Monday, October 12, 2009

Dirty Little Secrets

In a recent blog post “Abortion and the American Conscience,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler highlights some of the chilling racial and population-control motives behind the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in this country. He calls this “one of the dirty secrets of the abortion rights movement.” While I applaud Mohler’s tireless support for the unborn, I was disappointed because his post ignores the dirty little secrets of the religious, pro-life movement. Didn't Jesus say something about a mote in a brothers eye and beam in one’s own?

Many forget that Southern Baptists initially supported abortion rights and other Evangelicals were slow to oppose Roe v. Wade. (Mohler hints at this lack evangelical pro-life concern in the wake of Roe v. Wade when he admits, “Evangelicals . . . were largely out of the debate” speculating that “a majority of evangelicals seemed to see abortion as a largely Catholic issue.”) Even Evangelist Billy Graham has been less-than-consistent in his statements on abortion over the years.

Here are some facts Mohler left out of his blog:

-Dr. W. A. Criswell, two-time Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president and longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas (and Billy Graham’s pastor for many years), initially voiced his support for Roe v. Wade, saying, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from the mother that it became an individual person, and it always has, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” Criswell later changed his position, becoming pro-life, as Ronald Reagan, now a patron saint of the Religious Right, had done before seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1976. (Reagan signed the pro-choice Therapeutic Abortion Act into state law when he was governor of California in 1967, over five years before Roe v. Wade.)

-The SBC passed multiple pro-choice resolutions in the 1970s both before and after Roe v. Wade. Only subsequent to the conservatives coming to power in the SBC in 1979 did the denomination begin to pass pro-life resolutions. The same year, Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority with an anti-abortion agenda intended to awaken Evangelicals’ to political action as means of social transformation. In subsequent years the Religious Right largely forgot Evangelicals earlier apathy toward abortion.

-A majority of Southern Baptists and Evangelicals voted for the self-proclaimed born-again Presidential Candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976, despite the fact that he was pro-choice.

Don’t get me wrong. Like Mohler I’m pro-life. But I’m also pro-truth. When it comes to dirty little secrets, it’s not just the pro-choice crowd that has something to hide.


  1. While your points about the SBC are certainly true and well-taken, Mohler devoted the entire second paragraph of his article and part of the fourth to the dirty little secret of the religious pro-life movement that you say he ignores.

    "Most Americans seem completely unaware of the actual contours of the abortion debate as it emerged in the early 1970s. In 1973, the primary opposition to abortion on demand came from the Roman Catholic Church. Evangelicals -- representative of the larger American culture -- were largely out of the debate. At that time, a majority of evangelicals seemed to see abortion as a largely Catholic issue. It took the shock of Roe v. Wade and the reality of abortion on demand to awaken the Evangelical conscience... Also missing from our contemporary cultural memory is the fact that many Republicans, as well as Democrats welcomed Roe v. Wade as the next step in a necessary process of liberating human beings from prior constraints." - Mohler

    The fact that evangelical opposition to abortion was a few years late to the party does not make its current opposition any less genuine.

    The fact that the abortion movement's genesis was rooted in racism does taint it as a whole, especially considering the fact that abortion currently claims the lives of minority babies at an egregiously higher rate than among whites.

    Although the Catholic Church supplied the initial opposition to abortion, they have largely ceded such a role to evangelicals. Catholic politicians have made famous the private belief/public lawmaking split.

  2. Also, I'm not sure it's fair to fault Mohler for not writing an article on past SBC sins. He chose a different topic: the racist nature of abortion.

  3. Matt, thank you for your comments, though I can't agree that Catholic Church leaders have ceded their anti-abortion role to Evangelicals, who today seem to care more about defending marriage against homosexuals than they do about protecting the lives of the unborn. There's also a difference between the Catholic Church and Catholic politicians.

    I did quote from Mohler's second paragraph, which you reproduce here, but I think he leaves out too much to give a clear picture of the situation. It's not just that the SBC was full of liberals in the 1960s and 1970s and that's why there was no anti-abortion interest or movement. Even conservatives in the SBC like Criswell initially supported Roe v. Wade. (Could racism have played a role here as well?) The pro-choice resolutions couldn't have passed, even in the early 1970s, without conservatives voting for them.

    Pro-choice supporters today don't talk about abortion in terms of race or population control. If we're going to start digging up dirt from the pro-choice movement's past, we on the pro-life side are going to get dirty as well.

    (If you haven't already read it, I'd recommend Randall Balmer's book God in the White House.)