I grew up a Baptist. I was baptized on a cold March day in a creek with thin shards of ice still showing at its edges. In our young adult meetings on Sunday nights, we talked about a lot of controversial subjects, including marijuana, Vietnam and abortion. It was the early 1970s. The most heated arguments happened over whether or not we should be in Vietnam. As far as abortion went, my girlfriends and I were just glad we weren’t Catholic. We felt pretty safe in the assumption that if any creep raped us, we could get an abortion.
Fast-forward to today, when Baptists and other evangelicals appear to be some of the main groups driving restrictive abortion laws now being passed or considered in several states. Baptists were not always rigidly opposed to abortion. In 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention, arguably the leading voice for evangelical Christians, passed a resolution in support of abortion under conditions of “rape, incest, and clear fetal deformity,” and also if there was evidence “ ... of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother” (Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1971).
The Convention reaffirmed conditional support for abortion in 1974 a year after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman’s right (Roe v. Wade), and again in 1976. W. A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was quoted saying in a 1973 issue of Christianity Today, “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.”
So what happened to the Baptists on the topic of abortion? Why such a drastic change of heart over the years? According to Randall Balmer, a religion professor at Dartmouth College, politics happened to the Baptists. Paul Weyrich, a conservative Republican and a Catholic, was looking for an issue to ignite the evangelical voting bloc in the late 1970s. He tried various issues to pique evangelical interest, including pornography, school prayer and the proposed equal rights amendment to the Constitution. Finally, the abortion issue seemed to be an exploitable topic, one that could be dramatized in such a way as to evoke emotion (think pictures of dead babies in garbage cans) and thus, votes.
I no longer attend a Baptist church, but when I did, my moral positions sprung from the Bible, not politics. The Bible doesn’t directly address abortion, but it does say in Matthew 23:33 to beware “vipers” like the Pharisees, the legalistic religious authorities of Jesus’ time, whom Christ saw as hypocritical. Abortion is a difficult, private and painful issue for most women. They do not need the added burden of Pharisees legislating their behavior and threatening punishment if they don’t act in ways they deem morally responsible.
Diana Hooley is a writer and former professor at Idaho State University. dianahooley.net.