Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is the denomination’s outsized presence in Washington, D.C. He is often quoted as a representative not just of Southern Baptists but of evangelicals more broadly, and is a frequent guest on television and radio talk shows. Just before Rick Santorum dropped out of the Republican primary, Land was widely quoted urging the conservative favorite to step aside for Mitt Romney.
Now he’s under investigation by his own denomination for plagiarism, which was discovered after an outcry over his racist comments about the Trayvon Martin murder on his radio program, Richard Land Live.
In late March, Land called President Obama and the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson “racial demagogues” for their public statements about the Trayvon Martin ruling.
“Instead of letting the legal process take its independent course, race mongers are anointing themselves judge, jury and executioners,” Land said. “The rule of law is being assaulted by racial demagogues, and it’s disgusting, and it should stop.” He accused Obama and black leaders of trying to “gin up the black vote.”
The discovery of the plagiarism was made by Aaron Weaver, a doctoral candidate in religion and politics at Baylor University, and revealed on his blog The Big Daddy Weave.
Weaver first published his discovery on April 14. In that post, “Richard Land The Plagiarist: Top SBC Ethicist Stirs Up Controversy With Someone Else’s Rant,” he detailed how Land read liberally from a Washington Times column by Jeffrey Kuhner and an Investors’ Business Daily editorial about the Martin case without attribution. Some of the verbatim, unattributed quotes from the Kuhner column included:
[H]e [Obama] said, If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin. The president’s aides claim he was showing compassion for the victim’s family. In reality, he poured gasoline on the racialist fires. Under pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus, Mr. Obama gave them what they wanted: He put the presidential spotlight on Trayvon Martin’s death – and thereby bolstered the burgeoning protests.
Here’s what makes this case so different. The answer is simple. The victim’s skin color and the perpetrator. Race hustlers such as Mr. Jackson, Mr. Sharpton, Mr. Farrakhan have made their careers and lucrative fortunes by fomenting racial grievance and demonizing the ‘white power structure.’ In their eyes segregation has never been truly repealed it has just become invisible.
Two days later, Weaver discovered that Land had also plagiarized conservative opinion writing on other topics. During a radio program entitled, “Religious Freedom Under Attack,” wrote Weaver, documenting the plagiarism, “Land passes off as his own commentary a Washington Examiner editorial titled ‘Obamacare regulation tramples on religious freedom,'” referring to the contraception coverage requirement.
Weaver told me today that he discovered the plagiarism after hearing Baptists criticize Land’s remarks on the Martin case. He listened to Land’s radio program from late March, and thought the phrasing sounded familiar; he eventually transcribed the programs, Googled portions of them and discovered the plagiarism.
The ERLC’s statement on the investigation noted there could be more instances of plagiarism. In response to the charges, Land said in a statement, “On occasion I have failed to provide appropriate verbal attributions on my radio broadcast, Richard Land Live!, and for that I sincerely apologize.” He added, “I regret if anyone feels they were deceived or misled. That was not my intent nor has it ever been.”
Although Land wrote a letter of apology to SBC president Bryant Wright over the racist comments, Weaver said it was a “a non-apology apology.” In the letter, Land claimed, “I have been committed to the cause of racial reconciliation my entire ministry.” But Weaver said, “I’m not sure what that means,” noting that Land was involved in a 1995 resolution on racial reconciliation on the 150th anniversary of the SBC, but not much more.
The SBC is poised to elect its first African-American president, the Rev. Fred Luter, later this year.
The SBC’s investigation of Land, said Weaver, “is unprecedented. You don’t get bigger than Richard Land.” Land has been the SBC’s presence in Washington for decades, and was a key player in the conservative resurgence within the denomination as the religious right began its ascendance.
Still, though, he’s more of a Washington insider than a representative of the pews. “He plays TV consultant,” said Weaver. “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,” he added. Many younger Southern Baptists, he added, are wary of the ERLC’s close ties with the GOP, and are skeptical of the value of a Washington presence at all. “They’re not going to vote for a Democrat, but they don’t like [the denomination] being so partisan,” since they’re more interested in mission work and church planting, he said. Still, though, Weaver noted that Land is frequently criticized by Southern Baptists for being too moderate, and that many “aren’t very excited about Romney,” despite Land’s words of support.
Many of Land’s political prognostications, Weaver added, have turned out to be wrong, including his 2007 assertions that Fred Thompson was, in Weaver’s words, “the second coming of Ronald Reagan.”
“The biggest problem for Land with this controversy is that it damages his reputation with his key demographic—journalists,” said Brian Kaylor, author of the book Presidential Campiagn Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics and a contributing editor at Ethics Daily, a Baptist site critical of the religious right. “Land is much more influential among journalists as a ‘evangelical leader’ than he is with the average Southern Baptist in the pews. He has more say in newsrooms than sanctuaries.”