In the days when I attended the church, Baptists seldom mentioned abortion. That may have been because then there was little public discussion of it, although I have learned since that there were many private discussions of the practice as many people sought one. The lack of a Baptist discussion, however, may also have been due to Baptists’ reverence for the Bible and for liberty of conscience. The last time I checked a biblical concordance—admittedly quite some time ago, but surely this has not changed—“abortion” was not in it. One has to interpret or extrapolate from verses and contexts to conclude that the Bible condemns abortion. Biblical passages can be construed to say that life begins at conception, but what “conception” meant in biblical times is not clear. I doubt to ancient Israelites it meant a sperm fertilizing an egg. Other biblical passages, however, indicate life begins with the first breath. But even though the Bible does not explicitly, and may not implicitly, condemn abortion, it is also hard to suggest that it supports the view that abortion should be the choice of the woman and her doctor.
A Baptist, however, might extrapolate from Baptist principles and conclude that because there are ambiguities in the Bible on the matter, whether an abortion is sinful must remain a matter of conscience. The opinion would hold that the state cannot dictate what is sinful and should not dictate that a woman cannot have an abortion. In fact, when some states began to change their absolute proscriptions of abortion before Roe v. Wade in 1973, many Southern Baptist leaders held quite liberal views on the subject. For example, a poll in 1970 found that 70% of Southern Baptist ministers supported abortion to protect the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman; 64% supported abortion in cases of fetal deformity; and 71% supported abortion in cases of rape. The next year the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution stating, “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such circumstances 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.”
This liberal viewpoint, however, soon vanished. Since Roe v. Wade, the Southern Baptist Convention has passed many resolutions about abortion that are much different from the 1971 pronouncement. On the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Convention stated that that Supreme Court “decision was an act of injustice against unborn children as well as against vulnerable women in crisis pregnancy situations. . . . We lament and renounce statements and actions by previous conventions and previous denominational leadership that offered support to the abortion culture. . . . We pray and work for the repeal of the Roe v. Wade decision and for the day when the action of abortion will be not only illegal but unthinkable.”
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, then, Southern Baptist shifted away from dogmatic opposition to school prayer and aid to religious school and towards dogmatic opposition to abortion. These moves have had more than a religious impact because they are all opinions that affect how people vote. Southern Baptists, for example, now want their elected officials to be strongly against abortion and generally friendly, at least, to public support of religion, or at least some forms of religion. This certainly has had importance for the country since the Southern Baptists are the country’s largest Protestant denomination.
Over the last generation or two Southern Baptists seem to have moved even further to the political right than they were before. Perhaps people who are better historians, sociologists, or theologians than I can explain why, but I do point out that the Southern Baptists were not alone in the rightward lurch during this period. Something similar also occurred with the National Rifle Association, which had been largely an apolitical group interested mainly in marksmanship and gun safety, but was captured by an element that began the NRA’s move to become one of the most important conservative organizations in the country. Both Baptists and the NRA moved to the right at the same time. Is there a connection?
Baptists, and other evangelicals, have become a major political force. Baptists are at the core of the modern conservative movement even though these Baptists no longer seek the traditional principles that defined Baptism. They now advocate the intermingling of church and state. Toleration of private consciences no longer seems a defining principle
Nevertheless, when I see one of those white frame New England Baptist churches, I still hope that their congregants believe that religion should not be founded on ritual or coercion or enforced rules. Instead, it should be founded on the consciences of individuals, persuasion, reason, and toleration. I want those bedrock principles of Baptism, and of the country, to remain.