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Seemingly, Southern Baptists in general, Sutton said, were like he was at the time—“essentially ignorant.”
“Our pastors had not preached on it. People had not talked about it for the most part,” said Sutton, who was a political science major at the University of South Alabama in 1973. “I probably represented the vast majority of Southern Baptists who were for the most part in the dark about the issues being raised.”
Based on his personal experience and research, Sutton said, “From what I could tell, most Southern Baptists had not really understood what was transpiring. You know, they knew there was talk about abortion. Most people I knew just thought abortion was murder. You didn’t kill unborn babies. But nobody knew the legal ramifications. They had no idea about the substance of Roe v. Wade or Doe versus Bolton.
“Everything that I could tell is that Southern Baptists as a whole were pro-life. They had just never articulated it,” he said.
As a student in 1969-72 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Land said “misinformation and a reluctance to talk about the issue” marked even many of his fellow students.
“I found a disturbing number [of other seminary students] to be pro-choice, even conservatives,” Land said. “A lot of them tended to see it as a Catholic issue. And they had bought into this idea that life begins when the baby breathes.”
Land said he “was able to convince a lot of people that this was a human being, this was a baby that deserved protection” as he talked to them about the physiology of the unborn child.
Nearly two years before Roe, however, the SBC already was on record in support of abortion for reasons nearly as expansive as those the high court permitted in its 1973 decisions. While grass-roots Southern Baptists were poorly prepared, the CLC and its executive director, Foy Valentine, were not.
At the 1971 SBC annual meeting, messengers approved a resolution—with Valentine’s backing, Sutton said—that urged Southern Baptists to promote legislation that would permit abortion in cases such 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.”
Sutton said of that language, “[ B ]y the time you go through the exceptions, there are no exceptions.... Basically, Southern Baptists, under Foy Valentine’s leadership, embraced a pro-abortion posture.”
Shortly after the 20th anniversary of Roe and Doe, Timothy George described the SBC’s ’71 resolution as essentially “a strong call for the liberalizing and legalizing of abortion in this country.”
“[T]wo years prior to the Supreme Court decision of 1973, which opened the floodgates to abortion on demand in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention was on record advocating the decriminalization of abortion and extending the discretion of this decision into the realm of personal, privatized choice,” said George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. “The simple fact is that Roe v. Wade did little more than place a stamp of approval on what America’s largest, most conservative Protestant denomination had already agreed to.”
Valentine continued to promote abortion rights. In 1977, he joined four Southern Baptist seminary professors in endorsing a document by the then-named Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights that affirmed Roe and government funding of abortions.
Southern Baptists increasingly learned about the CLC’s position and moved into the pro-life camp as the ’70s passed.
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