Richard Land, Under Investigation for Plagiarism, Wages Religious Freedom War With Bishops

This post has been updated.

According to this account in The Church Report, at yesterday’s meeting convened by the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, an ecumenical group of conservatives believes that religious freedom is under a dire threat.

That’s not news, of course, but you have to love how the issue is getting framed by its advocates.

Richard Land, currently under investigation by his employer, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told the group, “We must all be willing to stand up and tell the government ‘no.’ Secularists don’t like people of faith because the ultimate authority for us is not the state. The ultimate authority is God.”

Aha! That explains everything, doesn’t it? If all those state-worshipping liberals would just let the conservatives put God in charge, we wouldn’t have all these problems with health insurance coverage for ladyparts and gay people getting married and whatnot.

Land, as you may recall, said some really racist, spiteful things on his radio show about the Trayvon Martin case. He apologized for those comments, but Baptist scholar and blogger Aaron Weaver called it a “non-apology apology” and questioned Land’s assertion that “I have been committed to the cause of racial reconciliation my entire ministry.”

Weaver also caught Land plagiarizing, specifically reading from published work of others and passing it off as his own on his radio show. For that, the ERLC is investigating him, but lo and behold, the head of the committee in charge of the investigation just stepped down to spend more time with his church. (The resigning trustee, in a you-can’t-make-this-up-twist, is the Rev. Steve Faith.) His replacement, the Rev. Richard Piles, tells the Tennessean’s Bob Smietana that Faith’s departure did not signal any dissension within the committee. Piles added, “I am a fan of Dr. Land. I am in his corner through this process and want to see him succeed and hope that he can continue in his ministry.” So I guess there won’t be any surprises when the investigating committee issues its report June 1.

How many people in the pews are listening to the 350 “leaders” who gathered in Washington yesterday? As Weaver and the historian and journalist Brian Kaylor noted about Land when the plagiarism charges broke, Land’s status is propped up by journalists, but not necessarily respected at the grassroots. “He’s the go-to expert and supposedly has his finger on the pulse on Southern Baptists, but if you’re around Southern Baptists, you know that’s not true,” Weaver told me. Kaylor said, “He has more say in newsrooms than sanctuaries.”

And while the EPPC honored Archbishop William Lori, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious freedom strategy, Commonweal editor Grant Gallicho has questioned how much the Bishops’ upcoming “Fortnight for Freedom” will actually resonate in the pews. Some bishops are questioning the strategy entirely. Bishop Stephen Blaire of the Stockton (California) Diocese told Kevin Clarke of America, “The bishops that I am in contact with in California are strong supporters of the importance of defending and strengthening religious liberty in our country,” but “I do think there are probably some different concerns with how it is being done.” Blaire “worried that some groups ‘very far to the right’ are trying to use the conflict as ‘an anti-Obama campaign.’” No kidding.

Land, the ethically-challenged head of an “Ethics” commission poised to be exonerated by said “Ethics” commission, will continue to “speak for” Baptists just like the USCCB continues, in the eyes of the press, to speak for Catholics, even as they are questioned by their co-religionists. Both the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are run by men whose positions of power are amplified by the fact that they maintain lobbying arms in Washington; their political power enables their continued portrayal as representatives of their faiths.

It’s from these quarters that the “religious freedom” wars are being waged.

UPDATE: Via Catholic News Agency, the Bishops are closing ranks: “Bishop Blaire said that his comments have been misunderstood. He stressed his full support for his brother bishops in their efforts to fight the mandate and protect religious freedom.” Bishop Lori “described the speculation about a lack of unity as ‘elements of the media looking for what they perceive to be a little, small crack in the wall.’” Liberals like E.J. Dionne seemed to hope Blaire’s comments showed weaknesses in the leadership’s hold. So much for a “healthy struggle brewing” among the Bishops. 

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email