Richard Land Not Quitting Fight For Nation's Soul

As a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Land has spent nearly 25 years on the front lines of America's so-called 'culture war'. Now, as social conservatives worry that they're losing key policy battles, Land tells host Michel Martin that he may be stepping down from his post, but not from the fight.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. On today's program we're pretty sure you've heard of the World Cup qualifying matches for the 2014 games are going on now. But did you know that the African Cup of Nations is also in full swing? We'll hear about the upcoming finals - a showdown between two West African countries this weekend. We'll hear more about that in just a few minutes.

But first we turn to Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And today we will hear from a major figure in American religious life. For nearly a quarter of a century Richard Land has been the public face of the Southern Baptist Convention, serving as the president of its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

The group counts nearly 16 million members in the United States. It is this country's largest Protestant denomination and it has been at the forefront at some of this country's most intense and emotional debates over issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, the right to die, and racial reconciliation. All of these issues are sometimes referred to as the culture wars, and Mr. Land has been on the front lines advising presidents and faith leaders alike.

Now he has decided to retire from his post, but not, he says, from the struggle for our nation's soul. And Richard Land joins us once again to talk about his career. Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us. And is it congratulations on your retirement? Is it?

RICHARD LAND: Well, I guess - yeah. I think so. Congratulations and good luck for the next chapter.

MARTIN: Why now? Why now? We note that your formal retirement actually takes place in October which will be your 25th anniversary of your joining the commission. It's also your 50th year in ministries. But why now?

LAND: The Lord told me it was time. I hate to sound mystical but I actually tried to get a release from God to go do something else that I really wanted to do a couple of times. God did not give me the freedom to leave. And so it was a little bit of a surprise when he did give me freedom to leave and told me it was time to go, that 25 years was enough, that I wasn't going to something else.

I still don't know what I'm going to be doing except that I know that I won't be retiring from the struggle for our nation's soul. I will continue to be - I don't believe that you do retire from the ministry.

MARTIN: Could one argue that part of the reason you want to retire from this particular post is so that you can be more outspoken, as you said, in the struggle for the nation's soul, that you don't want to have the stricture of kind of an institutional body to which you must be responsible?

LAND: Well, I don't know if I'd put it that way but it is certainly true - let me just say it's been the honor and privilege of a lifetime to serve the people called Southern Baptists for the last almost 25 years. But Southern Baptist and Richard Land don't always agree, particularly on some issues.

And my job has been to represent Southern Baptists. And so there has been a constriction around me in terms of some issues and how I can address those issues that will be removed when I am no longer perceived as speaking for Southern Baptists but just for those people who agree with Richard Land.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, I want to talk a little bit about that. You're stepping down - or stepping aside. Let's put it that way. Taking on a new role...

LAND: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...at a time when a lot of the issues that you have championed have moved in a direction that you just don't agree with. For example, you've been a very outspoken opponent on behalf of yourself - I would assume your own biblical values - and the Southern Baptist Convention in opposition to same-sex marriage.

LAND: Yes.

MARTIN: But in the last election three states approved same-sex marriage by popular vote. That's something that had not been occurring. And the polls show that a majority of Americans now are just in a different place, that 53 percent, according to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, shows that a majority of Americans now say that they don't oppose same-sex marriage anymore.

LAND: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So I just have to wonder, do you feel in a way that your point of view is losing support, that, you know, the way some argue that you're on the wrong side of history? If I can put it that way.

LAND: Well, those who argue that we're on the wrong side of history are taking an extremely arrogant position. They assume they're on the right side of history and they assume that all change is progress. This is a common American myth, that change is progress. Not all change is progress. And moving toward more acceptance of same-sex marriage is not progress from the perspective of those of us - and it is a large percentage of Americans. We're not talking about overwhelming majorities here. In fact, the three states that you refer to that did this by popular vote, Mr. Obama ran ahead of them in all those states. And the pro same-sex marriage groups outspent the people who were standing for traditional marriage by nine-to-one in those states.

And those states are not bellwether states. They were liberal states, states that have a liberal voting record and vote more liberal than the rest of the country. And let's also remember that we had won 33 straight and they've won three. This is still far from settled.

