, we are accountable to God; however, even when we err, God offers to forgive us.” [Minutes, 217th GA, PCUSA, p. 905]
Another problem with Nelson’s piece is his elevation of access to “contraception, and all forms of health care” to the level of a “human right.”
“Denying any woman the right to exercise that moral agency is wrong. It is because of our faith that we view access to contraception, and all forms of health care, as a human right.” (emphasis mine)
Does Nelson really believe that a man should not have to pay for condoms? Does he actually believe that “all forms of healthcare” are a “human right?” Gastric bypass surgery is a human right? Doesn’t saying such a thing diminish the meaning of “human rights” and thus undermine the authority of his own statement?
Presumably Nelson means the PCUSA when he says “our faith” but the denomination is terribly divided in relation to what our faith teaches us about care of the unborn. In fact, the seminal paper on the subject declared that we have no consensus. Thousands of faithful Presbyterians who have been working for over 30 years to protect human life would strongly object to our “faith’s” allowing for the killing of unborn children. Our historic faith, and indeed, historic Christian faith in general opposed abortion in the strongest terms. Biblical Presbyterians might perceive reliance on contraception as a distinct lack of faith or even a rebellion against God’s instruction to humankind to “be fruitful and multiply” The God who supplies and provides for his people does not require “access to contraception” but adherence to God’s word and the practice of trust in God’s promises.
Nelson’s focus on contraception reveals that he has listened to the rhetoric of pro-abortion voices without doing his homework on this case. The Hobby Lobby decision does not target contraception. Hobby Lobby has already been providing contraceptive coverage for their employees. But, now the government has required the coverage of abortifacients—agents that kill a living child, once conceived. In no way can killing a child be considered “health care”—otherwise we would not have prisons holding men and women convicted of infanticide. Hobby Lobby objects to paying for these drugs which kill a newly formed human being.
The Hobby Lobby decision does not deny access to contraception or to the abortifacient drugs often described as “emergency contraception.” All women, including employees of Hobby Lobby continue to have access to these drugs. The only change is that Hobby Lobby is no longer required to pay for a drug that kills a human being—something that many pro-life citizens find an offense to our conscience and contrary to our faith.
Nelson misinterprets the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution too.
“We believe,” Nelson said, “that the establishment clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution seeks to protect religious institutions from government infringement, and we are grateful for this protection.”
In fact, the First Amendment is designed to protect individuals from government establishment of religion and to protect the free exercise of religion. It seems what he says Presbyterians want to see is that “because of our faith” we “view access to contraception, and all forms of health care, as a human right.” Nelson would like to see that expression of faith codified into law for the owners of Hobby Lobby. He believes they should be forced to pay for contraception for their employees including contraceptive drugs that act to prevent implantation of a tiny human being with 46 chromosomes and all the DNA code to develop into an adult human being with time and nutrition in the safe environment of the womb that God so magnificently designed for his or her early life. That tiny little one bears the image of God as surely as does the woman. His/her life is also precious to God and no individual, family, or business owner ought to be forced to pay to abort that tiniest of human lives against their own conscience simply because one group of Christian believers says it ought to be so.
As the Washington Office says in their article about Nelson’s critique:
“Presbyterians further profess that God alone is Lord of conscience and that individuals must make decisions in personal and public life that are consistent with their own values, without seeking to coerce others."
The Washington Office truncated the statement from the Book of Confessions. Actually it states that:
“God alone is Lord of the conscience and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also.” (BOC 6.109)
Hobby Lobby, by their desire to be faithful to their God and the Lord of their conscience have made a decision in their public life—their place of business—to live in a way that is consistent with their values—their faith. They do not seek to coerce women employees or deny them access to contraception—they only wish not to pay for it themselves because to do so would be to deny God as the Creator of human life.
The irony is that Nelson seeks a right of conscience for Hobby Lobby employees that PCUSA denies to its own members.
Nelson says it is the “…religious liberty of the workers that is infringed by the employer’s ability to express a religious view through its corporate policies.”
The PCUSA mandates that congregations pay dues for the Medical Benefits Plan of all installed pastors. That Plan covers abortions. Is that not forcing the whole church to express a religious view—a pro-choice religious view—through the denominations corporate policies?
Nelson seems to strain the credibility of the case he is making when he says, “At its most extreme manifestation, an employer imposing religious views on unwilling employees begins down the path to slavery.” Who is the slave—the woman who now must pay $40 for the drug that will abort a fertilized human being at her own decision? No, Mr. Nelson, slavery is being forced to pay for the murder of a human being at the decision of another and against one’s own will and conscience.
Truly, Presbyterians ought to be the first to “get it” in this matter of personal conscience. A Corporation is—just like a denomination—made up of individuals. It is those individuals who are called to honor God with their conscience and their obedience. Religious institutions, like the government, have no right to force their own interpretation of conscience on the faith of individuals. Neither do religious institutions!
At stake is a tiny human life created by God. God is the Lord of conscience and our consciences are subject to the Word of God which declares that God is also the Lord of and owner of life. No human decision of conscience can take that sovereignty from God.
I am grateful to God that the Supreme Court understood this better than the Presbyterian Church (USA) and our Office of Public Witness!
Related: Ladies, Don't be Fooled: Women Won in the Hobby Lobby Ruling, by Chelsen Vicari
Abortion, Benefits, and Relief of Conscience, Presbyterians Pro-Life