Richard Land Announces Retirement under Cloud of Controversy and Scandal

In the wake of a plagiarism scandal, controversy over racially inflammatory remarks, and an internal investigation, Richard Land announced Tuesday that he would step down next year as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Land will formally retire in October, 2013 – 25 years to the day he assumed the presidency. 

In his letter to the chairman of the SBC, Land wrote that God had led him to a place “where He is releasing me to other places of service in His Kingdom.” Despite Land’s best efforts to spin his retirement, he’s not going out on top. After two decades of pushing divisive, hard-right politics and making inflammatory remarks, he finally went too far.
 
At best, he was offered a relatively graceful exit after four tumultuous months. At worst, he was forced out by critics who demanded an expiration date to the shame he brought the SBC. Either way, he clearly angered influential segments of the SBC and came to be seen as more liability than asset.
 
 
 
Land’s recent troubles begin on March 31st when, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, he said on his radio show that black “race hustlers” were trying to use the death of the unarmed African-American teen to “gin up the black vote” for Obama, who “poured gasoline on the racialist fires.” When his comments were met with understandable outrage by black leaders and others, he refused to “bow to the false god of political correctness” and said he’d be “mugged” by the media.
 
Criticism continued to mount, including from within the SBC, and Land then issued a non-apology apology, saying that he had “underestimated the extent to which we must go out of our way not to be misunderstood when we speak to issues where race is a factor.” This only inflamed his critics, including Dwight McKissic, a prominent African-American pastor in the SBC, who said that “Land’s racial remarks against the backdrop of the Trayvon Martin tragedy are the most damaging, alienating, and offensive words about race that I’ve read or heard, rendered by a SBC personality.” McKissic also said he would introduce a resolution at the upcoming convention asking the SBC to repudiate Land.
 
Land’s troubles ballooned when a Baptist blogger revealed that Land had plagiarized part of his remarks on Martin from a Washington Times column and had previously plagiarized columns from other conservative publications. Land responded by downplaying his plagiarism, saying that “on occasion I have failed to provide appropriate verbal attributions on my radio broadcast.” He also added, “I regret if anyone feels they were deceived or misled.”
 
Between his plagiarism and racism, Land managed to anger and embarrass powerful forces within the SBC, which had recently elected an African-American pastor to its number two spot and was poised to elect Rev. Fred Luter as its first black president. Luter, who spoke dismissively of Land’s conduct, was elected in June.
 
Just over two weeks after Land’s radio commentary on Martin, the ERLC’s executive committee issued a statement saying that Land had “angered many and opened wounds from the past” and that a committee had been designated to “investigate the allegations of plagiarism and recommend appropriate action.” The statement also said the committee was “very saddened that this controversy has erupted, and is very concerned about how these events may damage the work of the ERLC.” Land, seeing the writing on the wall, met with a number of prominent black SBC leaders and issued a “genuine and heartfelt apology.”
 
On June 1st, the executive committee announced two reprimands of Land for “his hurtful, irresponsible, insensitive, and racially charged words on March 31, 2012 regarding the Trayvon Martin tragedy” and “for quoting material without giving attribution.” The committee also determined that the “content and purpose” of Land’s radio show were “not congruent with the mission of the ERLC,” and that the “controversy that erupted as a result…requires the termination of that program.” Additionally, the committee members expressed their “sorrow, regret, and apologies” for Land's remarks and acknowledged that “instances of plagiarism occurred because of his carelessness and poor judgment.”
 
You can reach your own conclusions about whether Land was shown the door or found his own way there, but there’s no question that he’s exiting under a cloud of scandal. We also haven’t heard the last of him. He vowed in his letter to keep fighting in the culture war, which he described as a “titanic struggle for our nation's soul.” But without the ERLC, Land will be a significantly diminished presence on the Religious Right, and that’s something we can all be thankful for.