If you look at what happened with the Chick-fil-A phenomenon, if you look at what happened just recently with the Boy Scouts, the elites are always surprised when the grassroots stands up and say, you know, we don't agree with this. One thing that happens when you get a little older is that you have perspective that you don't have when you're younger.

I can remember when people said, well, the majority of Americans are pro-choice and you're on the wrong side of history on the choice issue. Well, the majority of Americans are now pro-life and the younger you are, the more likely you are to be pro-life. And the demographics of the March for Life every year get younger and younger, much to the depression of the pro-choice forces.

MARTIN: And when you say...

LAND: We're winning that one.

MARTIN: And...

LAND: And we may win the marriage one.

MARTIN: Well, I was curious what you mean by - you're saying a majority of people consider themselves pro-life. But they don't support repealing Roe v. Wade.

LAND: Well, they consider themselves pro-life instead of pro-choice and most of them think that abortion is something that should be rare, certainly rarer than it is. Remember, only about half of that pro-life two generations that are young can vote yet. For the last 40 years since Roe v. Wade, pro-life parents have had their children and they've raised them to be pro-life.

Pro-choice parents have often not had their children or certainly not had as many, and so they haven't raised them to be anything. And if you look at the demographics, the reason that America is now a pro-life country is because of those last 40 years of young people. Those young people have grown up, you know, with the sonograms of their little brothers and sisters on the refrigerator.

And so they know they're pro-life. Those who think they've won on same-sex marriage and they've won on having the gay and lesbian lifestyle affirmed as perfectly healthy and normal for Americans and for American children, they better not count their chickens before they hatch.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Richard Land. He is retiring from his post as president of its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission after nearly 25 years in that post. He is one of the most familiar faces in American religious life. In his post he's represented the Southern Baptist Convention on some of the most important and pressing issues of our time, being its public face and voice.

You know, on another issue, on another sensitive topic where you played a leading role, in 1995 you helped lead the organization's effort to apologize for explicitly supporting slavery and implicitly supporting segregation. Many people may remember that the Southern Baptist Convention split in support of slavery. And you were a key player in bringing about this kind of statement of racial reconciliation.

Which is one reason it's all the more surprising that last year you made what some people considered some racially insensitive statements about the Treyvon Martin case. You accused certain people of being race mongers, appointing themselves judge, jury, and executioner. You subsequently apologized for that. But I am curious about what you feel your role is in speaking about race in this country.

LAND: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And if you could talk a little bit more about why you made those comments about Treyvon Martin.

LAND: Let me start off with saying that Dr. King is a personal hero of mine. I can remember vividly when I was 16 years old seeing his speech on television at the Lincoln Memorial.

And fortunately, I was always raised in a home where I was taught that racism was not only wrong, it was a sin. But that speech made it clear to me that - I had just surrendered to the ministry about three months before I heard Dr. King's speech at the Lincoln Memorial. And it became clear to me at that moment that it was not enough to just say that racism was sinful, that it was my responsibility and my obligation to confront it, to seek to defeat it and to never, by my silence, be taken to be in agreement with racially charged statements, and have attempted to live that out the rest of my life.

I was known as, quote, "a liberal" on the race issue when I was in seminary in the late '60s and early '70s, and was happy to be known as such because I believe that the civil rights legislation was some of the most important legislation that has ever been passed in the United States.

We were trying to live up to the promises. As Dr. King said, it's time to live up to the promises of your founding documents. It's time to redeem those promises.

Now, in the Trayvon Martin case, I did something which you should never do. I spoke while I was angry. And I was angry - I was on live radio, and I was angry as I read more and more about George Zimmerman and more and more about the situation, and I felt that he was being portrayed as a racist when he wasn't. And we now know that there's a suit against a major network for doctoring the tape to make him appear racist.

And I was thinking about those Duke Lacrosse players who, if they hadn't had very wealthy parents, would probably be in jail today for rape. And all they were guilty of was really bad judgment.

MARTIN: OK. So...

