Richard Land & Trayvon Martin

May 17, 2012

Over the past several weeks, a top Southern Baptist leader has been under criticism for remarks he made regarding the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teenager who was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), has been under attack for controversial racial remarks he made on the issue and for plagiarizing the ideas of other commentators. These controversies have resulted in an investigation of Land by the ERLC trustees and two apologies issued by Land as he works to keep his job. The controversy started last month when Bob Allen of Associated Baptist Press reported on comments Land made on on his radio program about the Martin-Zimmerman case. Land attacked President Barack Obama for supposedly having "poured gasoline on the racialist fires" by speaking out on the case. While Land attacked liberals for rushing to judgment against Zimmerman with a "mob mentality," he similarly rushed to judgment to suggest Zimmerman was innocent and merely "suffering for the sins of generations past" (like lynching). Land even suggested Obama and his allies were using the Martin-Zimmerman case for political gain:

This is being done to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election and who knows that he cannot win re-election without getting the 95 percent of blacks who voted for him in 2008 to come back out and show they are going to vote for him again. Polls show that many blacks have become demoralized under the Obama economy, because they are the ones who have suffered the most from his economic failures.
Land's comments quickly sparked headlines and outrage across the nation, even leading top African-American Southern Baptists to publicly criticize Land. As he attempted to defend himself, Land said reporters were "racially profiling" him and argued that an African-American man is "statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man." As Land attacked the media and defended his remarks, he was suddenly embroiled in another controversy. Aaron Weaver, a blogger who is a doctoral student at Baylor University, found that much of Land's remarks on the Martin-Zimmerman case were lifted--without attribution--from a Washington Times column (and Weaver then found other cases of plagiarism in Land's radio shows). The plagiarism charge quickly sparked another round of newspaper reports critical of Land. These charges led to Land apologizing for not providing "appropriate verbal attributions" on his radio program. His limited apology was quickly criticized by ethicists. Shortly after his apology, ERLC trustees announced they would investigate Land's remarks (and the online archive of Land's radio program was removed from its website). The ERLC statement, however, attempted to defend Land's plagiarism by falsely claiming radio broadcasts have different ethical standards than other journalistic outlets. The trustee chairman also refused to say who would investigate Land, thus removing some transparency from the process. As criticism of Land continued to mount, he offered a second apology for his remarks. This much longer apology focused on the content of his controversial racial remarks (as opposed to merely apologizing for lack of attribution as he did earlier). Rather than continue to defend his comments, he admitted he "was guilty of making injudicious comments" and "was unchristian and unwise." He specifically apologized to the Martin family, Obama, and activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The apology came after Land met with several African-American Baptist leaders.

As the Land controversies grew, I was quoted by a few media outlets. First Sarah Posner had a Religion Dispatches article about the ERLC's plagiarism investigation. In the piece, I explained:
The biggest problem for Land with this controversy is that it damages his reputation with his key demographic—journalists. ... 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.
This comment was later picked up by Ed Kilgore in a Washington Monthly blog. Earlier this week, I was quoted in an Ethics Daily article that explores the claim by the ERLC that attribution standards are different for radio programs than other forms of journalism. In the piece, I explained:
The ERLC's focus on what is instead of what ought to be is a troubling standard for the expectations for the SBC's top ethicist. ... It seems sadly fitting since Land's behavior on the radio program has often been more closely tied to the gospel of Rush Limbaugh than the teachings of Jesus Christ. ... For years, Land has employed a haughty attitude, crude name-calling and partisan talking points as he evolved into a typical talk show host. ... While such behaviors might be acceptable to pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill Maher, Southern Baptists should expect a higher ethical standard for its leaders.
As one who has reported on many of Land's outlandish and inappropriate comments for years, it is surprising to see cracks in his Teflon coating. Hopefully the recent controversies will teach Land and other prominent Christian leaders to be much more careful with what they say.

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