WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision not only awakened Southern Baptists eventually to the gruesome reality of abortion but helped power what came to be known as their convention’s Conservative Resurgence, two longtime observers say.
America will reach the 40th anniversary of legalized abortion Jan. 22. On that date, pro-life advocates will grieve and abortion rights defenders will celebrate Roe, the opinion that—coupled with a companion ruling, Doe v. Bolton—had the effect of striking down all abortion restrictions and legalizing the procedure nationwide for virtually any reason at any stage of pregnancy.
When the high court issued those decisions jointly in 1973, Southern Baptists were either uninformed or misguided—and consequently unengaged—at the grass roots but supportive of abortion rights at the institutional level and through the resolution process, Richard Land and Jerry Sutton told Baptist Press. Now, Southern Baptists are overwhelmingly pro-life.
That contrast four decades ago between the grass roots and some denominational leaders produced discord as the massive death toll of unborn babies mounted in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, the effort to restore the Southern Baptist Convention’s institutions to a belief in biblical inerrancy began in 1979 with the election of the SBC’s first president committed to the Conservative Resurgence. By then, the abortion issue had become a driving force in the movement, Land and Sutton said.
The abortion issue “was part of the Conservative Resurgence, and I think that it played a role that the moderates never understood,” Land said of those Southern Baptists who disagreed with the effort to reform the convention’s institutions. “I think the moderates, being mostly pro-choice themselves, never really comprehended the moral indignation and outrage of the conservatives that their denomination was being portrayed as pro-choice. Being pro-choice themselves, they just didn’t get it. And I think that emotion was one of the factors that fueled people to come to the convention and to vote for pro-life, inerrantist candidates.
“Please understand me, the ‘sine qua non’ for the Conservative Resurgence was the battle over the Bible, but one of the most emotional issues about the Bible and what the Bible said was what the Bible said about abortion,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
Sutton said, “I suspect that had there not been a Roe v. Wade there may not have been a Conservative Resurgence.
“I think what happened is the abortion issue galvanized conservatives,” said Sutton, who has written books on the Conservative Resurgence and Southern Baptist cultural engagement. Abortion and biblical inerrancy “coupled together gave great emphasis and a unifying factor to the conservative pastors who [were] leading this whole Conservative Resurgence,” he said.
The conservative pastors “said Southern Baptists as a whole don’t believe that taking the life of an unborn child is morally acceptable,” said Sutton, a longtime pastor and now vice president of academic development and dean of the faculty at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. “[W]hat I’m saying is all of this worked in concert together.”
Supporters of the Conservative Resurgence achieved their goals in the years that followed—including the 1988 selection of pro-lifer Land as head of the convention’s ethics entity, then called the Christian Life Commission (CLC) and now the ERLC. During those years, Southern Baptists became known as committed participants in the pro-life movement.
The Southern Baptist Convention is “the most consistently pro-life, major religious denomination in terms of its rank and file, because only about half of people who identify as Catholics agree with the church’s position on abortion,” Land said. “If you ask people who identify as Southern Baptists, it’s somewhere between 80 and 90 percent who are opposed to abortion on demand.... [A]n overwhelming percentage of Southern Baptists are opposed to most of the abortions that take place and think they should be illegal.”
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