The country’s most prominent denominational figure is stepping down after 25 years at the Southern Baptist Convention to officially become an unrestricted free agent in the Religious Right. Richard Land is not the leader of the Southern Baptists—he holds the wordy title of president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. But for at least the last decade he has been their de facto representative in the media, thanks in part to his affection for quips and inflammatory rhetoric.
That rhetoric has gotten Land in trouble with his colleagues this year and his announcement last week was accompanied by speculation that the departure is not entirely voluntary. Land himself made the not terribly gracious observation in his retirement letter that, “My denominational service, while always close to my heart, has to some degree inevitably limited my participation in the culture war’s political debates.” He added: “I believe the ‘culture war’ is a titanic struggle for our nation’s soul and as a minister of Christ’s Gospel, I have no right to retire from that struggle.”
If Land has felt limited in his ability to express opinions on culture war issues, I cannot imagine what an unplugged Richard Land will sound like. In the past three years, he has described Democratic health-care reform as “precisely what the Nazis did,” compared Zeke Emanuel to Josef Mengele, called President Obama a playboy (okay, he said Obama “lives like a playboy”), repeated debunked conservative email rumors about Michelle Obama, warned that ending the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy would “provide further impetus for God’s judgment on this nation,” and accused gay rights activists of “recruiting people for homosexual clubs” and seeking the “outright sexual paganization of society.”
Land went too far, however, in his response to the outrage that followed the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida this winter. On his radio show—Richard Land Live!—the Southern Baptist referred to black leaders who were upset about the paltry investigation of Martin’s death as “race hustlers” and said they were using the opportunity to “gin up the black vote for an African American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election.” Land also accused Obama of “pour[ing] gasoline on the racialist fires” when the president remarked, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”
Race is a tricky issue for Southern Baptists. The SBC was formed in the 1840s when southern Baptist churches split from their northern counterparts over slavery and other issues. When other divided denominations like Methodists and Presbyterians reunited in the twentieth century, the Baptists never did, citing continuing disputes over civil rights and theological issues. Today, the membership of Southern Baptist churches is declining (as it is for nearly every religious group in America) and leaders are eager to bring African-American churches and their members back into the fold. The denomination’s leaders—including Land—have expressed remorse for its role in the nation’s struggles over race. And in June, the SBC elected its first African-American president, Rev. Fred Luter from New Orleans.
Land’s divisive and racially-charged remarks this spring stepped on the message of racial reconciliation that the SBC had hoped would surround the election of Luter, who ran unopposed. African-American pastors within the SBC called for Land’s immediate dismissal. My own church left the denomination this summer after expressing concern over his comments. When asked by the Associated Press about what effect Land’s statements would have on the SBC’s efforts to recruit more African-American members, Luter replied, “It doesn’t help. That’s for sure.”
As is his wont when criticized, Land initially refused to apologize. “True racial reconciliation means that you do not bow to the false god of political correctness,” said Land, who claimed that he was being “mugged” by the press. He dug himself deeper by giving a shout-out to racial profiling, asserting that a black man “is statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man.” And Land confidently predicted that he would be fine. “I have no doubt, based on the emails I have received, that a vast majority of Southern Baptists agree with me,” he told the Associated Press.
Then a Baptist blogger discovered that Land had plagiarized some of his most controversial remarks, lifting them from a Washington Times column. Land sat down for a five-hour meeting with African-American pastors and other Southern Baptist leaders and apologized for his “insensitivity,” but it was too late. In early June, the SBC took away Land’s radio show and reprimanded him “for his hurtful, irresponsible, insensitive, and racially charged words” and for “quoting material without giving attribution.” At the time, critics saw the punishment as insufficient; Land’s retirement announcement may alter that view.
I’ve had the opportunity to interview and debate Land over the years. He always struck me as a happy warrior, someone who delighted in causing controversy. (To me, Land’s most troubling comment has been his repeated assertion that the coming election is the most important one since 1860 and the image of racial warfare that suggests.) Land has always been conservative—very conservative. But since the 2008, he has also been far less concerned about hiding his partisanship, often operating as a partisan attack dog. With his retirement from the SBC, Land is finally free to join Tony Perkins and the rest of the Religious Right gang in that role.