Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein spoke with Land about the controversies, leaving Washington and changes in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the country’s largest Protestant denomination, which this summer elected its first black leader.
Q: Why are you retiring?
A: Over the past few months, my wife and I have been praying and talking. We decided 25 years is enough. I started preaching when I was 16, and I’m 65.
Were you asked to step down?
No. This was my decision. My job has been controversial for 25 years.
Being publicly reprimanded wasn’t a factor in your decision?
Not a factor.
How did it feel to be reprimanded?
There have been three [SBC] agency heads fired in last four years. I wasn’t fired (laughs). Compared to colleagues who were fired or resigned under pressure, it could have been worse.
Is there a lot of flux in the denomination?
We are coming to a period of transition that is generational. I was the first baby boomer agency head. Now I’m tied for third-oldest.
How are things changing?
Theologically, [Southern Baptists] are just as conservative as I was [and] am. The most important thing about me is I was the first person to be head of an agency who was overtly part of the conservative resurgence. Others were politically involved — they were trying to get Jimmy Carter elected. The establishment were to the left of the rank and file. Now all agency heads are conservatives.
When you came in 1988, what was your mission?
The agency head I replaced was arguing a pro-choice position. Foy Valentine [who headed what was then called the Christian Life Commission] was a member of the ACLU. I am not. When I came, we did a 180-degree turn, on abortion and on capital punishment. The commission was anti-capital punishment, and three out of four Southern Baptists are for it.
How has the convention changed since you’ve been here?
It’s become more multiethnic. I was the one who led the movement to have the apology in 1995 [on slavery]. That lanced the boil. We were 100 percent white as late as 1970.
How has your work changed?
On the life issue, we’ve made progress, and it’s a long, hard slog. The majority are now pro-life in this country. That may be more demographics than argumentation. Southern Baptists are more involved in politics now. Washington is more partisan.