Shift to pro-life ethic shows change

Before conservatives led, SBC agencies advanced pro-choice position, supported pro-choice Baptist lobbyists.

The contrast between the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979 and 2004 is well-illustrated by the shift in Southern Baptist leaders and their views on abortion.

In 1979, the SBC’s abortion stance was murky, with the convention’s Christian Life Commission (CLC) defending abortion rights and calling it a complex moral decision in CLC literature. Today, an unmistakable pro-life ethic is advanced by the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (formerly the CLC), by the six Southern Baptist seminaries, in LifeWay Christian Resources materials and through the pro-life ministries supported by the North American Mission Board.

Twenty-five years ago a generation of Southern Baptists responded to the warning of theologian Francis Schaeffer as he predicted a low view of Scripture would naturally lead to a disregard for the sanctity of life.

Within the Southern Baptist denomination, the opposite perspective was advocated as:

• several Southern Baptist ethics professors and the CLC head signed a declaration by the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights.

• a CLC pamphlet (right) described abortion as a moral dilemma and absolutist abortion views as immoral.

• CLC leaders opposed a Sanctity of Life Sunday.

• a CLC staffer sought to water down attention to a “pro-life ethic” concerning abortion by including it in a list of other concerns, namely world hunger, world peace, underemployment, justice and nuclear disarmament.

In an informal presentation to an ERLC board meeting held several years ago, Baptist historian Jerry Sutton related lessons he learned while researching for his book “The Baptist Reformation.”

“I discovered that complaining is worthless,” he said, citing a variety of complaints by conservatives over neo-orthodox theology advanced by Broadman’s publishing of “The Message of Genesis” by Ralph Elliott and the “Broadman Commentary.” More fire came when an associate editor of Playboy was invited to speak at a CLC workshop. “We don’t like Foy Valentine (CLC president) being a card-carrying member of the ACLU,” said Sutton, refering to the CLC’s pro-choice activism. “We don’t like that. And you know you can complain all day long.”

Drawing a lesson from the years of complaining, Sutton said, “You know something, complaining was worthless. It still is. You have to organize to do something.”

When the SBC lacked a pro-life response to the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, individual Southern Baptists decided to do more than complain. Texas Baptist Bob Holbrook began speaking out on the issue, even testifying before Congress that the opposition of the SBC-funded Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs to an amendment protecting unborn life did not represent the views of grassroots Southern Baptists. (See related article on Holbrook’s Baptists for Life organization below.)

Years later an organization called Southern Baptists for Life offered another voice in contrast to the CLC and BJCPA. Indiana layman Rudy Yakym said the Southern Baptists for Life movement began during a “March to Life” rally in 1984 in Washington, D.C. “A group of us Baptists met at a platform behind the Washington Monument,” Yakym recalled recently in a telephone interview. “Those were the times than tried men’s souls,” Yakym said, adding that pro-life Southern Baptists “took a lot of bullets and from a spiritual aspect, it was very vicious.”

One of the articles Yakym remembers reading in a CLC publication compared an unborn child’s reaction to an abortion to that of a plant’s stress when harvested. “It was pathetic. The article discounted fetal pain, saying it was akin to a plant’s reaction.” He described pamphlets on abortion as being more like material from Planned Parenthood than the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

The alternative voice known as Southern Baptists for Life formed in 1984 with Gary Crum serving as president and well-known pastors Jimmy Draper and Larry Lewis on the advisory board. The ministry offered resources to inform local Southern Baptist churches on the issues

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