In 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention, arguably the leading voice for evangelical Christians, passed a resolution in support of abortion under conditions of “rape, incest, and clear fetal deformity,” and also if there was evidence, “… of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother” (Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1971). The Convention reaffirmed conditional support for abortion in 1974 a year after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman’s right to abortion (Roe v. Wade)—and again in 1976. W. A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention was quoted saying in a 1973 issue of Christianity Today, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person . . . and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
So, the Baptists, in general, were cautiously supportive of a woman’s right to abortion.
As a former Baptist, I find this fascinating. I grew up in a Baptist church, and I, as well as all of five of my siblings, attended evangelical Christian colleges. I remember in my young adult Sunday school class discussing “hot topics” along with our usual Bible study. We talked about the new rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar and how our Sunday school teacher thought the musical made Jesus seem weak and Judas look like a hero. My teenage friends and I were so intrigued we wanted to buy the Superstar album immediately. We also discussed issues like abortion. What would we do if, God forbid, one of us girls got raped by some creep and became pregnant? Abortion might be an alternative. After all, though the Catholics had a problem with abortion, the Baptists didn’t (at least as far as we knew).
Fast forward to last month, March 2019, when James (Micah) Van Huss, a graduate of a Baptist college and a member of the House of Representatives in Tennessee, introduced a bill banning abortion if a fetal heart beat is detected (how you detect a fetal heartbeat is a controversy all by itself). Let me say now, that I personally would not have a late-term or even a mid-term abortion. Having said this, I also support a woman’s right to choose. I far prefer W. A. Criswell’s thoughtful and nuanced observations about women and abortion as opposed to James Van Huss’s legislative attempts to force women to follow his personal code of ethics.
My big question though, is what happened to the Baptists on the topic of abortion? Why such a drastic change of heart over the years?
According to Randall Balmer, a Christian, and a religion professor at Dartmouth College—politics happened to the Baptists. Paul Weyrich, a conservative Republican and a Catholic, was looking for an issue to ignite the evangelical voting block in the late 1970’s. He tried various issues to pique evangelical interest including pornography, school prayer and the proposed equal rights amendment for women. Finally, the abortion issue seemed to be an exploitable topic, one that could be dramatized in such a way as to evoke emotion (think pictures of dead babies in garbage cans)—and thus, votes. Suddenly the evangelical community, including and largely the Baptists, became political.
I no longer attend a Baptist church, but if I did, I’d hate to feel my moral positions were the product of political manipulations rather than the Bible. The Bible itself does not speak to the issue of abortion. It does say though, in Matthew 23:33, to beware “vipers” like the Pharisees, the legalistic religious authorities in Jesus’s time, whom Christ saw as hypocritical. Abortion is a difficult, private, and painful issue for women. They do not need the added burden of Pharisees legislating their behavior—and threatening punishment if they don’t act in ways they deem responsible.
Image Credit: Baptists