Richard Land – leader of the Christian Right – steps down
Richard Land is resigning as head of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). The official announcement is here. Land has been the president of the ERLC for 25 years and is one of the most important – perhaps the most important – leaders of the Christian Right. He is particularly important for those concerned about the role of the church in politics because unlike most leaders of the Christian Right, he actually represents and speaks for a denomination. Under Land the ERLC advocated all sorts of policy proposals and particular pieces of legislation in Washington D.C. and elsewhere, pertaining to issues ranging from abortion and immigration to global warming and sex trafficking.
I have written about Land a few times in the past (here and here), and I have commented on the scandal that lies behind his current resignation. I won’t repeat all of that now, but I do want to make a few comments about Land’s approach to the church’s involvement in politics. As the announcement reports,
Land made it clear in his letter he is retiring only from the ERLC, “not from the ministry, or from what is popularly called the ‘culture war.’”
“When God called me into the ministry a half century ago, the burden He placed on my heart was for America,” wrote Land, who recently began his 50th year in the gospel ministry. “That call and that burning burden are still there. I believe the ‘culture war’ is a titanic struggle for our nation’s soul and as a minister of Christ’s Gospel, I have no right to retire from that struggle.”
As Land makes quite clear here, he believes the task of a minister of the church is to fight for the soul of the country, not simply to proclaim a gospel that saves individuals or the church. Readers might be puzzled by what he means by the nation’s “soul”, but in his many books Land explains that he thinks that if enough people in a country serve the Lord faithfully that country will reach a tipping point of divine blessing. At that point, in fulfillment to Old Testament prophecies like 2 Chronicles 7:14, God will exalt the entire country, morally, economically, and politically.
Part of what that means for Land is that Christians need to vote their values, serving the Lord by working hard to make sure that national policy is Christian. To be sure, Land consistently defends the separation of church and state; he is no theocrat or theonomist. But he is most certainly a transformationalist of the most energetic sort. As those paying attention to the recent primary cycle will recall, he does not hesitate to communicate his support for the Republican Party, or even for one primary candidate over another.
There are some who argue that Land has never really spoken for the majority of Southern Baptists, and that the SBC is not as solidly in line with the Christian Right as Land’s reputation would make it seem. There are others who believe the Christian Right is in decline, and I’m sure they’ll point to Land’s resignation as another example of this trend. I’m not sure about either of them. Pundits and intellectuals constantly claim the Christian Right is in decline and that it fails to represent the concerns of most Christians. Yet the Right keeps coming back, significantly influencing election after election. It also remains to be seen what Land’s new role in the Christian Right will be.
For conservative Christians Land should certainly be respected for his role in bringing the Southern Baptist Convention from the brink of Mainline liberalism and for his effectiveness of ensuring that the SBC would be a pro-life denomination.
Land’s hiring in 1988 came amid the ongoing effort by Southern Baptist supporters of biblical inerrancy to restore the convention to its theological roots. Conservative trustees of what was then known as the Christian Life Commission (CLC) had a majority after nearly a decade of appointments to the entity’s board.
The CLC had never had a truly pro-life head since abortion had become a culture-cleaving issue in the 1960s, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions legalizing the procedure for effectively any reason throughout pregnancy. Foy Valentine, a courageous voice on race relations, was firmly entrenched in the pro-choice camp and fought pro-life efforts within the convention. Larry Baker, Valentine’s successor after more than a quarter of a century of service, did not promote a pro-choice agenda when he took office in 1987, but he also was not a committed pro-lifer. Baker’s tenure lasted only 19 months before he left for a pastorate.
Land took office and began turning the entity in a pro-life-–and more conservative–-direction while stabilizing an agency that was in serious financial straits.
Now Land is stepping down. What this will do in terms of the public voice and image of Southern Baptists remains to be seen.