Richard Land has layers

In one of my favorite scenes in the original 2001 “Shrek” movie, the title character explains to Donkey that “there’s a lot more to ogres than people think.”

“Example?” Donkey responds.

“Example … uh … ogres are like onions,” Shrek says, holding up an onion that Donkey sniffs.

More of the dialogue:

Donkey: “They stink?”

Shrek: “Yes. … No!”

Donkey: “Oh, they make you cry?”

Shrek: “No!”

Donkey: “Oh, you leave ‘em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin’ little white hairs.”

Shrek (peeling an onion): “No! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.”

I’ve used this analogy before, but too many newspaper stories lack layers. The main characters are 100 percent heroic or totally villainous. They are cardboard cutouts, fitting an easy storyline. Unlike onions (and ogres), they don’t have layers.

Which leads me to Godbeat pro Bob Smietana’s front-page Tennessean profile this week of Richard Land, the embattled president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC):

Richard Land stood on the steps of the state Capitol in Nashville in late March, surrounded by more than a dozen young Catholic nuns dressed in the long white habits of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia.

He’d just given a speech denouncing the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate for employers — accusing the president of trampling the rights of religious groups.

Now he stood smiling like a preacher shaking hands at the back door of a church. He greeted each nun in turn, asked her name and hometown, and had the whole group, known for their musical prowess, smiling and laughing.

“I was feeling down before I came here today,” he said. “Maybe I should have you come over and sing at our offices.”

For the past 24 years, Land, president of the Southern Baptists’ Nashville-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has used his folksy charm and fiery rhetoric to become one of the leading voices of the Religious Right and the public face of Southern Baptists, the nation’s largest Protestant group.

Now Land’s future is in doubt. He’s being investigated by a Baptist committee for his remarks about the Trayvon Martin shooting and for alleged plagiarism.

Smietana’s story, picked up by USA Today and Religion News Service, was published in advance of the ERLC executive committee’s decision announced today to reprimand Land and halt his radio program. (I reported on a related angle for Christianity Today.)

Is Land a saint or a scoundrel? Readers can make up their own minds after reading Smietana’s nuanced — dare I say layered? — profile.

As the 1,600-word report notes, Land is a “study in contradictions” (like a lot of humans!):

He believes wives should obey their husbands but admires former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Land’s wife, Rebekah, has a doctorate in counseling and runs a private practice in Brentwood.

He opposes gay marriage and abortion. But he favors immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally, and criticized the Bush administration’s support of waterboarding.

During the controversy over the construction of the new Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, he spoke up in favor of the mosque.

“It’s time for this nonsense to end,” he said in August 2010. “The First Amendment guarantees people the right to worship where they live.”

That’s a lesson he learned from his Baptist mother growing up in Houston. When he complained about Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons knocking on the door, she defended them.

If the government can restrict the rights of Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, she told him, then it also can come after Baptists.

“That’s always stuck with me,” Land said.

Later in the piece, there’s this:

Not all of his former students at Criswell remain Land fans.

The Rev. David Montoya of Calvary Baptist Church in Mineral Wells, Texas, who studied with Land at Criswell in the 1970s, said the Baptist ethicist was careless about giving credit to other authors during his lectures.

Montoya said Land often read verbatim from textbooks without telling students.

“He’d Xerox the pages and read from them,” Montoya said. “Everyone knew about it.”

Hatley remembers things differently. He said Land always told students about his sources ahead of time.

This is one of those stories where I’m tempted to copy and paste the entire thing. There’s so much insight, so many anecdotes. But I’d urge you to read the whole story yourself.

Hey, guess what: Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Even Richard Land has layers.

Image via Joe Seer / Shutterstock.com

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://www.thebigdaddyweave.com Aaron Weaver

    On many issues Land is extremely complex whether it’s the environment, church-state issues or race. How many religious leaders are regarded as promoters of racial reconciliation while having apologized about a half-dozen times to Jewish and African-American groups and individuals for insensitive and inappropriate comments?

    Bob Smietana does a great job of capturing much of this in his profile.

    By the way, enjoyed your Christianity Today article. I think there are two questions. Your intro raises the first question: Who is or will be the face of the SBC? And second from Nathan Finn’s quote, who is the “‘most visible’ leader among Southern Baptists.”

    Land has been perhaps the public face of the denomination. He’s quoted the most in the media. However, the individuals Finn referenced are and have been much more popular than Land among Southern Baptists especially the under-50 crowd.

  • Suzanne

    Great read!

  • http://!)! Passing By

    It was a good read, but I’m going to pick at those “contrasts”.

    1.) Folks I’ve known who seriously engaged the wifely submission thing didn’t consider political office or education to contradict it. There is a long set of reasons for that, but this isn’t the place.

    2.) Abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration, and torture are all separate issues. The first two forming a contrast with the other two is a product ofjournalistic over-simplification. I recognize the point of this post is to praise the complexity of the story, but you can’t contrast apples and iron skillets.

    3.) It’s the same thing with the mosque: it’s only a contrast if you think that all conservatives, or at least serious Christians, would naturally oppose a mosque.

    Perhaps I’m being overly picky, but a recent post on this blog (I think it was) took a less skilled writer than Bob Smietana for questionable contrasts.


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