UPDATED 6/24/2021 Last week, I summarized my takeaway from observing, via the internet, most of the 2021 SBC annual meeting in Nashville. It was the largest attended convention since the end of the Conservative Resurgence, twenty-five years ago, in part because of its location in the heart of the SBC world, in part because the SBC missed meeting last year, and in part because there were some important issues on the table that will set the tone and direction of the SBC for the coming years. With prominent departures of SBC power figures Beth Moore and Russ Moore (no relation) to issues of racism and sexual abuse among the churches, the SBC has been grappling over its direction in recent years.
Conservative movements within the SBC include the Founders Movement led by Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Cape Coral, FL and the Conservative Baptist Network, led by a council that includes prominent pastors, present and former seminary presidents and politicians including former US presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Mike Stone, senior pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church of Blackshear, GA, is also on this council. He lost the election for the presidency of the SBC this year in a runoff with Ed Litton. Insiders and outsiders have been assessing just what happened last week in Nashville and what all this bodes for the future of the nation’s largest Protestant group. Also this essay.
Ed Stetzer, former SBC insider, currently Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center and Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership, and a teaching pastor at High Point Church, a Harvest Bible Chapel, is a regular commentator of all things SBC. Before the annual convention last week, Stetzer, writing in Christianity Today, warned that the SBC was at a fork in the road. Issues on the table included racial reconciliation and the sexual abuse scandal. Summarizing his afterthoughts this week, Stetzer stated that the SBC took the proper fork in electing Litton as president and in rejecting the repudiation of CRT. Strangely, however, Stetzer failed to mention one significant resolution that passed—a very strong resolution on abortion, with the most strident language ever used against abortion in any SBC resolution.
Behind the resolution for the abolition of abortion is a relatively new movement in the anti-abortion cause—Abortion Abolitionism (AA). Taking their cues from the abolitionist movement that fought to end slavery in the 19th century, AA has a “take no prisoners” approach to the question of abortion. Nothing short of the complete and total outlawing of all abortions, irrespective of the circumstances of conception, the mother’s health or the viability of the fetus, is acceptable. All abortions are murder and all who participate in them from the doctors and nurses who facilitate abortions to the women (and men) who seek them, are committing murder and should be prosecuted.
The internet presence of the AA movement is growing. I have been trying to ascertain the origins of this movements and it appears to be about ten years old, but it is expanding as the SBC vote suggests. Many states now have state-wide AA organizations that are lobbying hard to persuade state governments to totally and completely overthrow abortion, in every case, with no exceptions permitted (e. g. Florida, North Carolina, Texas). The Texas group is particularly strong, claiming 90,000 members in 2019. No abortions, no exceptions. Many reasons might be suggested as to why AA is on the rise. Roe v. Wade is now nearing its fiftieth anniversary. The National Right to Life estimated earlier this year that 62.5 million abortions had occurred in the US since the passing of the landmark Supreme Court ruling. While abortions are decreasing, they are decreasing incrementally, an important concept in the abortion debate and a word at the center of the abortion resolution in Nashville last week. The proposed amendment as submitted by Bill Ascol, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church of Owasso, OK, was passed by the SBC last Wednesday with a one word inclusion into the original resolution, inserting the word alone. The amendment to insert alone carried and the amended resolution passed, but Southern Baptists for Abolishing Abortion, co-sponsors of the resolution, repudiated the amendment. Even with the insertion of the one word, the resolution was still filled with anti-incrementalist language. So much debate over so small a word. What is at stake and why all the fuss? For a discussion on incrementalism in the abortion debate, see this essay by Scott Klusendorf.
The main tenets of AA can be found on numerous websites and they vary in articulation. Here are the core beliefs according to Southern Baptists for Abolishing Abortion. Perhaps the overriding tenet governing AA is its claim to being “biblical.” It doesn’t really matter what other prolifers argue, the argument that counts for Christians is how the Bible addresses an issue like abortion? “Abolitionists begin with the fundamental presupposition that the Bible is the Word of the Living God (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:21). Accordingly, we do not seek to leave the Bible out of the discussion. Instead, we unapologetically stand on the Word of God as our final authority.”
From this first core belief, others emerge. AA is dogmatic in its assertion that the prolife movement is ultimately “bad.” Prolife is driven by the wrong motives, it accepts too much compromise along the way (any compromise is too much), and it often fights with the wrong weapons. “The pro-life movement has opposed abortion by seeking to compromise with it. Pro-life strategists have accepted Roe as the ‘law of the land’ and have focused on trying to regulate the murder of children in the womb to the greatest degree the courts will allow.” The ultimate issue for AA is that despite nearly 50 years of opposition to Roe v. Wade, prolifers have failed to eradicate abortion. Also, abolitionists are immediatists as opposed to incrementalists. It is incongruous to permit abortion while seeking to overthrow it. “Abolitionists submit to God as our Ultimate authority while pro-lifers submit to the Supreme Court as their Ultimate authority.” “Abolitionists believe that abortion should be abolished immediately without exception or compromise. We believe legislation that regulates when, how, and which babies die, may be well-intentioned, but ultimately promotes evil and dishonors God.”
