Light Magazine Spotlight Articles

Southern Baptists and the Sanctity of Life

From Pro-Choice to Unapologetically Pro-Life

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).1 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.”3 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 2004.4 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:

  • the defunding of Planned Parenthood—the largest abortion provider and marketer of fetal tissue;5
  • the effort to advocate for no taxpayer funding for abortion;6
  • the preservation of the adoption tax credit;7
  • the appointment of pro-life Supreme Court nominees;8 supreme-court/
  • supporting the adoption of the Pain Capable Unborn-Child Protective Act;9
  • and encouraging the passing of the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.10

In subsequent years, the pro-life agenda included continuous advocacy for many of the same measures, seeking to prevent the proliferation of chemical abortions,11 and encouraging the overturning of Roe in Dobbs v. Jackson Womens Health Organization.12

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.

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