LAND: And I - let me say I apologize for having questioned motives. I shouldn't have. I don't know Jesse Jackson's heart, and I don't know Al Sharpton's heart. I don't know President Obama's heart. And I know that I get offended when people challenge my motives and they don't know what my motives are. And so I wrote and apologized to them and told them that I should not have done that, and that I was apologizing and asked for their forgiveness.

MARTIN: We have to take a short break, but when we come back, we will continue our conversation with Richard Land. He has announced his retirement from his longtime leadership post with the Southern Baptist Convention, where he has become one of the large and influential denomination's most visible figures.

In a minute, he'll tell us why he broke with his previous policy and endorsed Mitt Romney for the White House, and how he responds to the criticism for doing so. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, the guys talk about the news of the week in our Barbershop roundtable. That's later in the program.

But first, we continue our conversation with Richard Land. For nearly 25 years, he's been the public face of the Southern Baptist Convention, fighting what he calls America's culture wars on the frontlines. He's retiring from this post later this year, but he says not from the fight, and he continues with us.

Thank you for staying with us. Just before the presidential election, you broke what had been your policy of refraining from endorsing political candidates, and you chose to endorse Governor Mitt Romney because you said that 2012 was the most important election since 1860. And, again, I have to ask why. Why? And is that related somehow to race? I mean...

LAND: No, no. It's related to health care. I lived under government-run medicine for two years, 11 months and four days...

MARTIN: When you were at Oxford...

LAND: ...when I was in England.

MARTIN: ...getting your doctorate.

LAND: Yes, yes. And it was a horrific experience. And I'm convinced that if we have government-run medicine in the United States, that most people will get, perhaps, catastrophically worse health care than they get today. The last opportunity that the American people would have to not have government-run medicine was to have a different president in the 2012 election. And so...

MARTIN: But why 1860? I mean, can you see why, you know, prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, I mean, when slavery was the law of the land, why some might interpret that as kind of a call to white power or something of that sort?

LAND: I can only - no, no. I can...

MARTIN: I mean, you can understand?

LAND: No, no. I was - I have a bust of Lincoln in my office. I have made it clear on numerous occasions that if I had been alive in 1860, I would have voted for Abraham Lincoln and I would have fought in the Union army, not in the Confederate army.

You know, while I might admire the bravery of Confederate soldiers, they were on the wrong side of that, and I think Abraham Lincoln is the greatest president in the history of our country. And so I wasn't even thinking about race when I said that. I was stunned when people took it that way. I was absolutely stunned.

MARTIN: One topic that you've recently become very high profile in talking about is immigration reform, and you are credited with bringing evangelicals to the table on this issue. You said that this is a moral imperative. How so?

LAND: We have somewhere between 12 and 14 million Americans in this country who are undocumented. The human dignity of these people is in danger. Their family structure is in danger. When they go to work every day, they are fearful that they may be picked up, detained and not be able to go home to their families.

And I think it's time that we acknowledge that our entire immigration system is broken, and it needs to be fixed so that it works both for the people who are in it and for the country.

MARTIN: Do you think that the majority of the members of your convention - which, as we mentioned, are many millions of people - agree with you?

LAND: Yes. You know, I had some press people who've said to me between 2007 and today, well, we know this is where you stand. But is this where Southern Baptists stand? And who knows more about the Southern Baptists, you or me, number one?

MARTIN: Point taken.

LAND: And number two - well, number two, I'm elected. Southern Baptists know how to do it, and if they don't like what you're doing, they fire you. The proof was in the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention. They voted for comprehensive immigration reform that led to a pathway to permanent status for those who were here, with appropriate fines and penalties.

MARTIN: So, getting back to you, you mentioned that you've been described as a liberal on race issues, certainly a conservative on issues around sexual orientation, same-sex marriage, traditional marriage and so forth. On immigration, I'm sure some people think of you as a liberal. The Trayvon Martin thing - I understand that you feel misunderstanding there, but that there are people who would not see you as progressive on that.

So, when you put it all together, how do you see yourself?

(LAUGHTER)

LAND: As a flawed human being and a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ who's trying to follow his savior's teachings to the best of his ability.

MARTIN: Richard Land is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and he was kind enough to join us from their studios in Nashville, Tennessee.

Richard Land, thank you for speaking with us.

LAND: Thank you, Michel.

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