Can Evangelicals Be Part of a Pro-Choice Consensus? Lessons from the Past

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Mr. Ellis is a PhD candidate at Rice University in Houston, Texas. His article 'An Alternative Politics: Texas Baptists and the Rise of the Christian Right, 1975-1985' will be published in April by the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Mr. Ellis thanks the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University for all quotations.

Despite a flurry of articles questioning the potency of the Christian Right in national politics, the movement continues to demonstrate its stranglehold over Republican politicians. The most recent example of its influence was Republicans’ successful effort to remove birth control funding from Barack Obama’s stimulus package. The provision would have made it easier for states to offer contraception through Medicaid to women who are not currently covered by the program. Despite substantial evidence that government-funded birth control reduces the number of abortions, white evangelicals have been among its fiercest opponents. They have found frequent allies in congressional Republicans, who seem to oppose government funding of just about any new social program.

Such tactics have made it clear that the goal of the anti-abortion movement is not a reduction in the abortion rate, but rather strict control over the private sexual decisions of the country’s citizens. This hypocrisy has led to the unfortunate conclusion of many commentators that white evangelicals, particularly those residing in the South, are uniformly opposed to all reproductive rights for women. These same pundits often rely on the uncritical assumption that evangelical belief, by its very nature, is antagonistic to these rights.

Those commentators need a history lesson on the debate about abortion within evangelical communities. In fact, the politicization of the abortion issue during the 1970s was hotly contested by many evangelicals, some of them from denominations that were quite conservative.

The most instructive example of this robust debate is the reaction of Texas Baptist leaders to the attempt by some evangelicals to force the issue into the political arena. In Texas, a state known for its conservative politics and religion, the country’s largest statewide group of Baptists opposed Jerry Farwell’s early efforts to make abortion a central focus for evangelicals. As Falwell railed against abortion rights and pushed the issue to the top of the evangelical agenda, Texas Baptists were busy articulating an entirely different response to the subject.

Few Texas Baptists were more influential during the 1970s and 1980s than Foy Valentine. A graduate of Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he served as director of the Christian Life Commission for Southern Baptists from 1968 to 1980. During his tenure, he pushed the denomination toward a liberal stance on issues of race and poverty and opposed Farwell’s near-exclusive focus on opposing abortion rights. From his perch of leadership in the national convention, Valentine articulated an alternative Christian vision of reproductive issues.

After the initial Roe decision legalizing abortion, he spent years advocating sex education in churches, organizing conferences to discuss ways to prevent abortions, and making clear that Baptists should play a role in reducing the number of abortions in the country. But he differed with the Religious Right on their handling of the issue. “We sought to resist the extremist right-wing forces that sought to use Christians in general, and Baptists in particular, for their political ends, and made abortion their rallying cry.” He rarely held back his hostility to such leaders: “We sought to resist people like Jerry Falwell, who was wont to wear a gold fetus in his lapel, as a symbol of his concern about it.”

Valentine’s key frustration with Falwell and his supporters was their refusal to embrace a range of important issues and their single-minded focus on the legality of abortion. “The anti-abortionists are simply a one-theme people who would like to see us doing nothing about hunger or race relations or citizenship or separation of church and state or morality or hardly anything else, as long as we were talking about their accepted belief that life in its full human form begins at the moment of conception.” As a proud Southern Baptist, Valentine argued for increased emphasis on birth control and sex education, two of the most time-tested methods of reducing the number of abortions.

Other Texas Baptist leaders echoed Valentine’s stance. Editors of the Baptist Standard (the official news organ of state Baptists) repeatedly argued that by politicizing such a personal issue, Baptists risked losing their religious heritage to the cause of rightwing politics. Although these leaders ultimately came into conflict with national Baptist leaders, in the early days of abortion debates they were in sync with the broader denomination. At the 1971 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, Baptists overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling for “legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions 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.”

In 1974, after the Roe decision, Southern Baptists reaffirmed that position with only minor changes. The significance of the resolution was not lost on James Dunn, a prominent Texas Baptist who served as head of the state’s Christian Life Commission during the 1970s. In an interview held just after the abortion vote in 1974, he expressed satisfaction that “We’re overwhelmingly on record with a rather open position on abortion. And it’s probably good that these guys [anti-abortion advocates] brought it up, so we could take this position and make it clear that the convention is not a conservative denomination on the abortion issue, as we are so often labeled.” Dunn and Valentine were only two of the most influential Texas Baptists who pushed their denomination in a moderate to liberal direction on reproductive issues. Unfortunately, their arguments fell on too many deaf ears, and Southern Baptists (like most other white evangelicals) moved towards a hard-right position on the subject. But the actions of these Baptists serve as a reminder that the alliance of southern evangelicals with anti-abortion ideologues was neither inevitable nor unavoidable; and it may be reversible.

