The Baptists and Abortion

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  

An Appetite for Propaganda

When I taught educational psychology to prospective teachers, I told them about something called “confirmation bias,” a problem they might run into if they taught high school students. Young adults can dislike having to learn new or different information.  They’d rather default to existing belief systems and confirm long-held biases as opposed to changing the way they think. Adults can also be subject to confirmation bias.  Many years ago in my role as a high school debate coach I had a parent approach me with a deep need to confirm his particular biases.  He said he didn’t want his son debating the opposite side of the beliefs he’d been taught at home.

“Why?” I asked him, thinking it strange that this man allowed his son to take a debate class if he wasn’t interested in having him learn all sides of any given argument.

“Because I don’t want his head filled with crazy ideas. I just want my son to learn better ways to defend our side of the story.”

I was not surprised when his son made certain inflammatory statements about minorities in my class, mimicking something reportedly said by a notorious commentator on Fox News. I’d watched some Fox News, channel surfing, but was always sensitive to their one-sided handling of various political issues. There are progressive news programs on television that have this same problem.  Info-tainment is news designed to make people feel good by telling them what they want to hear. Viewers inevitably find themselves smugly justified in their thinking.

Confirming our biases by only consuming media supportive of our values and beliefs can be problematic though.  Our vision of reality becomes disabled and distorted.  I remember reading back in 2012 how shocked Fox news viewers were to realize Mitt Romney had lost the election to Barack Obama.  It wasn’t supposed to happen.  News pundits on Fox had assured their Republican audience that Romney would win.  Democrats were just as stunned in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected.  I listened to the progressive film maker and political activist Michael Moore explain how people can develop misconceptions about political realities when they surround themselves with an echo chamber: they only hear voices like their own, repeatedly bouncing back to them.  Moore went on to warn that Trump was likely to win, that there was a deep stretch in the Midwest peopled with displaced manufacturing workers and their families who were gunning to vote for Trump.

Political propaganda used to be considered undesirable and something only dictators employed to manipulate thinking and enact their agenda.

Russians living in the Soviet Union during the Cold War did not have the luxury or freedom to change the channel and move away from bias.  They were stuck with “fake news.”  It’s shocking today to realize that despite our free press and the abundance of news sources available to cross-check for accuracy, we still have a sizable segment of our population willfully addicted to what is essentially broadcast propaganda.  Instead of an appetite for propaganda, we need to develop an appetite for truth.  Even if that truth is sometimes hard to hear: that for example, special prosecutor Robert Mueller found no evidence President Trump colluded with Russia to get elected.  But the full truth can be complicated, going many different directions: that for example, there is evidence the president attempted to obstruct justice.  We want the truth to be simple and reflect what we think.  But it rarely does.

Image Credit: Fox News