Land reflects on 15 years at ERLC helm

Texas native Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, celebrates 15 years as head of the SBC’s ethics and public policy arm this year. The agency has a different look than it did prior to Land’s tenure. Southern Baptist TEXAN News Editor Tammi Reed Ledbetter interviewed Land by telephone Sept. 25 about changes at the ERLC and the current direction of the agency, formerly known as the Christian Life Commission.

How much has the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission changed from the days of former directors Foy Valentine and Larry Baker, who led the Christian Life Commission that you inherited?

Land: I don’t think there’s any question there was no agency more offensive to the majority of Southern Baptists over time than the then-Christian Life Commission. The convention was increasingly pro-life at a time when Foy Valentine was a founding member of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. When the convention members were trying to get a Sanctity of Life Sunday, the staff of CLC fought against it in the Denominational Calendar Committee. When they couldn’t get the Sunday blocked, they tried to get it moved to another time of year so as to not associate it with abortion, but with war and peace issues.

When the trustees of the then CLC selected me they did a 180-degree turn on the issue of abortion and pro-life issues from where the committee had been during Foy Valentine and Larry Baker’s tenure. Southern Baptists manifestly wanted that to happen. Southern Baptists are the most thoroughly pro-life denomination in America. Our agency that deals with that issue was spouting a pro-abortion, pro-choice position. The board and convention had insisted on changes, but they were coming at a snail’s pace and the staff was dragged kicking and screaming, taking as long as they could.

What changes have been made in terms of speakers and resources?

It was a liberal agency that spouted the liberal, Democratic line that attacked the emergence of the so-called religious right in their publications. They had people like Walter Mondale, Ted Kennedy, Sarah Weddington, and George McGovern speaking at seminars. This is at a time when the vast majority of Southern Baptists were moving in a much more politically and culturally conservative direction. When we were having seminars we would have Al Gore and Trent Lott. They would have Jerry Falwell, but you didn’t see any Trent Lotts, any senator for senator or governor for governor kind of thing.

For several years we had a point-counterpoint in Light (the ERLC magazine)–someone would argue one point and someone else the counterpoint on things like war and peace issues. We did this on several different issues. Our board did pass a policy that we could only have pro-life speakers. We, unlike our predecessors, followed this (instruction).

Is today’s ERLC simply going to the other extreme by offering the conservative, Republican line?

I guess my response would be that Southern Baptists are an overwhelmingly conservative people and so our agenda and our materials are going to come from an overwhelmingly conservative perspective. The convention was overwhelmingly conservative when the CLC was overwhelmingly liberal. The agency was grievously out of step with Southern Baptists.

How did you accomplish change among the staff you inherited?

There were only two program staff left, Larry Braidfoot and Robert Parham, and both of them left within two years of their own accord because they were increasingly unhappy with the direction of the Commission. We made it very clear we were going to address issues from the perspective of the majority of Southern Baptists.

Are Southern Baptists having greater influence on moral issues today?

There’s no question that Southern Baptists are speaking with a more unified voice because the majority position on social, moral and religious liberty issues is being heard in the nation’s capital and to the media across the country in a way they were not before. Southern Baptists are supporting Christian involvement in public policy, espousing a position very different from the Baptist Joint Committee’s radical separation position. Once the religious liberty assignment was added, we were able to coordinate and the Southern Baptist voice was unified. We never claim to speak for all Southern Baptists, but for the majority.

I was once asked, isn’t it confusing in Washington to have you go in as head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and have the Baptist Joint Committee say something else? My response was they’re less confused in Washington than anywhere else. Everyone in Washington that’s in elected office, got elected. They didn’t get all the votes in their states, just the majority. People in Washington understand that not all Southern Baptists agree with me, just the majority. This was in 1998 when I was asked that by Associated Baptist Press, and I said they understood that we had won 19 straight elections and that I spoke for the side that won while James Dunn spoke for the side that lost.

What are some of the issues that the ERLC is addressing that were not covered by the CLC under earlier leaders?

Some of the issues didn’t exist, like the cloning issue and embryonic stem cell tissue.  These are extensions of the sanctity of life issue, but technologically this didn’t exist in 1988 or before.

One area where I did go out of my way to insist on continuity with the previous administration was the race issue.  I don’t agree with Foy Valentine about much, but I did agree with him  on this.  As a teenager in the 1960s it was important to me that the CLC was on the right side of the race issue.  Far too many institutions were on the wrong side.  I made it very clear with the search committee that there would be no change on the Commission’s policy in that regard if they elected me.  Secondly, I felt like we had slid backward in the progress that needed to be made on the civil rights issue.  At the first conference on race relations I invited Foy to be the keynote speaker and got attacked roundly by conservatives for doing so.  He knew I was under considerable pressure not to have him and he was under considerable pressure not to come, but we both agreed this issue was more important than our friends.  It was very important to understand race is not a conservative versus liberal issue, but right versus wrong.  He did come and speak and, in doing so, he was showing his commitment to the issue.  We made it clear that we are for racial reconciliation and racial justice.

It was also terribly important that we establish with Southern Baptists, our pro-life bonafides, that we were strongly committed to being pro-life.  Then we wanted to move out from that and apply the principles of the pro-life ethic to other issues like cloning, euthanasia.  We have done that.

The second area that I was strongly convicted about was to help Southern Baptists understand a lot of the problem with separation of church and state is that people falsely understand it as a two-position issue.  Either you’re a strict separationist or you are for government accommodation of the major religion.  Actually, there’s a third position that is more baptistic and the one we should be espousing.  It’s very unlikely America will get this right unless we, as Southern Baptists, get this right.  The accommodation position says the government should not be acknowledging religion, not be giving favor to anti-religion, but accommodate your right and my right, and every citizen’s right to express our religious convictions according to the dictates of our own consciences in the public square.  I’ve worked hard at trying to help Southern Baptists understand the differences and those three positions.  It was very gratifying when I was asked to take part in a symposium at Southern Seminary sponsored by the Carl F. H. Henry Institute and Boyce, the three positions to be argued were acknowledgement of the majority faith, accommodation and avoidance–the three terms I’ve given.  Those are now on the agenda and part of the consciousness of Southern Baptists.

Religious persecution is another issue we’ve emphasized.  The bad news is that Christian persecution overseas is far worse now than in the last 10 years, but the good news is that it is because there are so many more Christians.

We’ve also helped Southern Baptists take a much more biblical and traditional family-value position on marriage and family.  Under Foy Valentine’s regime and Larry Baker regime, the CLC was committed to an egalitarian position that was committed to equality through no difference between the sexes.  We take, as most Southern Baptists do, a complementarian position that males and females are equal, but different.  Equality is complementary.  Men are different than women.  Husbands have different responsibilities than wives.  I can’t imagine anyone who knows Foy or Larry or any of the people worked for the Christian Life Commission in previous years would think that any of them would have supported the 1009 Article on the Family (of the Baptist Faith and Message).


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