After a quarter-century as conservative Christianity’s man on Capitol Hill, Southern Baptist Convention official Richard Land is retiring. Brawny of body and mouth, the Oxford PhD and Fox News fixture came to Washington in 1988 to bring fire back to a denomination whose leadership had drifted to the political middle. He became one of the best-known commentators on abortion, no-fault divorce and same-sex marriage, prompting Time magazine to dub him “God’s Lobbyist” in 2005.
But Land announced recently that he will step down next year as head of the convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in Washington. The announcement came after denomination leaders reprimanded him and canceled his radio show because of “damaging” comments about the killing in Florida of black teenager Trayvon Martin and because of Land’s use of other people’s comments on his show without proper attribution.
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.
But you are strongly part of that.
I don’t endorse candidates. On immigration reform, I’ve probably agreed with [President] Obama more than disagreed. If abortion has become partisan, shame on Democrats, not me. If traditional marriage has become partisan, shame on Democrats, not shame on me. I’m taking stand for what I think the Bible teaches. . . . I’m against hyper-partisanship.
You said in your retirement letter that you have felt limited by your position from being involved in politics. What haven’t you felt you could say?
I’m not not near as outspoken as I’d like to be. I can’t give examples now.
You said in your letter that what people call America’s “culture war” is really a “titanic spiritual struggle for our nation’s soul.” Can you elaborate?
I can’t tell you the grief I feel daily over the fact that more than 3,000 American babies will be killed today. And more than 3,000 American babies were killed yesterday. And God has a plan and a purpose for every one. Have we aborted the next Abe Lincoln? Martin Luther King? The girl God created to find the cure for cancer?
And the struggle for marriage. I do not think God blesses nations that redefine his institutions. As a Christian, I believe marriage is a divine institution. It’s what Jesus said. There’s a difference between equal rights and redefining marriage.
If same-sex marriage is the law, people will challenge the term “husband” or “wife.” Maybe you’ll have “caregiver number 1” or “caregiver number 2.” You need to read more of the gay literature. I do.
You’ve often bemoaned the rise in single mothers. Why focus on gay marriages?
If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you won’t redefine marriage, you shatter it. It will further damage an already damaged institution. It’s a catastrophe and disgrace now.
How do you feel about leaving D.C.?
I have seen the Beltway mentality get better men than I. People who stay too long become housebroken. They become Washingtonians. They become too friendly to big government. But I’m a city guy. I hate waiting two weeks to see a [new] Woody Allen movie.
From a human perspective, I’d never have left Dallas. I’m a sixth-generation Texan. But the happiest place to be is where God wants me to be. If that means I don’t have to make anymore 6:25 a.m. Monday flights, I won’t miss that at all.
I’ll say one thing about Washington: Of everyone I met, the person who is the most the same in private as he is in public is George W. Bush. There’s not an ounce of pretense in the guy. He always did what he thought was best for the country. . . . My son says I’ve got a man crush on him. He had to explain what that means.
What will you do next?
I have 15 months to decide. I’ve already had three job offers, including two teaching positions. I’m a teacher at heart.