Richard Land, the public face of the Southern Baptist Convention, has finally remembered the first rule of holes. But it may be too late for either him or the SBC.
The longtime “ethics” spokesman put himself and his entire denomination in a deep hole with his initial rant on the slaying of Trayvon Martin. Then Land defiantly spent the next several weeks digging in deeper.
That rant on the Martin case, made on Land’s radio show, Richard Land Live!, ought to have been his penultimate public statement as an official representative of the SBC, followed only by the announcement of his resignation. If a politician or entertainer had made the statements Land made they would now be in rehab for vague, undisclosed reasons — the standard ritual of public contrition for those who have said or done things that would seem to disqualify them from any future in public life.
Note again that the problem here isn’t with a particular injudicious word or phrase, but with the entire framework. Richard Land’s response to the slaying of Trayvon Martin is shaped by a host of assumptions and mythologies, the ancient and ugly narratives that have long been used to defend racial injustice and that exist only to do so. In the framework Land embraces, racial injustice is simply a given. For Land, that injustice is not a problem to be addressed. The problem, rather, is any black leader who refuses to accept the status quo of racial injustice. Such people are troublemakers, agitators or, in Land’s exact phrase, “race hustlers.”
Richard Land’s commentary reads like a time capsule. Apart from the specific names, it is indistinguishable from the protestations of the white Southern Baptist clergy in Birmingham in 1963 who complained that everything was just fine in Alabama until Martin Luther King Jr. came along to stir up trouble. Or Land’s commentary could be read as an op-ed from the 1930s, when white clergy complained that anti-lynching laws were the work of such troublemakers and “race-hustlers.” Land even included the traditional threat-masked-as-lamentation, warning that such calls for justice will lead to “violence.”
This was ugly stuff, and for that alone Richard Land ought to have been swiftly fired. The fact that he was not — that the possibility of his resignation or termination didn’t even arise — is evidence that the Southern Baptist Convention remains mired in the same defense of pervasive injustice that characterized the denomination in 1963, in 1933, in 1863.
And since that initial rant, Land has only made things worse. He keeps compounding the problem and reinforcing everything that was so awful and hurtful in his radio commentary. He repeatedly defended the substance of his rant, and arrogantly dismissed the reaction of black clergy to his remarks. Asked about one black pastor’s effort to get the SBC to repudiate his remarks, Land said, “I have no doubt, based on the emails I have received, that a vast majority of Southern Baptists agree with me.”
That explicitly ties the entire denomination to Land’s views. It also reveals both what Land regards as important and who Land regards as important. It’s an appeal to power — he and his friends in the SBC’s (white) old boy network have more power than the black pastors who were appalled by his remarks, so Land doesn’t have to care what they think. And since he doesn’t have to, he simply doesn’t care what they think.
So again, Richard Land needs to be fired.
In the weeks since his radio show, Land has defended the presumption that black young people should be viewed with suspicion, claiming that a black man is “statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man.” He has lashed out at a black reporter critical of his comments, saying, “She’s an African-American and she’s racially profiling me.”
On Monday, more than two weeks after this scandal began, Richard Land finally issued an apology. But he didn’t first apologize because of the hurtful, hateful things he said in his diatribe against “race-hustlers.” He apologized for lifting that entire rant uncredited from a right-wing columnist:
Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, issued an apology on Monday for plagiarism during his radio show – Richard Land Live! …
On his March 31 radio program, Land used material about Trayvon Martin, race, the media and President Obama that came from a Washington Times column by Jeffrey Kuhner without attribution.
Baptist blogger and Baylor doctoral student Aaron Weaver spotted the plagiarism and posted a partial transcript of the plagiarized material on his own blog. …
Weaver has since found examples of “More Plagiarism From Head of Southern Baptist Ethics Agency.”
The plagiarism charges added momentum to the growing criticism of Land’s remarks on the Martin slaying, and for the first time it began to seem like his future as the SBC’s public voice might be in jeopardy.
So late Monday, in an open letter addressed to denominational officials, Land finally apologized for embracing the ugly ideology of the Jeffrey Kuhner column he had presented as his own opinions:
I am writing to express my deep regret for any hurt or misunderstanding my comments about the Trayvon Martin case have generated. It grieves me to hear that any comments of mine have to any degree set back the cause of racial reconciliation in Southern Baptist or American life. …
Clearly, I overestimated the progress that has been made in slaying the ugly racist ghosts of the past in our history. I also clearly underestimated the extent to which we must go out of our way not to be misunderstood when we speak to issues where race is a factor.
Please know that I apologize to any and all who were hurt or offended by my comments. I will certainly recommit myself to seeking to address controversial issues with even more sensitivity in the future.
That’s a bit hard to swallow, coming from the same man who has spent the past two weeks denying any “grief” about the effects of his comments on the denomination and dismissing his critics as either irrelevant annoyances or self-serving troublemakers.
Prior to this apology, Richard Land was the public face of the SBC, making the denomination appear as an angry old white man.
After this apology, Richard Land remains the public face of the SBC, making the denomination appear as an angry-but-apologetic old white man who regrets any misunderstanding of his remarks by oversensitive people.
Previously on this blog:
- “Richard Land scandal festering in Southern Baptist Convention“
- “Baptists, Southerners appalled by Richard Land“
- “Richard Land still represents Southern Baptists on ‘ethics’“
- “Seriously, Richard Land needs to be fired“
- “Dear SBC: Richard Land needs to go now“