Southern Baptists might do the right thing and fire Richard Land

Southern Baptists might do the right thing and fire Richard Land April 20, 2012

I first wrote about Richard Land’s awful comments on the Trayvon Martin case because it seemed to me a particularly egregious example of the sort of horrible, nasty dishonesty that politically conservative evangelicals regularly spout with impunity.

I wrote that Land needed to be fired because that was true, but also because I didn’t expect him to experience any consequences or accountability for his hateful rant. It’s beginning to look like I may have been wrong about that. Richard Land’s tenure as the Southern Baptist Convention’s foremost spokesman may be over. If he somehow manages to cling to his job, his influence will be greatly diminished due to his self-inflicted wounds of the past few weeks.

Land seems just as surprised as I am. After all, he has a long history of saying this sort of thing, and it’s never gotten him into trouble before. That history of never being held accountable likely contributed to Land’s arrogant response to the initial criticism of his rant on the Martin case. He doubled down and went even further — condescendingly dismissing criticism from black clergy in the SBC, defending suspicion toward all black males, and framing himself as a courageous truth-teller unbowed by “political correctness.”

Land was thus, by his own doing, all the way out on the farthest part of the limb when Baptist blogger Andrew Weaver discovered that the rant Land was so aggressively defending was, in fact, lifted verbatim, without attribution, from a conservative columnist.

Land was forced to apologize for the plagiarism — or, as he put it, apologizing because, “On occasion I have failed to provide appropriate verbal attributions on my radio broadcast.”

That was followed by a weaselly “apology” over the “misunderstanding” of his anti-black comments and for his “underestimating 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.”

So his alleged apology directed toward black Baptists essentially accused them of being overly sensitive and being too dim to understand what he was saying because he didn’t “go out of his way not to be misunderstood.”

Not surprisingly, this hasn’t gone over well, as Brian Tashman reports, “Black SBC Pastor Condemns Land’s ‘Damaging, Alienating and Offensive Words’ about Race“:

It appears that Richard Land’s non-apology backfired, badly. … Dwight McKissic, a prominent African American pastor in the SBC who has received attention for his virulently anti-gay views, slammed Land for his initial remarks and his condescending non-apology, and even threatened to boycott future SBC meetings if Land is not repudiated.

At the same time, as Adelle M. Banks reports, the SBC has launched a formal investigation into Land’s remarks and his use of others’ remarks without attribution:

Southern Baptist leaders will investigate whether their top ethicist and public policy director plagiarized racially charged remarks about the Trayvon Martin case that many say set back the denomination’s efforts on racial reconciliation.

The effect of all this has been that Land has begun to lose the presumption of respectability as a long-term leader within the evangelical establishment. A recent blog post at Christianity Today referred to unnamed “white evangelical leaders” who “issue regrettable and hurtful remarks about Trayvon Martin and racial profiling.” And Ed Stetzer of the SBC-related LifeWay Research, while also refraining from mentioning Richard Land by name, offered his “Reflections on Some Unhelpful Remarks“:

It was not long ago when too many Southern Baptists were on the wrong side of the hoses in Birmingham, Alabama. Although individual Southern Baptists have done and continue to do great work in racial reconciliation, and the Convention has made intentional efforts with helpful initiatives, the Southern Baptist Convention still must earn a better reputation for racial inclusion and justice. As such, perhaps SBC denominational leaders are not the best persons to speak into racially charged situations, critiquing the actions of African Americans or African American leaders.

Alan Bean, the executive director of Friends of Justice, knows the South and Southern Baptists in particular. Bean’s take on the slow-motion collapse of Richard Land’s status within the SBC gets to the heart of the dynamics within that denomination:

Land is slowly sinking into the fault line between black and white Baptists in the South. Most white Southern Baptists vote Republican and, like Land, are highly suspicious of America’s first black president. Forty years ago, Southern Baptists passed vague resolutions favoring racial harmony, but little of that goodwill filtered down to the congregational level. The Southern Baptist Convention, as a practical matter, stood foursquare for segregation and the Southern way of life. Although that stance has become an anachronism, commitment to racial reconciliation remains weak. Black Baptists who ignore America’s racial history are embraced and sometimes celebrated. The SBC is poised to elect its first African American president in a couple of months.

But there’s a quid pro quo at work here. Just as Black Southern Baptist leaders are expected to play down the injustice of the past, white Baptist leaders must eschew inflammatory, racially-tinged rhetoric. Land is being condemned by black Baptists because he failed to hold up his end.

… The Trayvon Martin case made it impossible for Dr. Land to keep Baptists on both sides of the race line happy. When the story became too big to ignore, he revealed his true feelings. Immediately, his standing with white Southern Baptists soared, while black Baptists recoiled in horror.

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  • They might fire him because he’s a plagiarist. And plagiarizing is definitely a fire-worthy offense. But Land’s not in trouble with the Southern Baptist leaders for his far worse offense of defending racist violence. If he hadn’t plagiarized, there would be no investigation. 

  •  This is good. Plagiarism is an unspeakable travesty, and hopefully we can move past this to a world where racist rants are all original works.

  • Matri

    I’ll believe it when I see it. These people have lost all rights to “benefit of a doubt” with me.

  • Lori

    When the story became too big to ignore, he revealed his true feelings.
    Immediately, his standing with white Southern Baptists soared, while
    black Baptists recoiled in horror.

    Had Alan Bean never heard of Richard Land before the old goat shot off his mouth about Trayvon Martin? This story didn’t reveal anything about Land. It was just another offensive, hateful rant in a long career filled with them.

    Land’s job is not in jeopardy because he revealed any new information about himself. He’s in trouble because a new audience got an earful of his version of same old, same old.  Being blatantly hateful works a lot better when members of your tribe are the only ones really listening to you. When you open your yap about a story that’s getting broad attention folks who are not pre-sold on your point of view hear what you’re saying. When you’re a hateful racist that kind of attention tends to bring trouble.

    The rest of the SBC leadership are the ones who are going to try to walk the fault line between black and white Baptists in the South. They need to fire Land to keep the blacks and non-racists whites in the fold, but if they fire Land for being a racist the racist white folks will rebel*. So, the SBC will fire Land for plagiarism and hope that everyone accepts that and this whole thing blows over.

    *The racists are far more likely to leave the SBC over having their privilege insulted than blacks and non-racists are to bail over the fact that the most powerful person in the SBC is an open & proud racist. One thing you have to give the racists, they have the courage of their hateful convictions and they have very little problem with the idea of causing a church schism in defense of them. That’s why the SBC exists. 

  • So the virulent homophobes are condemning the virulent racist?  I mean– that…I feel like…maybe it would be better to belong to a club that harbored a backbone of racist & homophobic people, but that is just me.

  • nandabean


    Yes, I have been listening to Richard Land for years.  My doctorate is from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, and I received the degree from Al Mohler, Land’s rhetorical tag team partner at the helm of the SBC messaging machine.  He’s not just a meanspirited misanthrope, he is also dedicated to burying his beloved denomination’s reputation for bigotry.  How can you celebrate the most ideological extreme elements within the Tea Party Right while holding out an olive branch to Black Baptists?  It only works for very conservative pastors like Dwight McKissic and, even then, only for a while.  This week, the wheels came off.  I like the comments above pointing out that the SBC inquiry relates to plagiarism, not bigotry.  Land is absolutely right that Southern Baptists are fully behind him, and everybody knows it.

    Alan Bean
    Friends of Justice

  • I have to admit it took me a minute to parse out Land is slowly sinking into the fault line between black and white Baptists in the South.

    I’m not sure if that sentence is exceptionally good writing or exceptionally bad writing.

  • Tricksterson

    My guess is that they’ll use the plagerism as a fig leaf and that instead of being outright fired he’ll probably be allowed to resign in some semi face saving way.  Not what I’d wish for but better than nothing.

  • Lori

     My question was mostly rhetorical and I assume we’re having one of those semantic misunderstandings. I just don’t see Land’s remarks about the Martin case as revealing anything about him. The things that they show are things that have always been obvious. Like I said, I assume this is a simple difference in word usage.

  • Matri

    Letting him resign isn’t the same as firing him.

  • Hopefully they’ll eat each other and leave the rest of us alone.

    Nah, just kidding. These people actually feed off of cruelty and hate.

  • friendly reader

    I’m reminded of Philip Yancey discussing the view her got of Martin Luther King Jr. growing up in racist south. He was taught to dismiss the man because he’d committed adultery and plagiarism. Yancey’s reaction as an adult was, sure, those are wrong, but you’re missing the part where systemic racism and oppression is an exponentially worse thing than either of them.

    So it doesn’t surprise me that there are people who let racist comments slide but take  total umbrage at plagiarism.

  • Alethea

    I’m a former Southern Baptist, and the sarcastic, cynical, and rebellious girl deep down inside me — the one that angrily kicked the SBC out of her life when they reinforced the subjugation of women in the church — says that maybe Land shouldn’t resign because he’s right there where he belongs. He’s saying what a lot of them are thinking. There are plenty of Southern Baptists standing behind him, shifting on their feet and shrugging, “Well, you know…he’s kinda right,” while the rest are sighing and shaking their heads.

    That said, I want the SBC to fire Land and issue a real apology. If the SBC is so serious about changing its image, well…looks like they just received the perfect opportunity.

  • Madhabmatics

     Is this the Baptist version of busting Al Capone for tax evasion?

  • Tricksterson

    For all practical porpoises yes.

  • lowtechcyclist

    “When the story became too big to ignore, he revealed his true feelings.
    Immediately, his standing with white Southern Baptists soared, while
    black Baptists recoiled in horror.”

    The part about “his standing with white Southern Baptists soared” is the clincher for me.  It’s not just* Land that needs to be condemned – it’s his whole denomination. 

    For that reason, I hope they let him issue some semi-convincing non-apology and let him stay on, just to leave no doubt as to where they stand.  It would be a shame for the SBC to gain the illusion of absolution by throwing Land to the wolves.

    *The ‘just’ is key: I’ve been aware of Richard Land for at least two decades, and he’s not just a symptom of the problem, he is quite definitely part of the problem.  If he loses his stature and position within the SBC, he’s had it coming.  It’s just that it’s even more important to not let the SBC off the hook.