Southern Baptists and the Sanctity of Life

From Pro-Choice to Unapologetically Pro-Life

Jerry Sutton

Today, Southern Baptists as a whole are decidedly pro-life, but that was not always the case. In this brief review of Southern Baptists and the pro-life movement, I want to consider the way it was and why; the way it changed and how; and the way it is and why. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), previously named the Christian Life Commission (CLC), engages in pro-life issues on behalf of Southern Baptists and provides the lens through which Southern Baptist involvement in the pro-life movement can be understood. 

The way it was and why  

How was it that Southern Baptists were, in popular terminology, once pro-choice? Prior to what is known as the Conservative Resurgence, theological moderates (some were legitimately liberal) controlled the machinery of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). This means that trustees and agency personnel were theologically to the left in their orientation. When Foy Valentine became the executive director of the CLC (1960–1987), his four principal issues were to fight racism, fight communism, promote religious liberty, and oppose the influence of Roman Catholicism. This latter concern helped influence Valentine’s beliefs concerning “life” issues. Because Catholics were decidedly pro-life, he opposed it. This colored his belief in being pro-choice and embracing a pro-abortion posture. 

Valentine who was a founding member of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights was also an active member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).1https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-librarynews/conservative-resurgence-focused-sbcs-pro-life-stance/ These affiliations indicated his sentiments. Being decidedly pro-choice, Valentine used his influence to promote the popular mantra, “My body, my choice,” and the notion that life does not begin until physical birth. He was also instrumental in 1971 with the SBC passing the first of four resolutions which communicated a pro-choice sentiment. As such, he agreed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Jan. 22, 1973, of Roe v. Wade, and its coordinate decision in Doe v. Bolton. Among the Southern Baptist rank and file, however, sentiment was beginning to change. With Roe, many who had been neutral or oblivious to the implications of abortion began to see it as a moral evil which needed to be addressed. 

The way it changed and how 

A principal influencer among Southern Baptists was Missouri pastor Larry Lewis who eventually became the president of the SBC Home Mission Board. In 1980, as a member of the SBC Resolutions Committee, he wrote the first pro-life resolution approved by the SBC in session. In 1981, while serving as a board member for Southern Baptists for Life, he urged the legislative branch of the U.S. government to pass a pro-life amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This mindset established a new direction for Southern Baptists. 

With the election of conservative SBC presidents over the next several years, the trustees of the SBC boards, agencies, and commissions began to change in a convictionally conservative direction. Slowly and methodically, Valentine’s influence began to wane. And by the late 1980s, he was ineffective at representing Southern Baptists in the public policy arena. In 1986, Valentine announced his intention to retire and requested his trustees seek, nominate, and elect his replacement.

Larry Baker became the nominee, and after his election served from 1987 to 1988. He resigned on July 15, 1988. It should be noted that although his abortion posture was less extreme than Valentine’s, he was still too far to the left and unacceptable to the conservative trustees on the board. Under the leadership of Trustee Chairman Joe Atchison, Richard Land was elected the executive director of the CLC on Oct. 24, 1988. 

The way it is, and why 

With Land at the helm, the CLC—later named the ERLC—took an unapologetic pro-life posture which has remained consistent under the leadership of Russell Moore, and now, Brent Leatherwood. Land (1988–2013) wasted no time in setting the Commission’s pro-life position. In his installation address, Land declared, 

“Abortion is perhaps the supreme contemporary example of our need to be salt and light. Since 1973 abortion, the taking of unborn life in the womb has assumed staggering proportions in our society. At least 1.5 million babies a year are being killed because they are considered too expensive, too embarrassing, or too inconvenient. … We must force people to confront the horror of what they are doing.” 

Several years into his tenure, Land spoke to the 1990 convention of the Concerned Women of America where he stated, “Abortion, as awful as it is, is the thin end of the wedge … the camel’s nose under the tent. … We are fighting a culture war over the definition of the nature and value of human life and whether human life is indeed distinct from other life.” He concluded, “The biblical view is that all of life is sacred and begins at conception, and the right to life is a sacred act.” Several years later, when the Supreme Court sustained Planned Parenthood v. Casey by a 5-4 majority, Land was livid in his criticism on a decision that had put its stamp of approval on Roe.2 Tom Strode, “Court Reaffirms Roe, Stings Pro-Life Movement,” CLC News, July 6, 1992.  

What role has the ERLC played in the pro-life movement since the Commission reversed course? From an advocacy perspective, the ERLC has been consistent in addressing life issues as they arise. From Land’s leadership came a litany of responses to President Bill Clinton’s pro-abortion posture, the endorsement of Mother Teresa’s 1994 prayer breakfast appeal, opposition to the promotion of the RU 486 French abortion pill, condemnation of the partial-birth abortion practice, and decrying the barbaric practice of embryonic research and fetal tissue trafficking. 

In 2003, Land promoted the SBC resolution, “On Thirty Years of Roe v. Wade,” which concluded with, “Resolved, That we pray and work for the repeal of the Roe v. Wade decision and for the day when the act of abortion will not only be illegal, but also unthinkable.”3https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/on-thirty-years-of-roe-v-wade/ Since 1982, over 20 pro-life resolutions have been adopted by the SBC in session. 

With the new hope of abolishing abortion on demand as the rule of law, Southern Baptists have continued to stand up for the sanctity of all human life. One avenue of continuous work has been the Psalm 139 Project, “an initiative designed to make people aware of the life-saving potential of ultrasound technology in unplanned pregnancy situations and to help pregnancy centers minister to abortion-vulnerable women by providing ultrasound equipment for them to use,” which was established under Land in 2004.4https://psalm139project.org/ In addition, the ERLC advocates yearly for invaluable pro-life riders, or regulations in spending, to be kept in appropriations, which are bills that fund the federal government each year.  

In recent years, the ERLC has advocated tirelessly on behalf of specific pro-life initiatives. Key measures have included:

In subsequent years, the pro-life agenda included continuous advocacy for many of the same measures, seeking to prevent the proliferation of chemical abortions,11https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/explainer-texas-judge-rules-against-the-abortion-pill/ and encouraging the overturning of Roe in Dobbs v. Jackson Womens Health Organization.12https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/erlc-submits-amicus-brief-in-important-abortion-case-at-the-supreme-court/

Where do we go from here? 

The passage of the Dobbs decision sends the matter of abortion back to the states and opens a world of opportunities for pro-life advocacy and ministry. The work and voice of Southern Baptist churches—and Christians everywhere—is critical to establishing a culture of life in our country. Caring for vulnerable children and mothers and engaging in public policy must be a priority for those who hold that every life is made in God’s image. May the ERLC always stand beside Southern Baptists as we collectively speak up for our youngest neighbors, knowing that this battle is ultimately spiritual and depends upon God, who shines his light in the darkness.

Jerry Sutton is a professor, retired Southern Baptist pastor, and author.

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