WASHINGTON (BP) — Southern Baptist Convention leaders pointed to Richard Land’s bold leadership on the race issue, transformational shepherding of a denominational entity and courage as traits that will mark his legacy the day after he announced his retirement as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Land, 65, disclosed Tuesday (July 31) his plan to retire effective Oct. 23, 2013, which will complete exactly 25 years of service as head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). The entity that Land has led since 1988 works on behalf of Southern Baptists on ethical, moral and church-state issues.
SBC President Fred Luter said his earliest impression of Land came when the two served on the committee that drafted the convention’s 1995 apology to African Americans for slavery.
“Several times in those committee meetings Richard was very passionate about how we need to word this right, how we need to show that it’s not just a piece of paper, but that we mean it from our heart,” Luter recalled, “and that we really have to not only say it with our words, but back it up with our actions.”
Luter — elected in June as the SBC’s first African-American president — called Land “a leader in standing up for the values, morals and the fair treatment of all people, regardless of their race.”
“I just believe that Richard Land, he wanted the best for all God’s children — red, yellow, black or white,” said Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. “He preached it. He taught it. He wrote it. He said it. And I think he tried to live by that.”
Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, cited Land’s racial reconciliation work first in considering his legacy.
“He is no more perfect than any of the rest of us, but this is a man who incredibly led the Southern Baptist Convention to reverse its entire perspective” on the race issue, Patterson said.
“I believe his legacy will be to recognize that he led a 14- to 16-million-member denomination to completely reverse its position on race.”
Some on the entity’s board opposed Land on the race issue when he became its head, Patterson said.
“[H]e announced to them going in that one of his assignments that he had not from the convention but from the Lord was to seek racial justice,” said Patterson, who has known the ERLC president since Land was a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “So he literally had to fight his own board, and it was precarious going in the early years there.
“I remember him saying to me on a number of occasions, ‘Well, I may not last long, but I’m going to last for the truth.’ And he did.”
Earlier this year, however, Land received criticism from African American leaders for comments he made on his weekly call-in radio program regarding events surrounding the shooting death of black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Land later acknowledged his March remarks were “racially insensitive and hurtful.” Land also was charged with plagiarism in making those comments.
He met with Luter and other Southern Baptist African American leaders in a May meeting that included Patterson and SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page. Afterward, he apologized in a two-page statement for the harm his words “have caused to specific individuals, the cause of racial reconciliation, and the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He also said the meeting helped him “to understand in sharper relief how damaging my words were.”
On June 1, the ERLC’s trustee executive committee reprimanded Land for his comments. The committee also reprimanded him for failing to give attribution on the program but said those instances of plagiarism occurred “because of his carelessness and poor judgment.” The panel ended his program, “Richard Land Live!”
Land said today (Aug. 1) the incident and the trustees’ actions had nothing to do with his decision to announce his retirement now.
“The Lord released me to consider other places of service,” he said, citing his retirement letter. He told the trustees he wanted them to have “plenty of time for them to find a replacement [so] that there would be a seamless transition. Twenty five years is long enough.”
While the Trayvon Martin controversy will be a spot on Land’s legacy, the ethicist’s body of work will overshadow that moment, Luter said.
“When you compare all the things Richard has tried to do for the Kingdom of God, certainly in my mind and to others who knew him, it will overshadow that moment in the Trayvon Martin case, that I’m sure, if he could go back, he would undo,” Luter said. “But when you compare it to all that he’s done, it’s just … small setback to what he’s tried to accomplish during the years.”
Patterson expressed a similar sentiment when asked if the comments and what followed would affect Land’s legacy.
“Absolutely not, and if they do it’s the greatest injustice in the world,” Patterson said. “You know, you can’t establish justice by doing injustice. … I don’t see how any fair judgment, any look at justice could do anything other than to say, ‘We thank God for what Richard Land has done.’
“And the very thing for which he was punished is the very thing that he did his most gallant work on,” Patterson said.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., pointed to Land’s leadership in the SBC at a crucial time.
“I think the first issue in Richard Land’s legacy is going to be the impact of his years — a quarter century — at the helm of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention during one of the most critical eras of American history,” Mohler said. “Those years span all the way from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, all the way from a time when certain concerns were virtually unthinkable to when they are now headline news. And Richard Land has demonstrated a steady hand and a critical mind and an incisive voice spanning over three decades.
“I think his transformation of the ERLC was one of the most crucial achievements of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, and he will be remembered in history as the first entity head elected in the course of that conservative resurgence,” Mohler said. “And thus you cannot separate Richard Land the ethicist from Richard Land the theologian and public intellectual for the SBC before and after he assumed this critical leadership post.”
The Executive Committee’s Page commended Land for serving “our Lord and our convention with faithfulness and courage these past 25 years.”
When he was asked several years ago to describe the worth and need for the ERLC, Page recalled he said in his response, “I shudder to think where we would be without the courageous leadership of Dr. Land and his staff who have stood tall and strong for biblical principles and ethics.
“We pray for God’s greatest blessings upon him in the days ahead as he transitions to other avenues of ministry,” Page said.
Land has been a leader the SBC still needs, Luter said.
“I know he’s retiring from his position, but I trust and pray he’s not retiring from being the preacher and the spokesman he’s been for the body of Christ. We still need him to continue to stand up for the right of all people,” Luter said.
Leaders of social conservative organizations who commented on Land’s retirement announcement included:
— Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition:
“Richard has had a tremendous impact at the national level in bringing time-honored values and biblical principles to the forefront of our national policy debate. And he is someone who has been enormously influential and is highly regarded by members of Congress, by other religious leaders and by opinion leaders. And his shoes are going to be awfully big to fill.”
— Jerry Boykin, executive vice president of the Family Research Council:
“[N]obody is irreplaceable, but Dr. Land probably comes as close as anybody will. He has been such a leader in the culture war that it will be difficult to find someone that is as effective as he is.
“He has several things going for him that will be difficult to find in someone else. First of all is his courage, and he has been very courageous in standing boldly and speaking truth and holding a very firm line on traditional, social, family values. The second thing is because of his appointments…. He has a fundamental understanding of how Washington works, how the political process works. And it’s hard to find that combination in people. So he will be difficult to replace but not impossible.”
–Following is the text of a statement issued by Richard Piles, acting chairman of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s trustees, in response to Richard Land’s July 31 announcement that he will retire in October 2013:
July 31, 2012
Sometimes in life, we experience “bittersweet” moments. Tuesday, July 31, 2012 certainly qualifies as such a day for me as Dr. Richard D. Land announced his plans for retirement from the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, after 25 years of faithful, exemplary service to Southern Baptists and our Lord Jesus Christ.
On behalf of the Executive Committee of the trustee board and the full trustee board, let me say thank you and congratulations to Dr. Land. Since the fall of 1988, he has been the face of the ERLC and made it what it is today, a relevant voice for Southern Baptists in the public policy arena. He is to be applauded for his tireless work for racial reconciliation, the pro-life movement, and traditional marriage, just to name a few of the more well-known issues he has championed.
It will be an absolute honor to be with Dr. Land at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Houston, Texas, his hometown, next summer to mark 50 years of vocational ministry and 25 years with the ERLC. The entity’s board of trustees will begin planning next month at our annual meeting for that momentous occasion to ensure it is a celebration appropriate for his service.
As we begin to look forward to the future of the ERLC, it will be essential that the trustees find God’s man to lead Southern Baptists and the wider evangelical community during some of the most turbulent waters our culture has ever faced. We hope and pray the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission will build on Dr. Land’s efforts and be an even stronger voice in the future for the Kingdom of Christ and Southern Baptists in the area of Christian ethics and religious liberty.
Thank you again to Dr. Land, and may the Lord bless you richly in these next 15 months and beyond as you continue in ministry.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press; Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ staff writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress ), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp ).