Though I have never been a Southern Baptist, a confluence of interests and life experiences has led me to observe the Southern Baptist Convention's theological coloration and political activism. I was an undergraduate at Oklahoma Baptist University when I first started thinking about religion and politics. I went on to study and work in Mainline Protestant institutions and stopped paying attention to evangelicalism for several years. (Don't Mainliners have enough problems of their own...?) But even now, as a graduate student in political science, my research on the relationship between faith commitments and political attitudes often leads me to a close examination of what Southern Baptists, and white evangelicals generally, believe.
Public opinion research reveals that the overwhelming majority of Americans -- across denominational lines -- approve of birth control, at least for married couples. Though still controversial after the FDA approved The Pill in 1960, since the late 1970s the issue has seldom been polled because it's simply not an interesting question anymore. As we say in the business, there's not much variation on the dependent variable. (Much of the polling in the past 40 years comes from 1978, 2005, and 2013. What do these years have in common? Papal elections.)
In spite of near-unanimous acceptance (and use), a growing number of evangelical elites are raising doubts about the morality of artificial birth control. This fall, I wrote a commentary for Associated Baptist Press suggesting that the Reverend Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, may be against birth control. I hoped the religious media would seek clarification from Moore on his views, but so far they have not.
A recent ERLC brief about a SBC entity suing the federal government over the Contraceptive Mandate makes reference to Baptists' views on birth control and abortion:
At stake in the legal dispute is what is popularly known as the “HHS Mandate,” a provision of the Affordable Care Act that mandates that all employers provide their employees with coverage that includes access to abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization services and contraception. While Southern Baptists have varied opinions on the use of contraception, Southern Baptists have spoken clearly and univocally on our opposition to abortion and religious liberty for all [emphasis mine].
This language implies that Southern Baptists are all over the map with respect to opinions about contraception, but that they are of one mind on abortion.
Actually, the opposite is true.
Like most religious groups, Southern Baptists overwhelmingly accept the use of contraceptives. And, in spite of pro-life advocacy being a clear and public priority of the SBC for decades, Southern Baptists have quite varied opinions on the legality of abortion and the circumstances in which it may be morally permissible.
On birth control, surveys consistently find that overwhelming majorities of Americans (regardless of religion) approve of artificial contraceptives. A 2012 CNN poll found that only 11% of Protestants agree with the statement "Using artificial means of birth control is wrong." Among white Protestants, 14% of self-identified born agains agreed, compared to 7% of Protestants who did not identify as born again.
If 85% support constitutes "varied opinions on the use of contraception," as the ERLC statement suggests, just wait until the ERLC finds out how "varied" its own constituents are on abortion!
It is actually the abortion issue on which white evangelicals have "varied opinions." A recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life report indicates that nearly two-thirds (64%) of white evangelicals believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. But a persistent minority (31%) believes abortion should remain legal in all or most cases. Pew also reports that while 54% of white evangelicals want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, 42% do not want the Supreme Court to overturn the Roe decision. Only 29% of white evangelicals see abortion as a critical issue facing the country. An equal number (35%) of white evangelicals see abortion as "one of many issues" and "not that important."
I recommend this Public Religion Research Institute report, from 2011, on abortion attitudes. While the survey focuses on Millennials' opinions, it does note that, overall, 67% of white evangelicals believe you can be a good Christian even if you disagree with your religion's teaching on abortion (p. 32).
In fairness, I should note that I am using "white evangelical Protestants" as a proxy for Southern Baptists because this is how the data are typically aggregated and reported in national opinion surveys. My sense is that Southern Baptists as a subset of white evangelicals may be a few percentage points more conservative on the abortion questions. I would not expect Southern Baptists to differ from other white Protestant born agains' overwhelming approval of contraception. It is also true that frequent church attenders report more conservative positions than respondents who are coded as evangelical but do not attend church as often.
Even so, it is inaccurate for the ERLC to portray Southern Baptists as of varying opinions on birth control but "univocally" in support of criminalizing abortion. The truth is that Southern Baptists, like all Americans, are almost universally accepting of birth control. Furthermore, Southern Baptists are not nearly as uniformly in favor of criminalizing abortion as their pastors and denominational leaders.
As someone who has noticed evangelical elites' increasing hostility to family planning, I understand why the ERLC would want to create and nurture the illusion that "Southern Baptists have varied opinions on the use of contraception." The only problem is that it is misleading. Far more white evangelicals (31%) believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases than believe that using artificial means of birth control is wrong (14%).
The ERLC might have more truthfully said,
While Southern Baptists have varied opinions on the legality of abortion, they have spoken clearly and univocally on their support for artificial birth control and religious liberty for all.
But that doesn't really fit the narrative, does it?
Pay attention to Southern Baptist leaders (always male) on the birth control issue. The savvy ones know that, while converting "the lost" will always be important, the real secret to growth lies in convincing their constituents that contraception is a vile sin. It will be a tough sell, but it becomes easier if they start by implying that Quiverfull ideology is a mainstream, rather than fringe, view among the very people they hope to convince.