(Originally published by Florida Voices)
From the beginning, the Trayvon Martin case exposed fault lines about race in America. One of those lines runs through the largest Protestant denomination in the country, and it has put one of its most visible leaders on the spot.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, made some ill-considered remarks about the case on his weekly radio program in March. The resulting backlash has revealed how an aging Southern Baptist leadership is becoming out of step with the culture they once sought to change.
Land had accused President Obama and civil rights leaders of using the Martin case for political purposes. Among other things, he called Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton “racial ambulance chasers” and said Obama had “poured gasoline on the racialist fires” with Obama’s comment that if he had a son, he would look like Martin.
“This is being done to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election …” Land said.
Since conservatives seized control of the denomination’s boards and agencies in the 1980s, Land has been the fiery and often demagogic spokesman for the conservative politics and theology the Southern Baptist Convention has embraced. When he took over the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the denomination’s agency for public policy and moral issues, he was determined to put Southern Baptists into the heat of the culture and political wars.
However, his leadership often has put Southern Baptists in a bad light. In 1998, Land was one of the architects of Southern Baptists’ boycott of Disney, ostensibly because its gay-friendly policies made it anti-family. He only succeeded in making mega-corporation Disney sympathetic and turning himself and his people into the worst stereotypes of Southern backwardness.
No doubt Land thought his remarks about the Martin case were business as usual. But they were particularly unfortunate for a denomination that continues to battle a racist past. It was founded in the 1840s over resistance to calls for the abolition of slavery. In a recent Huffington Post commentary about Land’s remarks, Jonathan Merritt pointed out that Southern Baptists were frequently at the forefront of opposition to the civil rights movement.
Land realized the error of his ways after meeting with the Rev. Fred Luter, who likely will become the convention’s first black president next month. He also was criticized publicly by some younger Southern Baptist leaders.
In his apology, Land confessed “insensitivity” towards Martin’s family and declared “racial profiling is a heinous injustice.” He also said he “impugned the motives” of President Obama, Jackson and Sharpton, and he sent a letter to Obama asking forgiveness, which must have been a bitter pill to swallow.
Meanwhile, a young Baptist blogger detected that chunks of Land’s radio address had been lifted without attribution from other sources, and Land was forced to apologize again. He’s now being investigated by the denomination’s Executive Committee for plagiarism.
Just a short time ago, it would have been unthinkable that Land’s job would be in jeopardy, but he now looks vulnerable and this shows how the ground has shifted under the feet of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Land and many of leaders of the denomination’s conservative takeover are becoming senior citizens, and they are now worried about declining membership and baptisms. The confidence they had 30 years ago has slipped, and younger evangelicals are not interested in the kind of partisan cultural warfare that their fathers thought was necessary.
Land now represents a fading philosophy of public engagement, and his gaffes could be seen by Southern Baptists as a headache they don’t need.