With the election of a president who is deeply religious and also strongly pro-choice, supporters of reproductive rights have a chance once again to reach out to potential allies in evangelical communities. Mindful of the pro-choice histories of southern evangelicals like Valentine and Dunn, progressives can build new alliances that might undermine the power of Christian Right leaders who would apparently rather block government support for poor women than work to actually reduce the number of abortions. In doing so, activists might achieve a pro-choice consensus that includes many members of evangelical communities. By reaching out to evangelicals (and other people of faith) who are flexible on reproductive issues, progressives can push the conversation in a far more fruitful direction. That discussion should include serious measures to reduce the incidence of abortion, while also affirming the right of every woman to make her own reproductive choices. And despite the howls of congressional Republicans, poor women are no less deserving of that right than anyone else.

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Jay Waring Spillers - 5/14/2010

I do support efforts to reduce abortion such as access to contraception and making adoption easier. I also support reducing poverty. Here is what I said in an email about balancing interests, why the right to life would not justify criminalizing abortion:

Let me start off by saying that I am prolife and do oppose abortion. I believe that abortion for convience or for birth control is a great moral evil. I am a Christian and do believe that life does begin within the womb. I support the states right to grant legal protection and recognition to the unborn child's right to life. But, the other side does have one compelling issue to consider. If one totally criminalizes abortion, you will not only prohibit abortion (a good thing), but you will also impose an affirmative duty on the woman to remain pregnant against her will. Criminal law does not general impose such affirmative duties and in the cases where it does, the person generally has the ability to resign from that duty, for example, a parent has the right to care for his/her child, but the parent could go down tomorrow and put the child up for adoption and thus remove his affirmative duty. A pregnant woman can not do this. One has a right to life, but not necessarity a right to impose a duty on others to preserve your life. If I need a kidney I don't have the rightto force you by law to give me one of your kidneys so that I may continue to live. Same would be true of a blood transfustion, if I tried to force you by law to give me your blood. Well, a woman's body functions as a natural life support system for the unborn baby, the baby does not have the right to force the woman by law to provide her body as a natural life support system for nine months to perserve his/her life. To compel a woman to provide her body in such a way would amount to involuntary servitude. The state shoud have the power to regulate abortion to protect the life of the baby as well as protect the life and health of the woman, but not in ways that would strictly force her to remain pregnant against her will, ie totally banning abortion criminally. I am actually in favor of a human life amendment and do believe Roe went to far, but this right to life can not be made to force a woman into bodily slavery. The two rights here must be balanced.

Jim Good - 4/9/2009

I've always considered it a travesty that more rational Southern Baptists, every bit as devout as any member of the religious right, have been shouted down within their own denomination. It contradicts the Baptist commitment to democratic church polity.

Good article.

John Connally - 2/23/2009

Should a fetus receive the same rights as a citizen? Should the state force parents to care for them the same as for children? If so, should the state confine mothers to detention centers - to ensure they don't consume alcohol, caffeine, or the multitude of other substances that can potentially harm a fetus; to ensure they eat and exercise properly; to ensure they do no intentional or unintentional harm to the unborn - until they pass from the status of incubator back to citizen? How much power should the government have over our bodies?

Wesley Phelps - 2/23/2009

I believe the point Mr. Ellis is trying to make is that if conservative evangelicals were sincere in their effort to decrease the number of abortions, they logically would support programs that provide for sex education and contraception. In the absence of a coherent argument, anti-abortion evangelicals expose themselves as wanting not only to control the sexual lives of women, but to ensure that many women be denied proper sex education. Making the rather inane statement that "the anti-abortion movement is against murdering babies" does little to help anyone understand the history of anti-abortion evangelicals.

James Goswick - 2/20/2009

Blake Ellis: Such tactics have made it clear that the goal of the anti-abortion movement is not a reduction in the abortion rate, but rather strict control over the private sexual decisions of the country’s citizens.

The anti-abortion movement is against murdering babies, not controlling sexual decisions.

But the actions of these Baptists serve as a reminder that the alliance of southern evangelicals with anti-abortion ideologues was neither inevitable nor unavoidable; and it may be reversible.>

The Bible is specifically clear on the issue; life begins at conception. How can Baptist theology contradict the Bible?

while also affirming the right of every woman to make her own reproductive choices.>

That choice is involving a life.