Aug 02, 2012

Notorious Southern Baptist lobbyist Richard Land has announced his retirement. I’d break out the champagne, but I fear that this is a mere change of personnel, not policy.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was once a staunch supporter of church-state separation. But in 1979, fundamentalists orchestrated a takeover that moved the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in exactly the opposite direction.

Land, head of the so-called Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, lobbied for the SBC for nearly 25 years. He is the embodiment of the SBC’s conversion from friend of religious liberty to agent of theocracy. A faithful advocate of the Religious Right agenda for 25 years, Land has been shrill, aggressively partisan and deeply hostile to the church-state wall.

Land’s career has come to an ignominious end. He leaves his post after being reprimanded by denominational leaders for plagiarizing material on his radio show and for making racially insensitive comments about the Trayvon Martin shooting death in Florida.

But these recent lapses in judgment come after over two decades of dubious lobbying for right-wing causes and shilling for the Republican Party (despite the church agency’s tax-exempt status). Land worked aggressively to merge the Religious Right with the GOP and dismissed any concerns about injecting religious concepts into the government.

In 1998, for example, he told The New York Times that Religious Right leaders wanted a more fruitful relationship with the Republican Party.

“The go-along, get-along strategy is dead,” he said. “No more engagement. We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of the marriage.”  

In 2007, Land gave his views on the relationship between religion and government, asserting, “When we convince a majority of Americans that we are right, that’s not called a theocracy, that’s called the democratic process.”

Land regularly touted GOP candidates that met his approval. For example, in the 2008 primary season he shamelessly plugged presidential hopeful Fred Thompson’s candidacy, calling him a “Southern-fried Reagan.”

“To see Fred work a crowd,” he gushed, “must be what it was like to watch Rembrandt paint."

Land was always quick with a strident comment about his political opponents. He compared Hillary Clinton to Darth Vader and a witch (warning that she would like to park her broom outside the Supreme Court for life).

In January, 2008, Land called U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer that "schmuck from New York." The lobbyist was angry because Schumer had pressed chief justice nominee John Roberts with questions during confirmation hearings. (The Oxford-educated Land said he didn’t know that some consider the word “crude, if not obscene.”)

And despite his supposed mission of advocating religious liberty, Land showed little courage in the task. He joined an interfaith coalition working to secure religious liberty rights for Muslims, but dropped out in January 2011 after church members’ raised complaints. He said some Southern Baptists falsely thought he was promoting Islam. (He also opposed the so-called “Ground Zero” mosque in Manhattan, arguing that it should be built elsewhere.)

This is just a sampling of Land’s checkered record. In short, he rarely missed an opportunity to dabble in partisan politics or oppose reproductive justice, gay rights or other advances for civil rights and civil liberties.

And, sadly, Land has promised to continue his crusade from other platforms.

In his retirement announcement, he said, ““I believe the ‘culture war’ is a titanic spiritual struggle for our nation’s soul and as a minister of Christ’s Gospel, I have no right to retire from that struggle.”

There is also little sign that the Southern Baptist denomination is ready to repent of its Religious Right profession of faith. When leaders choose a new head for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, it’s likely to be a Land clone – although maybe a less bombastic one.

Those of us who support individual freedom and church-state separation may be happy that Land will soon have one less pulpit for his misguided preachments, but we shouldn’t think our liberties are any safer because he’s moved on.