Abortion was an ideological and spiritual struggle for the Baptist minister

As Virginians grapple with the implications of the repeal of Roe v. Wade by the United States Supreme Court, some local religious leaders affirm their personal positions on abortion, reflecting a diversity of views among religious groups on the issue.

Reverend Dwylene Butler is the executive minister of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, a 154-year-old house of faith in the historic community of Jackson Ward in Richmond. Butler works closely with the church’s pastor, Rev. Tyrone Nelson, and other leaders to meet the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of church members and the surrounding community.

A licensed Christian pastor since age 17, Butler holds master’s degrees in theology and divinity, and chairs the Holistic Hurt, Wholistic Healing Conference, which addresses topics traditionally considered “taboo” in many Baptist churches – domestic violence, mental illness and sexuality – and offers resources to community members affected by the issues.

Butler said she was also a survivor of sexual assault whose rapist got her pregnant during her sophomore year of college.

“At the age of 20, it was very difficult for me to reconcile the fact that I was already an authorized minister, who was pregnant as a result of rape, and the decisions that I had to make as a person of faith,” said Butler, who terminated the pregnancy through a facilitated abortion at a clinic in her home state of Connecticut.

The choice to have an abortion represented an ideological and spiritual struggle for Butler, “because I had grown up believing that abortion was a sin. It was something the ‘fast’ girls had to do because they had been “fast”. And [abortion] was the consequence of what had happened to them. And so, I started to question everything about what I had been taught, what I believed and what it meant.”

Butler’s experience reflects a diversity of perspectives present in various Christian church denominations in America and Virginia. Christians are the largest religious group in Virginia; 73% of adults in the state identify as Christian, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. Six percent of Virginians practice non-Christian religions — Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and other faiths — while 20 percent of Virginians are not affiliated with any religion. Protestants make up the majority of Christians in the state.

Of all religions, Christians have presented some of the strongest opposition to abortion in Virginia and across America. While the majority of adults in the United States said abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances, white evangelical Christians are the most opposed to abortion, according to a May 2022 Pew study.

The Southern Baptist Convention — which represents about 50,000 churches and more than 14 million members worldwide — has taken a tough pro-life stance for decades. The organization, which is affiliated with the General Baptist Association of Virginia based in Henrico County, “welcomed” the overturning of Roe v. Wade last Friday. Other Christian groups and leaders, including Butler, are troubled by the court’s decision.

“For me, my first reaction was shock, despair and a feeling of hopelessness, but then I cried out to God to say this, I know this can’t be the end,” Butler said. “I just cried before the Lord and asked God, what does this mean for today, but also for the years to come? What does this mean for [rights] that we thought were established laws, things that we thought were freedoms that we would have? And they left. So what does that mean?”

Historically in Virginia, abortion was seen as a religious rather than a political issue, according to Daniel Williams, a history professor at the University of West Georgia who studies American religion and politics.

Prior to the 1970s, abortion was “a much more religiously focused debate. And it was rather a debate between Catholics, strongly opposed to abortion. … And then on the other side were Protestants with different perspectives, some of whom tended to be moderates,” Williams said.

Even after Roe v. Wade, a 1973 Richmond Times-Dispatch article stated that “Protestants are now divided on the issue, while a majority of Catholics remain opposed”.

Another RTD article from 1973 stated that 16 Jewish and Christian religious organizations had formed the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights “to protect women’s right to use individual freedom of conscience in deciding whether to have an abortion”.

While views on abortion and access to abortion vary across faiths and even between faiths, Butler and other faith leaders urge everyone, but especially those in the Christian community, to see the issue through a lens of compassion, concern and love.

“We are not a monolithic people…what we believe as Christians should be in Deuteronomy, when God said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ Jesus said: ‘The second commandment is like it, love your neighbor as you love yourself’.

VPM News reporter Megan Pauly contributed to this report

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