Southern Baptist Transitions: Richard Land Doubles Down on Culture War, Bill Leonard Reflects on Southern Baptist Past

Paul Harvey

In The New Republic, Amy Sullivan covers the "retirement" of Richard Land from his post as head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (which, despite its title, has spoken out recently on issues such as global warming -- clearly not happening, ya'll -- and why tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% are biblical).

Land apparently felt that his outspoken positions on "culture war" issues have been hampered by his need to be diplomatic as a denominational servant. This is ironic, as Sullivan points out, because:

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 Emmanuel to Josef Mengele, . . . reported 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." 

Sullivan describes him, aptly I think, as a "happy warrior," one happy to cause controversy and mix it up with adversaries. No problem there. But the election of Fred Luter to be president of the convention and the retirement of Land from denominational politics gives some hope, to me anyway, that Southern Baptists may be moving away from their most reactionary extreme and towards a more constructive engagement in contemporary discussions -- one that will remain decidedly conservative, but (I hope) minus the animus and vitriol. Or not, we'll see. 

Along these lines, Bill Leonard, a dean of Baptist historians and observers, has a thoughtful and gracious piece here reflecting on past Southern Baptist race troubles and present transitions. He very nicely opens the piece with a few paragraphs on my work Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South, and then remembers an event from the late 1960s which still haunts him, and parallels Land's recent comments on the Trayvon Martin case. Give it a read; a little excerpt here:

Contemplating that action I recalled a Sunday morning in the spring of 1968 when the pastor of the Texas Baptist church where I was youth minister offered his sermonic response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was a tragedy, he acknowledged, but since King’s methods and beliefs were terribly misguided, few should be surprised by events in Memphis.
He then launched into a homiletical attack on the civil-rights movement. Amid those remarks, one of the young people rose from his seat near the front and walked out on the sermon. In my memory I can still hear his steps sounding above the preacher’s voice. We all knew that his departure was intentional, not incidental. He refused to support racism with his presence, a courageous act in that place in those days.


Bill Leonard is certainly correct that the act of walking out on a sermon took courage. Yet there were many voices in the SBC of 1968--particularly in the mission organizations and the denominational commissions--which would have encouraged such a stand. It is difficult to see where Southern Baptists might find encouragement (within the Convention) to take a stand on culture war issues at odds with the more conservative elements. It is also a disconcerting to the more inflammatory tone that the leadership has taken, as opposed to the much more measured and reasoned leadership of the 1960s (at least in the major Convention Commissions)
--Alan Scot Willis
Tom Van Dyke said…
Perhaps 6 months ago, this non-Protestant put the Richard Land Live [Sunday mornings] show on auto-record at this site.

[Very cool site. Free. Keep track of the talkradioists.

Ran across Richard Land's show by accident in the first place. Listened to it. Seemed like a good amn, no turnip truck stuff.

All I can say here is that if one judges a man by his hyperbole, by what his critics pick out as least defensible---usually uncharitably paraphrased if not out of context---not a one of us stands a chance.

Mebbe I'm wrong but based on what I've heard of Richard Land's thinking, I think he'd do just fine on any level playing field.

[Yes, I'm aware Richard Land was bagged for plagiarism. So was the current elected VP of the USA, Joe Biden. It doesn't make him a bad person, eh?]

[If we have higher standards for talk radio than elective office, surely all is lost.]
Paul Harvey said…
Alan, true that re: Foy Valentine and others from the 60s. And the regime since the early 1980s doesn't resemble what I grew up with -- evangelical, moderately conservative, but hardly ever strident or contentious. Maybe the Luter election represents a Southern Baptist Spring.

Tom: fair points, and Land has an honorable record in certain areas and can come across well in group discussions where he makes his points and respectfully listens to others (that's partly why he became such a go-to person for Talk of the Nation type shows). Irony is that he's stepping down (going by his own description here) so he can be more, rather than less, hyperbolic and culture warrior-y. If that means a steady diet of these more recent pronouncements, can't see that as being a good idea.

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