Richard Land on Southern Baptists’ history of abortion advocacy and the future of the pro-life movement

February 15, 2022

Richard Land served as the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission from 1988–2013. Prior to his time at the ERLC, he worked in a variety of church and political roles, many of which were involved closely with the modern pro-life movement in its earliest days. Below, he shares his experiences and brings perspective to the current cultural moment, the story of Southern Baptist involvement in the fight against abortion, and what comes next. 

Jill Waggoner: Historians have noted that before Roe v. Wade, evangelicals in general were fairly inactive on the issue of abortion. Is that true for Southern Baptists? If so, how did that change after Roe? What did it take to change Southern Baptists’ mind on this issue? 

Richard Land: I was pro-life from the time I was a junior in high school because of an experience I had with a high school biology project. One of my classmate’s fathers was an OB-GYN, and she, as part of a project, brought to class what I now know to be about a 12- to 14-week-old male embryo. It was clearly a human being. That sensitized me to the issue. 

Abortion wasn’t much of an issue for Southern Baptists until Roe v. Wade. Prior to 1970, the broad attitude was that the life issue was a “Catholic issue.” There were a lot of prominent pastors who followed the teachings of Dr. W. O. Vaught at the time, and I think he influenced Dr. W. A. Criswell. They believed life began when God put breath into the body of Adam, and so they took the interpretation that personhood begins when you begin to breathe. So that alleviated them having to deal with abortion. 

The real shift came in the aftermath of Roe. I was a foot soldier in the pro-life army back in the mid-1970’s, organizing pro-life groups in churches when I was in Texas working at Criswell College. And I saw [the shift] happen. It was [a result of] the revulsion over the bloodshed. I don’t think even the pro-choice people thought that abortions would jump they way they did once Roe was made the law of the land. That, and the amazing advances of embryology and sonograms — we knew a whole lot more about human development. I saw a ground shift among Southern Baptists. 

At the time, the Christian Life Commission (the precursor to the ERLC) staff, including President Foy Valentine, was all pro-choice, as was James Wood and James Dunn at the Baptist Joint Committee. Paul D. Simmons, who was radically pro-choice, was teaching ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. That’s when we got the 1971 pro-choice SBC resolution

I was part of Southern Baptists for Life. It was clear by the mid-to-late 1970’s that Southern Baptists had been awakened on the issue, and the majority of rank-and-file Southern Baptists were dissatisfied with the official position of the Convention, which was the resolution. 

The CLC staff opposed the 1982 resolution. They tried to amend it to make it more pro-choice, and they tried to put other exceptions in there besides the life of the mother. We had been pushing hard to get a Sanctity of Human Life Sunday on the denominational calendar. The CLC staff came into the subcommittee meetings of the Executive Committee and tried to stop it. And then when they realized they couldn’t stop it, they tried to get it moved to another part of the year, away from January and away from abortion. Eventually, CLC President Larry Baker resigned.

In defense of the generation before me, a lot of their aversion to engaging the issue, as I mentioned above, was that they saw abortion as a “Catholic issue.” They were dealing with the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, which was not nearly as in favor of religious freedom and who didn’t believe that Protestants were Christians. The kind of cooperation you see now between evangelicals and Catholics on the life issue wouldn’t have been possible without Vatican II. 

JW: The resolution that you have mentioned that was passed at the 1971 Annual Meeting in St. Louis called on Southern Baptists “to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” How should we understand that moment? 

RL: It came about in 1971 because some states were making their abortion laws more liberal, as part the feminist movement. To me, there’s nothing more anti-woman than abortion, as the majority of babies aborted are female. Southern Baptists were beginning to think about the issue, and the pro-life movment was beginning to make headway into SBC life. The CLC wanted to head it off at the pass. They used that resolution to support the Roe. v. Wade decision. They were anticipating the liberalization of abortion laws. They would file amicus briefs with this resolution as an attachment. 

JW: Looking at more recent history, what has been an encouragement to you about the work of pro-life advocacy within the SBC and evangelicals more generally? 

RL: The most encouraging thing to me has been to go the pro-life marches or to to watch them on television and to see that the crowd gets younger and younger every year.

I​​ remember going to a demonstration in my hometown of Houston, Texas, against the largest abortion clinic outside of China. The people gathered there were young and they were holding up signs that said, “We survived Roe. Roe won’t survive us.” They had a very palpable sense that they could have been killed. Approximately one-fourth to one-third of babies conceived the year they were born were killed. They take it personally.

In addition, that at least one political party has remained true to its pro-file commitments has been encouraging. I long for the day when both parties are pro-life, which will change voting patterns.

In 1980, Republicans adopted the pro-life platform and nominated Ronald Reagan. Let me give you some of the impact of that. In 1976, the majority of White Baptists voted for Jimmy Carter. When he ran against Reagan, the majority of White Baptists voted for Reagan. There have been pro-choice people who have tried to run in Republican primaries that haven’t been successful. The unfortunate fact is that you could not be pro-life and get the nomination of the Democratic Party. There was a whole generation of Democrats who were pro-life and became pro-choice because they wanted to be nominated for president: Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Richard Gephardt. I wish it were otherwise, but I don’t see it changing in my lifetime.

JW: Looking ahead, what do you think is the next place for Southern Baptists to be concentrating their pro-life efforts, especially in a world where Roe may be overturned with the recent Supreme Court Case out of Mississippi?

RL: If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, that doesn’t solve the issue. That just puts it into more of the political process. It’s going to be a titanic struggle for hearts and minds. 

The ERLC has two responsibilities. First, the ERLC is to be the conscience of the Convention to call them to be where we believe they ought to be on moral issues and, in that regard, we call Southern Baptists to oppose abortion except to save the physical life of mother. The second responsibility is to represent Southern Baptist views to the Congress, to the president, to the Supreme Court, and to men. There we have to be as accurate as possible — descriptive, not prophetic. Southern Baptsits are broadly pro-life, but there disagreements on some of the troublesome exceptions.

JW: Gathering all your knowledge and experience, what do you think is going to come next? What are the next 20 years going to look like?

RL: I think Southern Baptists are going to remain pro-life. They understand that God is not a Republican or a Democrat, but he is pro-life. There was a reason that Jews were the only people in the Mediteranean basin who didn’t practice infanticide. Their God, the one true God, had made it clear in the Scriptures that he’s involved whenever conception takes place. 

I recently read the testimonies of women in The New York Times about the impact of their abortions. What I would love to do is put a question mark beside their photo to say, “This is who their son or daughter would have become.” They ignore the fact that we’re talking about killing a human being. I think it is a symptom of the fact that our country has increasingly gone down the road of narcissism, which leads to self-adulation and self-idolatry. 

Public policy is never static. The situation is either going to get a lot better or a lot worse. Pope John Paul II was right when he talked about a “culture of death.” Because of legalized abortion-on-demand, we have seen the “culture of death” go from the womb to nursing home, to the ICU and to the nursery. Now we have states passing laws that say it’s okay to kill a baby up until the time it is born. What’s next? If a baby is just a collection of cells or an advanced mammal, then what stops people from killing a baby after he or she is born, because of a deformity? If you believe that every human life is sacred, you’re going to contest that with everything you’ve got. Either we get more pro-life or we descend into more death. 

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. 

Jill Waggoner

Jill Waggoner serves as a communications and PR strategist, writing and developing content for the organization’s online and print resources. She has served the ERLC since 2005, including as brand manager for Global Hunger Relief from 2014-2018. A graduate of Union University, she and her family reside in Lebanon, Tennessee. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24