From this flows another tenet of AA—no exceptions permitted. Not for the life of the mother, not for rape or incest, not because the child will have a disability. No exceptions. “If abortion is murder, and we all know it is, it must be abolished entirely.” Also, AA members are nullificationists. “No government possesses the rightful authority to legalize child sacrifice.” “The Bible tells us to ‘rescue those being led to slaughter’ (Prv 24:10), ‘bring justice to the fatherless’ (Is 1:15), and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:39). You can do these things or you can submit to Supreme Court opinions stating that murdering certain humans should be legal, but you cannot do both.” Finally (there may be other tenets that other groups add), AA wants to criminalize abortion, in every case, and for all involved. This includes criminalizing the parents. “If abortion is murder, and we all know it is, it ought to be treated as such. Pro-lifers, attempting to put forward legislation more palatable to the public, are committed to a strategy of giving automatic immunity to the parents who have their child murdered in all cases.”
The question that must be asked is whether the SBC as a convention now affirms AA as suggested by the Ascol motion that carried, though amended, in Nashville last week? It seems doubtful to me that the SBC, as a large and gathered group, now embraces all those affirmations listed above for several reasons. First, the resolution, as passed, allowed for the possibility of incrementalism, stating that “incrementalism alone” was insufficient for the cause, but this amendment has been rejected by the very group of individuals that put forth the original resolution. Second, a large group of leaders within the SBC tried to stop the passing of the resolution, not because they affirm abortion in any way, but because they think that the resolution says too much. Denny Burk and a group of SBC ethicists, issued a very strong statement contra the resolution and by extension AA, yesterday. They identified two problems with the resolution. First, there was no exception for the life of the mother. While admittedly a rare occasion—ectopic pregnancies occur at a rate of 19.7/1000 pregnancies and are a leading cause of maternal mortality—and despite the fact that the last ten SBC resolutions against abortion offered between 1980–2018 make an exception for the life of the mother, this recent resolution allows for no exceptions. (I nearly lost my wife to an ectopic pregnancy 33 years ago when her tube ruptured. Thankfully, she was at the door of a hospital, in the care of EMTs, having been medevacked out of northern Alberta, when the rupture occurred.) Second, by rejecting incrementalism (an ultimate goal of those who put forth the resolution and the reason why they continue to oppose the amended version), AA, the movement behind the resolution, does not recognize that it takes many battles to win a war. Burk used the Allied invasion of France as an illustration. The taking of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 was one victory along the road that led to the ultimate defeat of the Nazis in Berlin; the war against tyranny was eventually won. Immediatists allow for no such strategy. It’s all or nothing. But if the Allies had followed such thinking, there would have been no battles that, in and of themselves, didn’t guarantee final victory. Incremental victories, like the Hyde Amendment which prohibits the funding of abortions with tax dollars and concerning which a resolution of support also passed the SBC this year, is the wrong strategy to follow and ultimately compromises the cause.
Burk and his colleagues aren’t the only Southern Baptists disconcerted with the strong resolution last week. See Denny’s full thoughts here. The resolutions committee itself refused to put forth the resolution because it was too strongly worded. Dana Hall McClain, a member of that committee, wrote that “the fringe group that authored the resolution labeled the legions of godly, hard-working pro-life advocates—attorneys and faithful legislators who have curtailed abortion as much as possible while Roe v. Wade stands—as part of the actual problem. It suggests that the people who have strategically reduce [sic] abortion to nearly nothing in many states, saving millions of lives in the process, are sinners who need to repent.”
So, while the SBC is on record as supporting abortion abolitionism, there is yet another fracture in the delicate coalition that is the Southern Baptist Convention. The ultra conservatives (some would call them fundamentalists or fundamentalist pirates, though I think the title fundamentalist would be a mistake) won some but lost more. What they did do was drive a wedge into the SBC opposition to abortion. What will these individuals do in the days ahead? Were they genuine fundamentalists, exiting the SBC might be an option but that doesn’t seem to be on the table, although in recent years the SBC has seen churches leave over some of the very issues that weren’t addressed in Nashville (e. g. CRT). Will the SBC fully align with abortion abolitionism? Time will tell, but this seems doubtful. Will those who have taken an AA position be content to stay within a movement that they think compromises on the sanctity of life as they think the Bible warrants? These are indeed strange days. May the Lord be gracious to us all.