WASHINGTON (BP)–Southern Baptists, now regarded in American life as integral participants in the pro-life movement, were not always so.
“Nowhere has the shift on the pro-life issue been more dramatic than among Southern Baptists,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
The widespread conversion of Southern Baptists into pro-lifers came only as the effects of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision legalizing abortion became clear. The 30th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade opinion is Jan. 22.
Despite growing up in Southern Baptist life in the 1950s and 1960s with “numerous years of perfect attendance in Sunday School with the perfect attendance pins to prove it,” Land said he never heard a sermon “on the abortion issue or on the question of life in the womb.”
“By the time the abortion issue became one of significant debate in the late 1960s because of legislation in New York and California, Southern Baptists were largely ambivalent and uninformed on this issue,” Land said. “And many perceived it as a Catholic issue. While I was in seminary from 1969 to 1972 in New Orleans, there was no pro-life consensus among the student body or faculty.”
The SBC adopted a resolution at its 1971 meeting that supported legislation permitting abortion for reasons nearly as expansive as those the Supreme Court eventually would allow in Roe v. Wade and its companion ruling, Doe v. Bolton. Resolutions in 1974 and 1976 did little, if anything, to move the SBC beyond that statement.
The 1973 decision and “the subsequent horror of 1.5 million abortions a year caused Southern Baptists who took biblical authority seriously to begin to re-examine what the Bible had to say about God’s involvement with life in the womb from conception onward,” Land said. “Subsequently, Southern Baptists rapidly became the most pro-life, major religious denomination at the grassroots level, with the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists adopting a pro-life perspective.”
While that transformation began occurring in many pews and pulpits in the 1970s, the SBC’s entities did not follow along as quickly. Some denominational leaders even defended the abortion-rights position.
In 1977, Foy Valentine, longtime head of the SBC’s ethics commission, and four seminary professors signed a document for the then-named Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights that affirmed the Roe v. Wade ruling, as well as government funding of abortions for the poor.
Shut out at the denominational level, some pro-lifers in the SBC started a non-convention organization, Southern Baptists for Life, to proclaim the sanctity-of-life message.
Change at the national level began in 1979 with the election of the first of an ongoing series of SBC presidents who strongly defended biblical inerrancy, as well as the pro-life position. In 1980, the convention adopted a pro-life resolution, one that called for a constitutional amendment banning abortion, with an exception for a threat to the mother’s life. Many pro-life resolutions on a variety of issues have followed in subsequent years.
The SBC presidential appointments resulted in conservative trustees on the boards of the seminaries, commissions and other entities. As they grew in number in the 1980s, those trustees made policy and personnel changes. In 1988, the trustees of the SBC’s ethics agency elected a fully pro-life director, Land.
In the 1990s, the conversion became complete at the national level when the denominational leadership uniformly became pro-life.
The Roe v. Wade opinion, along with its consequences, had at least one other effect on Southern Baptists, Land said.
“It was the decisive factor in propelling hundreds of thousands of them to public-policy and political involvement for the first time in seeking to roll back the judicially driven, pro-abortion onslaught,” he said.
That political and policy participation has helped give Southern Baptists a reputation as firmly pro-life.