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.