Evangelicals and abortion: chicken or egg?

While long recognized as a wedge issue between religious conservatives and secular liberals, abortion hasn’t always been black-and-white for U.S. evangelicals.

News analysis by Bob Allen

Heading into a presidential race in which taxpayer funding of abortion tops the Family Research Council’s “values voter” guide, author Jonathan Dudley suggested in a recent CNN religion blog that as late as the 1960s the consensus among evangelical thinkers was that life begins not at conception but birth.

The author of Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics argued that televangelist Jerry Falwell spearheaded the reversal of opinion on abortion in the late 1970s in order to form a political alliance with Catholics and win voters for the Republican Party.

The blog cited as evidence a 1971 Southern Baptist Convention resolution that supported “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.”

In his 2006 book, Thy Kingdom Come, Randall Balmer noted the approval of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized most abortion by First Baptist of Dallas Pastor W.A. Criswell, president of the Southern Baptist Convention at the time.

“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,” Criswell said.

Criswell, who died in 2002, later reversed his position and became an abortion opponent. Criswell College, a Bible school he started and is named after him, recently sued the federal government claiming Obamacare violates the school’s religious beliefs by forcing it to pay for employee health insurance that covers birth-control pills they believe induce abortion.

While Criswell’s earlier views may have been the most public, he wasn’t alone in holding them. Wayne Dehoney, SBC president for two terms in the 1960s and longtime pastor of Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., described “a basic watershed between Protestant and Catholic theology on two questions -- the morality of birth control, of which abortion is another form, and the question of when life begins.”

“Protestant theology generally takes Genesis 2:7 as a statement that the soul is formed at breath, not conception,” Dehoney said.

That’s what W.O. Vaught, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., told his most famous parishioner, President Bill Clinton.

In his 2004 autobiography, My Life, Clinton remembered Vaught telling him that while abortion was usually wrong, the Bible did not condemn it. Vaught said the Bible teaches that life begins not at conception but when life has been “breathed into” a baby after delivery.

“I asked him about the biblical statement that God knows us even when we are in our mother’s womb,” Clinton wrote. “He replied that the verse simply refers to God being omniscient, and that it might as well have said God knew us even before we were in our mother’s womb, even before anyone in our direct line was born.”

Another Southern Baptist president, Jimmy Carter, described his abortion policy while in office as balancing his faith and public service. “I have never believed that Jesus Christ would approve abortion,” Carter told Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler in an interview in March. As president, however, Carter took an oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution, interpreted by the Supreme Court to include a woman’s right to choose.

Dehoney, commenting on a Louisville Courier-Journal story in 1976 revealing that one tenant in property owned by his church was running an abortion clinic, said that he personally had “no moral or theological problem with the operation of a legal, ethical clinic.”

“However, as Baptists believe in the priesthood of every believer to search the Scriptures, find truth and make moral decisions for themselves, we have differing view on the matter of birth control and the question of when life begins,” Dehoney told Baptist Press.

A 1973 Baptist Press news analysis said there was no official Southern Baptist position on abortion. “Among 12 million Southern Baptists, there are probably 12 million different opinions,” observed BP Washington bureau chief Barry Garrett.

It would not remain a second-tier concern behind moral issues like gambling, Sunday closings and liquor sales forever, however. The Southern Baptist Convention revisited abortion in resolutions every year from 1976 through 1980. By 1980 the exclusions had narrowed to saving the life of the mother.

A 1984 resolution in Kansas City called on Southern Baptists to “support and work for legislation and/or constitutional amendment which will prohibit abortion except to save the physical life of the mother.”

The convention added a Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January, to the denomination’s calendar in 1985.

At the 1986 SBC annual meeting in Atlanta, conservative leader Paige Patterson predicted acceptance of the Religious Right’s social and moral agenda, including abortion and school prayer, “will go over nearly as well as the inerrancy thing.”

Patterson’s wife, Dorothy, urged Southern Baptists to make pro-life "our issue of the 1990s" at a Christian Life Commission Conference on the Sanctity of Human Life in 1989.

When conservatives gained control of Southern Seminary’s board of trustees in 1990, one of the first acts was to pass a resolution declaring abortion “the greatest moral issue faced by Christians today.”

A 1993 SBC resolution endorsed the Hyde Amendment prohibiting the use of federal funds to perform abortion. Subsequent resolutions saw the SBC’s anti-abortion agenda expand to the French morning-after drug RU-486, partial-birth abortion and funding for Planned Parenthood.

The Baptist Faith and Message was amended in 2000 to declare: “Children, from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord” and “We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.”

Balmer described an “abortion myth” that the Religious Right movement began in direct response to the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Balmer instead called it “a political movement” actually sparked when the IRS attempted to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies.

Everyone agrees that evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, were late to the pro-life cause, but not everyone agrees about the reason.

Christianity Today Editor Mark Galli termed the argument that evangelicals were once predominantly pro-choice “fake history,” noting that his magazine denounced Roe v. Wade in an editorial as early as 1973.

“A careful reading of our history suggests not that evangelical convictions are the result of a ‘well-organized political initiative,’ but that these initiatives grew out of our increasingly widespread and deeply held moral convictions and deepening awareness of the number of lives being cast away (over a million a year since 1976),” Galli wrote.

“To be sure, once the evangelical anti-abortion movement got started, politics reinforced ethics, and vice versa,” Galli continued. “But as one embedded in the movement for nearly half a century -- and one who has been often troubled by the ham-fisted anti-abortion politics of the Religious Right -- there is no doubt that the ground of anti-abortion politics is moral conviction and a bloody historical reality.”