Friday, October 27, 2006

On the Southern Baptist Position on Abortion

Thanks to Carlos Stouffer at Jesus Politics for calling attention to Pew Forum's dialogue on "Is there a Culture War?" Alan Wolfe, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College, made some interesting comments about politics determining theology. Here's a quote:

Does politics drive culture or does culture drive politics? I'm not at all persuaded that culture is the sort of indelible unchanging thing within which politics then operates because these things -- these so-called cultural values, these moral values, these religiously inspired values -- are not at all timeless in our country but change very, very dramatically.

To cite my favorite example -- and any of you who has heard me speak before has heard this example, so I apologize for that -- in 1973 when the infamous decision of Roe v. Wade came down, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America's largest evangelical Protestant denomination, endorsed it. That is a remarkable fact that is almost totally neglected given the fact that the Southern Baptist convention sort of embodies everything that we think of when we think about being on the right side of the culture war issues.

But there were a number of reasons why the SBC endorsed Roe v. Wade. One of them was that they knew Catholics were opposed to abortion, and in our country if Catholics are in favor of one thing, the Baptists are always in favor of the opposite. But even more seriously, the Baptists in America have had a very long history and tradition of separating church and state and of being strong believers in religious liberty.

Roger Williams was one of our great philosophers in the separation of church and state tradition, contrasting the garden of religious faith against the wilderness of politics and upholding the garden over the wilderness. And John Leland, who inherited in the Baptist tradition Roger Williams' ideals, was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson's and was instrumental in the passage of the First Amendment to the American Constitution.

And I think for many Baptists in America, as recently as the 1970s, the idea that the state could tell the woman what to do with her body was not all that different from the idea that the state could tell a religious believer what to do with his or her mind. There is a libertarian impulse in the American Baptist tradition, a distrust of the idea of the established state. And certainly American Baptist history is filled with a kind of anti-theocratic sense, a sense that the blending of church and state is something that any good Baptist should be instinctively suspicious of.

So there were perfectly valid theological and religious reasons for the Southern Baptist Convention when Roe v. Wade came down to say, Hey, this is something we can support. But 10 years later they repudiated their support. They issued all kinds of apologies for what they had done. And they wound up on the other side of the issue. I don't want to get into the politics of why they did that. Personally I think it reeked of political opportunism, but that is not the point I want to make.

The point I want to make is this: if the notion of the right to life is so culturally embedded, if it is supposed to have such deep religious roots, if it is supposed to be one of those timeless things and then politics is epiphenomenal against that, how could it possibly change so radically? It seems to me that what we witnessed in this shift from one side to the other on this issue was in fact politics becoming much more important than religion. It wasn't that religion was the timeless thing at all. In its new formulation of these issues, the Southern Baptist Convention and its leaders talk about accommodationism between state and church rather than strict separation of state and church.

But, again, all of these things suggest to me that what happened in the United States, using this as an example, is that politics was enormously important for people, to the point where their position on a political issue determined their theological and religious views, and not the other way around. It couldn't have been that religious and theological views came first and political views came second and led to this change. It had to be the other way around.
The original Southern Baptist position regarding abortion was a little more nuanced than Wolfe suggests. Southern Baptists in the 1970's approved of abortion in the instance of rape, incest, when the life and health of the mother was at risk, and in the case of severe fetal deformity such as anencephaly.


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

And many of us Baptists from the South still hold to that original position.

Arkieology said...

500 years ago in the catholic church abortion was a venal sin and charging interest on money was a mortal sin. Now it is quite reversed. Perhaps for the same reasons as listed above

Timothy said...

The Baptist faiths were opposed to abortion up to about 1930. It is only in recent decades that the Baptists have reverted to their original position of being against abortion.

Abortion has never been a venial sin in the Catholic Church. Abortion has always been strictly forbidden since the earliest days of Christianity. Abortion is specifically forbidden in the Didache, the first church manual.

"...thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born, ..." (Didache 2:2)

A Simple Sinner said...

"500 years ago in the catholic church abortion was a venal sin"

Offer a citation for that please.

That simply is not true.

Spillersman said...

I believe his point about a libertarian impulse within the Baptist tradition is valid. I just consider myself a Christian but hold to that libertarian view. I think Christians in love should encourage people to do the right thing, not by government force. I am socially prolife and very much so oppose abortion, but I don't favor the government forcing women to remain pregnant against their will. It does place an undue burden on them as Justice Oconner held to.

Juan said...

I think that the Southern Baptist Convention of 1970 and 1971 was a very different organization 10 later. So, it is unfair to say that the same people changed their views to suit political gain. It is more likely that the balance of power shifted from the liberals & moderates to the more conservative, thus your accompanying shift in political views.

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John Jo said...

I take issue with Timothy's comment, "Abortion has always been strictly forbidden since the earliest days of Christianity" which is not true. Augistine, aka "Father of Christianity” 354AD, stated that a fetus is not ensouled until after the 3rd month. In fact Ex 21:22-23 states that when a woman is hit and miscarries, a fine is paid. If the woman dies, the death penalty is warranted. This the only place where the loss of a fetus is mentioned anywhere in the bible.

Judson Vaughn said...

After Jerry Falwell's influence moved into the SBC in the 70's, the denomination began to take political positions on a number of issues, all supporting the national move to the Right. Prior to that, churches frowned on political entanglements, and discouraged operators such as Ralph Reed.