December 14, 2005: A moment with...
Richard Land ’69
Richard Land ’69 was something of a rarity when he was a Princeton student: an evangelical Christian on a liberal campus during a time of radical upheaval. Now, at 59, Land has spent 17 years at the helm of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Michael Cromartie, vice president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, says Land is among the 10 most influential evangelicals in the country. But to others, Land’s social conservatism is misguided, even threatening. Robert Parham, executive director of the liberal Baptist Center for Ethics, describes Land’s views as “a narrow, rigid wing of Christianity which historically rejects other Christian expressions.” Land spoke recently with Louis Jacobson ’92 for PAW.
What was it like for you at Princeton?
Princeton was an aggressively liberal place, but even more, it was an aggressively secular place. A majority, though not a huge majority, of my fellow students found my religious perspective incomprehensible. When I graduated, if you’d said to anyone, “By the way, in 2005, there will be well-attended evangelical services and hundreds of Princeton students will be involved in serious Bible studies,” they would have said, “I don’t know what you’re on, but can I have some?”
Some of your critics say you have worked unfairly to equate religion with the Republican Party. How do you respond?
I’ve said it’s your Christian duty to be an informed voter and to vote your values, beliefs, and convictions. Now, if the GOP has a platform that’s pro-life and the Democratic Party has one that’s pro-choice, and if most Southern Baptists are pro-life, we didn’t make that a partisan issue. The Democratic Party did. Whenever the Republican Party agrees with our values, I applaud them for their good taste and good judgment.
How much latitude do members of the Southern Baptist Conven-tion have to disagree with core principles of the denomination?
Whether or not a person’s pro-abortion or pro-choice views would be a matter to cause them to be removed from a local church is a decision that each of the 43,700-plus local, autonomous churches would make on their own. I know a significant number of pro-choice Southern Baptists, and I know of no one who has been removed from membership of their local church because of their views on abortion. Having said that, I think it is unlikely that any of our national entities would employ non-clerical staff who were pro-abortion.
What was the role of evangelicals in the Supreme Court nominations of Harriet Miers and Samuel Alito ’72?
Evangelicals, in general, and I, individually, have strongly supported President Bush in his fulfillment of his campaign pledge to only nominate strict-constructionist, original-intent jurists to the federal bench. Most Southern Baptists, including myself, believe that he fulfilled that pledge in the nomination of Harriet Miers. Some evangelicals wanted someone with a stronger track record as a judge. The nomination of Judge Samuel Alito has healed any rift among social conservatives, and has healed it so completely that there is not even any scar tissue remaining.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
As a child, I was taught that racism was not only wrong, it was sin — it was against God’s will. One of the first things I did when I took the job at ERLC was to take up the issue of race relations. In 1995 we had our sesquicentennial. When the convention was founded, it was precipitated by the Northern Baptists refusing to appoint a missionary to Native Americans who was a slaveholder. The Southerners formed a separate convention. It seemed unseemly to me to celebrate our heritage until we had dealt with that. So I went to the president of the convention, and he agreed to help get the rules suspended so that we could deal with that resolution on the first day. We passed the resolution. We apologized to African-Americans and acknowledged the role that racism and slavery and segregation had played in our history. And we asked for forgiveness.
What do you say when an evangelical Christian asks you whether Princeton is the right place for his child?
It depends on the kid. What kind of personality does he have? If he’s someone who is impacted by peer pressure, if it’s a person who needs to be in the in-crowd or part of a group where he or she feels they have support, Princeton is probably not the best place to go. I saw guys at Princeton lose their faith. But if they’re independent and not concerned about peer pressure, then they should go.
I’ve had many confirming signs that Princeton was the right place for me. I don’t care if everyone disagrees with me, as long as I believe I’m right. That can make you a courageous crusader for truth and righteousness, or it can make you a really stubborn, ornery person.
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