Foy Valentine, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s moral-concerns agency for a tumultuous 27 years spanning from the civil-rights movement of the 1960s to the fundamentalist takeover of the denomination in the 1980s, died Saturday after an apparent heart attack at his home in Dallas.
Valentine, 82, had experienced heart trouble for several years. Funeral services are scheduled Wednesday at Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas, where he was a member.
Valentine was the first doctoral student of T.B. Maston, a pioneer in the field of Christian ethics who taught many years at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
With a constituency entrenched in the South during segregation, most SBC agency heads tried to remain neutral in the early years of the civil-rights movement. Valentine was a rare exception. He once remarked that Southern Baptists “abandoned the Lordship of Christ in racial ethics,” by perpetuating a culture of racism.
“The God of the Bible, the God Christians know through personal faith in Jesus Christ, is no abstract First Cause or Prime Mover, or Great Unknown out in the abstract Great Somewhere who can be placated by a bit of discrete crying in the chapel,” Valentine wrote. “He is a personal God who is very deeply and very definitely concerned. God cares and God is concerned. And since God is concerned, his people have an obligation to be concerned too.”
Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, worked as director of hunger concerns at the Christian Life Commission during the final years of Valentine’s tenure, 1985-1987.
Parham said Valentine “encouraged and aggravated a generation of Southern Baptist ministers in the 1960s and 1970s to care about applied Christianity.”
“He refused to let Southern Baptists define Christian faith by pietistic individualism and other-worldly evangelism,” Parham said. “He knew the Hebrew prophets and Jesus’ teachings were at the core of Christianity and should be at the heart of Southern Baptist life. He tried his best to lead Southern Baptists to prioritize Christian ethics.”
Valentine was a polarizing figure in the fundamentalist/moderate controversy of the 1980s. The Christian Life Commission, today called the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and headed by religious right figure Richard Land, was an early target for fundamentalists.
A past president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and board member of the religious-left Interfaith Alliance, Valentine was most despised by SBC fundamentalists for supporting the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, later known as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Valentine backed an SBC resolution in 1971 approving of abortion under some circumstances, including protecting the health of the mother, a position consistent with the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized most abortions two years later.
The SBC reversed that position in 1980, adopting a resolution calling for a constitutional ban on abortion under any circumstance except to save the life of the mother. Today Southern Baptist leaders are involved in an effort to stack the Supreme Court with conservative justices they hope will overturn Roe v. Wade.
The BCE’s Parham said Valentine viewed the agenda of the fundamentalist party, which eventually transformed into an arm of the religious right, as “foreign to the gospel.”
While best known for folksy writing and CLC seminars, Parham said, Valentine’s most-overlooked contribution was his work to expand ethics work within the SBC bureaucracy. Valentine grew the CLC from a staff of two to 15, despite opposition, and played a pivotal role in expanding Christian ethics work in state conventions and in seminaries.
“With the deaths of A. C. Miller, T. B. Maston and Henlee Barnette, Foy’s passing brings us closer to the end of a remarkable generation of Baptist ethics leaders, leaving us with too few prophets and social reformers,” Parham said.
After retiring from the Christian Life Commission, Valentine headed the Center for Christian Ethics, a partner organization of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.