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Conservative resurgence focused SBC’s pro-life stance

IRVING, Texas (BP)–Southern Baptists have not always been known for honoring the sanctity of life. Twenty-five years ago, the leading Southern Baptist ethicist joined with several professors from Southern Baptist seminaries to issue “A Call to Concern” on behalf of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. As head of the SBC’s Christian Life Commission (CLC), Foy Valentine’s high-profile participation in an organization that sought to safeguard the option of legal abortion awakened Southern Baptists to the realization that their leaders did not represent their views on pro-life issues.

Other Southern Baptists among the 220 religious ethics teachers and writers who signed the pro-abortion statement were Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professors Paul D. Simmons and Glen H. Stassen, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Thomas A. Bland and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Bob E. Adams. Signers expressed support for the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and placed abortion in “that large realm of often tragic actions where circumstances can render it a less destructive procedure than the rigid prolongation of pregnancy.” They called upon religious leaders to respond to what they termed “the absolutist position” and “its total preoccupation with the status of the unborn” which “renders it blind to the well-being and freedom of choice of persons in community.”

A few years earlier when messengers to the 1974 SBC annual meeting sought clarification of the convention’s stance on abortion, the CLC responded with the vague promise to give careful attention to the complex ethical issue. Valentine pledged to consult with pastors and denominational leaders on the matter and distribute carefully prepared, balanced materials. In its Issues and Answers pamphlet on “Abortion,” the CLC took no position as to when human life begins, preferring to summarize the Roe v. Wade decision to offer clarity regarding the law.

Regarding the morality of the issue, the CLC pamphlet identified the official Roman Catholic view rejecting abortion as rigid, adding that most religious groups in America support a less dogmatic position, “an essentially conservative view with regard to abortion, holding that abortion is always wrong but that sometimes it may be the lesser of two available evils.” By 1978, Valentine agreed to add the CLC’s name as a national sponsor of RCAR. A year later, both the SBC and Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs were listed as supportive of the right to choose abortion in a National Abortion Rights Action League statement.

Southern Baptists for Life emerged as a pro-life voice in 1984, finding support from such former SBC presidents as Adrian Rogers and James T. Draper Jr. and Baptist college presidents Charles Chaney and Larry Lewis. They pointed to a 1982 SBC resolution as evidence of support for their cause, which affirmed that all human life, both born and pre-born, is sacred, bearing the image of God and not subject to personal judgments as to “quality of life.” The resolution opposed the use of taxes to fund abortion and called for legislation to prohibit abortions except to save the physical life of the mother.

“I don’t think there’s any question there was no agency more offensive to the majority of Southern Baptists over time than the then-Christian Life Commission,” said Richard D. Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which replaced the CLC when the convention was restructured in the mid-1990s. “The convention was increasingly pro-life at a time when Foy Valentine was a founding member of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. When the convention members were trying to get a Sanctity of Life Sunday, the staff of CLC fought against it in the Denominational Calendar Committee. When they couldn’t get the Sunday blocked, they tried to get it moved to another time of year so as to not associate it with abortion, but with war and peace issues.”

Southern Baptists of Texas Convention executive board member Skeet Workman remembers that effort, having served on the Denominational Calendar Committee that considered a 1984 recommendation that churches recognize the pro-life calendar emphasis. While the 1985 Dallas meeting broke attendance records by opening to 45,404 messengers, most of those folks left before the final Thursday session when the sanctity issue arose. CLC trustee chairman Charles Wade of Arlington, Texas, stood ready to offer an amendment moving the emphasis to an April “Concern for Life” date, thus avoiding the designation coinciding with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. However, Rogers and Lewis already were on the platform and spoke in favor of the committee’s recommendation favoring a Sanctity of Life Sunday in mid-January.

Baptist historian James Hefley noted the significance in his first “Truth in Crisis” book, stating, “The designation of the January day as ‘Sanctity of Life’ Sunday would not be binding on churches, although many would be more likely than not to observe an ‘official’ day. It would give the impression to the world that the SBC was solidly linked with the pro-life movement, which was what conservatives wanted and moderates, as represented by Valentine and the Christian Life Commission, did not.”

In an interview, Land told the Southern Baptist Texan of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, “Southern Baptists are the most thoroughly pro-life denomination in America. Our agency that deals with that issue was spouting a pro-abortion, pro-choice position. The board and convention had insisted on changes, but they were coming at a snail’s pace and the staff was dragged kicking and screaming, taking as long as they could.”

The CLC’s November/December 1986 issue of Light magazine represented a shift toward a pro-life stance by SBC ethicists, though it included a broadened emphasis by CLC staffer Robert Parham in calling for a consistent pro-life ethic that recognized the interconnectedness of all human life when dealing with the issues of hunger, peace and abortion. He relied upon comments from Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to understand “the overarching vision of God’s peaceable kingdom” and theology professor Ron Sider’s call for a pro-life stance “that will say yes to the unborn and the underemployed, yes to justice and freedom, yes to the family and nuclear disarmament.”

When Valentine decided to retire in 1986, a moderate-controlled search committee chaired by Wade unanimously recommended Larry Baker to fill the vacancy and the CLC board approved the action by a 16-13 vote. One trustee described Baker, pro-choice, as “theologically imprecise” at best and “theologically incorrect on abortion.” A year and a half later, Baker resigned.

Upon his election in 1988, Land pledged to make the CLC “on the cutting edge of the pro-life movement of Southern Baptists.” He told the Texan, “It was terribly important that we establish with Southern Baptists our pro-life bona fides. Then we wanted to move out from that and apply principles of a pro-life ethic to other issues like cloning and euthanasia.

“When the trustees of the then-Christian Life Commission selected me, they did a 180-degree turn on the issue of abortion and pro-life issues from where the commission had been during Foy Valentine’s and Larry Baker’s tenure,” he said. “Southern Baptists manifestly wanted that to happen.”

Having identified Southern Baptists with a thoroughly pro-life position, today’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission offers a variety of resources to educate members on this important issue.

“Most Southern Baptists were not informed about the abortion issue in the beginning,” Workman recalled, “but as they learned the truth about this hideous procedure and what God says in the Bible about the beginning of life, they quickly rose to the occasion and took a stand against killing the unborn.

“It also proves that education of issues is the answer to having righteousness prevail in the laws of a nation. My prayer is that God will use Southern Baptists further in this nation to stand against evil because the Bible says, ‘Godliness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people,'” Workman said, quoting Proverbs 14:34.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter