Voice of Baptist Conservatism Gets his Point across Quietly

As head of the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy arm, Land has lobbied for a conservative agenda in Washington for almost 20 years.
( [email protected] ) Oct 07, 2006 04:37 PM EDT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The Rev. Richard Land wants to stay above the shoutfest of American politics.

As head of the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy arm, Land has lobbied for a conservative agenda in Washington for almost 20 years. He knows some on the left might expect him to rant from the pulpit, but he's more inclined to a thoughtful discussion of the issues.

Yet his subtlety and intellect make some moderate and liberal critics consider him even more of a threat.

"His skill is to keep the SBC from being totally marginalized from American society," said David Key, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

The 59-year-old Land has credentials as an intellectual and theologian, with degrees from Princeton and Oxford. He reads political biographies and Jane Austen - one of her six novels each year until he completes them all and starts again.

Like any lobbyist, he can talk in detail about bills before Congress and past political campaigns, but he also likes to talk about larger ideas.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Land said the Southern Baptists want to promote an American society - not necessarily a government - that "affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority."

He acknowledges differences between liberals and conservatives, but said he doesn't think Americans are as politically divided as some might think. He has just finished a manuscript for a book called "The Divided States of America? What Conservatives and Liberals are Missing in the God-and-Country Shouting Match," due out next spring.

"My book is hopefully an equal opportunity offender," Land said. "I really try to expose what I think are some problems with some of the things conservatives say and some things liberals say and try to point the way forward to a new debate.

"I don't think we're as divided as Ann Coulter and Radio America would have you think."

Critics say Land gives the Southern Baptist Convention a reasonable face, even while arguing on behalf of extremely conservative positions on abortion and gay rights.

Southern Baptists, for instance, boycotted The Walt Disney Co. for years for offering benefits to partners of gay employees. They have also banned women pastors and declared that wives should "submit graciously" to their husbands.

"When the fundamentalists took over the SBC (in the late '80s), there were not that many people qualified to take on the various bureaucratic positions, and he was one of the few that could," Key said. "He could look sophisticated in the halls of power."

President of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission since 1988, Land has served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom since 2002, when President Bush appointed him. He was also recently elected to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Land met Bush in the late 1980s when he was working on his father's presidential campaign; the younger Bush promised Land a job if his father won. Land chose to lead the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission instead, though the two remain friendly. Bush has spoken three times via videolink to the Southern Baptists in recent years.

But Land's close ties to the Bush administration haven't kept him from forging relationships with leaders on the other end of the political spectrum.

"I've found it a very enlightening experience to have a really intellectual discussion with him," said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who met Land last year at the Clinton Global Initiative and talked to him extensively about Southern Baptist life for her book, "The Mighty and the Almighty."

"I do think you learn a lot from people you don't agree with often," she said. "I find him a very thoughtful person who is very willing to discuss issues and listen."

Jerry Sutton, senior pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, who ran for president of the SBC in June and lost, has known Land for nearly 28 years and said that Land will criticize conservatives if he thinks they're wrong.

"He's a very convictional guy," Sutton said. "He's never in his life played to the crowd. He doesn't take a public opinion poll and ask what will make everybody happy and please everybody.

"He realizes there's a major culture war going on. He's the kind of person who can articulate the conservative issues and basically not embarrass conservatives. Anytime I've heard him speak, it's been well-reasoned, well-thought through."

A Houston native, Land went to Princeton on a full scholarship to study history, psychology and religion. After graduating, he enrolled at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and went on to earn a doctorate degree in theology from Oxford University.

He returned to Texas and taught theology and was later vice president for academic affairs at The Criswell College, a Southern Baptist college in Dallas.

Land became an administrative assistant to then-Texas Gov. Bill Clements in 1987.

He has a home in suburban Nashville with his wife Rebekah, but says he spends close to third of his time in Washington pushing the SBC's agenda. For the past year, he's served as interim pastor at Tusculum Hills Baptist Church in Nashville.

He also hosts a syndicated radio program, "Richard Land Live!" every Saturday on Salem Radio Network and XM Satellite Radio, in which he deals with current issues from a biblical perspective.

Land has written more than half a dozen books. He expects his latest to annoy some conservatives because he argues that America doesn't have a "special claim on God."

"I don't think we're God's chosen people," he said. "But we are a nation that's been uniquely blessed. As such, those blessings incur obligations and responsibilities.

"We don't have the right to impose freedom, but we do have an obligation to seek to share it and promote it. America is a nation and we do have interests but we also have a cause. And that cause is freedom."

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