After twenty-five years Richard Land has retired as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Representing the public policy voice of America’s largest Protestant body, he was a consistently faithful voice on matters of Christian moral witness such as abortion, marriage, and religious liberty. He also defended traditional Christian teaching on just war and capital punishment and avoided the unqualified support for the welfare state common in some Evangelical and Catholic circles.
More broadly, Land has been a long-time leader within American religious social conservatism and is the latest to retire of the now receding generation that emerged in the 1970s to comprise the “Religious Right.”
Land took the helm of what was then called the Christian Life Commission in 1988 as part of the conservative ascendancy in the Southern Baptist Convention. He was a friend of Judge Paul Pressler and Rev. Paige Patterson, the chief organizers of that resurgence. At this point conservatives outnumbered liberals on that commission by 20 to 11, but Land was elected unanimously. Previously he had worked for Texas Republican Governor Bill Clements and as a professor at Criswell College. He had studied as an undergraduate at Princeton under Methodist ethicist Paul Ramsey, attended New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and got his doctorate in philosophy at Oxford.
According to Jerry Sutton’s 2008 book, A Matter of Conviction, the “commission had resolved that the new executive director would be an “avowed inerrantist, a staunch pro-lifer and a believer in capital punishment.” Upon his nomination, Land was presented as a “man who believes this Book.” While many religious traditionalists veered left, gaining wider social acceptance, Land has remained faithful to the original vision for which he was hired.
By comparison to Land’s conservatism across twenty-five years, his predecessor of twenty-seven years was Foy Valentine, who had joined with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and other Protestant liberals in 1973 to help found the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. Land lauded Valentine for his early civil rights advocacy while also recalling he was “wrong as you could be on a lot of other issues.” Valentine was an active member of the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, helping hire its current chief Barry Lynn. Valentine also, as Land pointed out, “tried to play on anti-Catholic bigotry” in resisting Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.
Land’s admiration of the better parts of Valentine’s legacy didn’t stop with mere praise. From the start, Land also emphasized racial reconciliation, inviting his predecessor back for a Conference on Race. In 1995, Land championed the Southern Baptist apology for past support of slavery and segregation. He also supported a 2003 Southern Baptist Convention resolution to “lament and renounce statements and actions by previous Conventions and previous denominational leadership that offered support to the abortion culture.”
Interestingly, Land also restored to his commission’s office a portrait of an early twentieth century predecessor who had helped create the commission to advocate for temperance. Valentine had kept the painting hidden in the basement. Like the United Methodist lobby in Washington, the Southern Baptist public policy witness was originally rooted in the Prohibition movement, which politicized many Protestant denominations. As those churches, especially the Methodists, became more liberal, their lobbies disavowed temperance and focused on wider Social Gospel causes.
Like many religious conservatives, Land emerged during the Cold War and has seen Evangelicals as key to a national security coalition affirming America’s unique global role. After 9/11 he joined Chuck Colson and other religious conservatives in affirming traditional just war principles, which critics derided for justifying the Iraq War. In 2003 Land articulated a providential understanding of American responsibility that he has often repeated:
If not for the United States, religious liberty would not be an issue of concern for most countries or the United Nations. . . . The only reason anybody in the world goes to bed at night with any degree of freedom and dignity is because of the United States of America and its citizens’ willingness to stand up not only for their own rights and liberty but for the lives, dignity, and liberty of others. . . . It is a universal, inherent longing of the human heart that, given the opportunity, people want freedom and the right to follow their conscience. . . . If we lose our will to stand for that, a lot more is at peril than just the freedom of Americans.
In his 2007 book, The Divided States of America, Land explained America is “exceptional . . . not because we made it that way [but] . . . because we experienced God’s undeserved blessings upon this nation.” He urged an exceptionalism based on “obligation, responsibility, sacrifice, and service—not of pride, privilege, and prejudice,” premised on the “biblical principle: To whom much is given, much is required.”
Land’s final year included some bumps. His commission reproved him in 2012 for a radio broadcast accusing the Obama Administration of racially exploiting Trayvon Martin’s death, which it called “hurtful, irresponsible, insensitive.” And it regretted Land’s “poor judgment" in quoting other authors on air without full attribution, asking that Land end his radio program, which he did. Land has also excited controversy with some conservatives by joining other evangelicals through the Evangelical Immigration Table to advocate legalization for illegal immigrants.
Upon his retirement Land is becoming President of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. His successor at the helm of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is Russell Moore, former dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Twenty five years younger than Land, and prolific on social media, he represents a new generation of evangelical Southern Baptists not shaped by the church and culture battles of the 1980s.
In his good-bye to the Southern Baptist Convention in Houston on June 11, Land declared: “We’re not going to be thermometers that reflect the temperature in society. We’re going to be thermostats that dictate the spiritual temperature in our society.” For his steadfast defiance of eroding popular culture and adamant defense of traditional Christian ethics, especially on marriage and sanctity of life, across a quarter century, evangelicals and all cultural traditionalists can be grateful to Land.
Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.