Is Richard Land the Right’s New Political Powerbroker?

It is widely acknowledged that, for the last several years, James Dobson has been the most powerful Religious Right figure in the nation, commanding an organization with a massive staff and an equally massive budget that can influence grassroots activists across this country.  

And while Dobson is still throwing his political weight around, there is speculation that some of his influence may be waning:

The 70-year-old Mr Dobson (who has already suffered a heart attack and a stroke) is increasingly looking like a relic of an ancien régime rather than a harbinger of a new order. The average age of people on Focus’s mailing list is 52. Mr Dobson and his acolytes are rapidly being displaced by what Mr Gilgoff calls a New New Right—people who are concerned about international justice and climate change as well as abortion and gay marriage, and people who are willing to work with liberal pressure groups over issues such as Sudan and sex slavery.

If that is indeed the case, it appears as if Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has quietly been positioning himself to challenge Dobson as the Right’s leading powerbroker. 

For instance, when Dobson and some of his allies recently tried to get the National Association of Evangelicals to stop caring about global warming and fire its own Vice President, Land publicly criticized the effort:  

“I felt it was not in any way a productive or redemptive way to deal with the issue,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land was asked to sign the letter but declined.

“First of all, I don’t think the way you treat people you disagree with is to publicly reprimand them and put their job in jeopardy,” Land said. “It’s not how Christians should treat each other.”

And just last week, Land joined the likes of Sen. Ted Kennedy in pressing for comprehensive immigration reform:

“[Congress needs], consistent with national sovereignty and with our security, to find a way to resolve this moral problem in a moral way consistent with the ideals of our nation,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “This is a profoundly moral issue, and it goes to the core of who we are as Americans.”  

But more importantly, Land appears to be becoming increasingly influential in shaping the GOP presidential primary, having already met privately with Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney and making it clear that Rudy Giuliani is unacceptable.

And now, in what appears to be a direct challenge to Dobson, Land has come out against Dobson’s recent effort to back Newt Gingrich and quash Fred Thompson’s potential candidacy:

The top rung of Republican presidential candidates has too many flaws for social conservatives to offer any candidate their full support, but former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) could be just the man to fill that hole, according to evangelical leader Richard Land.

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Religious and Ethics Liberty Commission, Land said Thompson would be a formidable candidate and more likely to shake up the top tier than an entry by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Thompson, the former senator-cum-television star who is considering a bid, is “a masterful retail politician” who could appeal to a wide swath of voters, including a currently dissatisfied group of social conservatives, Land said.

“Fred Thompson reminds me of a Southern-fried Reagan,” Land said. “To see Fred work a crowd must be what it was like to watch Rembrandt paint.”

The issues of marriage and adultery also give Land pause when it comes to Gingrich, the choice of many conservatives unhappy with the current field.

“I think Fred would make much more of a splash than Newt would,” Land said. “I wouldn’t vote for [Gingrich].”

Land said he has talked about Gingrich and Giuliani with some conservatives, who say they have received assurances from the candidates on a number of issues, including would-be nominations of so-called strict-constructionist judges.

But Land said he asks those conservatives how they can trust a candidate who has broken his marital vows in the past.

“He lied to them; what makes you think he won’t lie to you?” Land said he asked.

There is no doubt that Dobson is, and will likely remain, an influential figure on the religious and political right. But Land appears to recognize that there might be a valuable opportunity for any right-wing leader who is willing to appear less-dogmatically wedded to focusing only on opposition to abortion and gay rights – and he seems to be trying to squeeze himself into that narrow niche.