Web Exclusives: PawPlus

December 14, 2005:

Evangelical Christian lobbyist Richard Land ’69

By Louis Jacobson ’92

Editor’s note: A Moment with … Richard Land ’69 appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of PAW, click here to read.


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. Land knew a small number of other conservative students, but they tended to be right of center on national-security issues or had libertarian leanings on economics. But students like Land – a social conservative with a strong religious faith – were almost unheard of in his social sphere.

“Princeton was an aggressively liberal place, but even more, it was an aggressively secular place,” Land said in a September interview at the Washington office of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention that he heads. Land’s contemporaries at Princeton, he recalls, found his religious perspective incomprehensible: “It was like I was an alien being dropped in from another planet.”

At 59, Land can look back at a career in which he has played a significant and controversial role in bringing evangelical Christianity from the margins of American politics to its very center. When he was named president of the ERLC in 1988, the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention was significantly more liberal than its rank-and-file members. Land and his allies promised to push the group’s leadership to the right, focusing on social issues, most notably abortion. And they have succeeded.

Today, the Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with 16.4 million members in 43,700 churches, and in recent years membership been growing at a rate of about 12 percent a year outside the South and 2 percent in Southern states. A denomination that was once predominantly white now includes 750,000 African Americans, 500,000 Hispanics and 500,000 Asian Americans.

In recent years, with Land’s old Texas friends George W. Bush and Karl Rove in the White House and the Republican Party in control of the levers in Washington, evangelicals have begun exerting unprecedented influence on public policy. Land has played a significant role, both out front and behind the scenes.

Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank that studies religion and politics, says that Land is among the 10 most influential evangelicals in the country. “He was already influential” before Bush’s election, Cromartie said, “but that was enhanced when Bush was elected.”

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, puts it differently: “Richard Land is the religious right’s stealth lobbyist,” he says. “Few Americans know his name, but Land has become increasingly influential as other religious conservatives such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have become less active … Land’s agenda is very alarming; he would like to tear down the wall of separation between church and state.”

Land, born in Houston to a fifth-generation Texan father and a mother who was a devout Baptist transplant from Massachusetts, now splits his time between his home in Franklin, Tenn., and Washington. He often confounds expectations – and not just those of the old (and outmoded) stereotypes of Bible-thumping Elmer Gantrys. Unlike some of his conservative Christian brethren, who view the academic and secular establishment with a heavy dose of suspicion, Land treasures his mainstream academic achievements: a history degree from Princeton and a doctorate from Oxford University. And judging by his frequent appearances in the mainstream media, he enjoys debating people whose worldview is entirely different.

Land says he was “called” to the ministry at 16. When it came time to go to college, his mother, his pastor, and the leader of his Christian youth group steered him toward Wheaton College, a Christian school in Illinois. But his high school guidance counselor, his teachers, and his principal encouraged him to attend his other college option: Princeton. Land waited until the last day possible to decide and finally came to the conclusion that he should attend Princeton, though he had never visited the campus. “I’ve had many confirming signs since then that it was the right decision for me,” he says.

He thrived, despite the unfamiliar Northern snows. He wrote his thesis on the debate between northern and southern Baptists over slavery prior to the Civil War – a topic of special interest, because he has both slaveholders and abolitionists in his family tree. He also forged a close relationship with religion professor Paul Ramsey, who counseled Land not to let himself be stereotyped as uneducated.

After graduation, Land headed to New Orleans to enroll in the Baptist Theological Seminary for a master’s degree in theology. During his final two years in New Orleans, he served as pastor of a storefront church located one block from the libertine revelry of Bourbon Street. The congregants, he recalls, were “mostly young people. Nine of 10 had been drug abusers prior to finding faith in Christ.” Ministering to such a parishioners, he says, was “mind-expanding.”

In New Orleans, Land and his wife Rebekah, a psychotherapist, were married. Then they set off for Oxford University, where he began research leading to a doctorate on the Puritan movement in 17th-century England. In England, as in New Orleans, he served as pastor of a Baptist church – not one serving the academic community, but rather “butchers, bakers and candlemakers. Literally, the deacon was a butcher. I got to know a different slice of society than most American graduate students are exposed to.”

Returning to the United States in 1975, Land was hired to teach theology and Christian history at Criswell College, a small Baptist school in Dallas. In 1980 he was promoted to vice president for academic affairs. But soon Land began to detour into politics. In 1987, he took a leave of absence to become an aide to then-Texas Gov. Bill Clements. Land’s job was to manage anti-abortion legislation – a key agenda item for Clements, a Republican. As an adviser to Clements, Land met a then-little-known political operative named Karl Rove (“a bright guy with wide range of interests, including an avid interest in history,” Land says), as well as the son of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

Both friends and foes agree that Land has put a strong imprint on his current job, heading the ERLC. That group, established in its present form in 1947, plays two key roles within the Southern Baptist Convention. Its “prophetic” role, as Land describes it, is to “talk to Southern Baptists and other people of faith and call them to where we believe they ought to be on the moral, ethical, and public-policy issues of the day, based on our understanding of the Bible and God’s word.” The ERLC’s second role involves reporting to Congress, the executive branch and the courts about where Southern Baptists stand on policy issues, including those for which there is no unanimity within the convention.

Land’s appointment to his post marked a significant change in the leadership’s ideological direction. From the 1920s to the early 1970s, the leadership had drifted leftward while the rank and file had drifted to the right, on theological matters as well as on political issues. “By the time I was in seminary, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was the subject of daily discussion in the cafeteria: If people out in the churches knew what was being taught in seminary, they would have a duck.”

But the Southern Baptist Convention adheres to democratic rule; when the convention meets every June, 25,000 to 30,000 church representatives may vote. Land describes it as the largest group in the world doing business by Robert’s Rules of Order. In the mid-1970s, moderates and liberals squared off against conservatives at these conventions. The conservatives prevailed.

A statement co-signed by Land was adopted by the convention on June 14, 2000, and now is widely distributed in a pocket-sized pamphlet. It codifies the church’s core beliefs. Most of the document addresses theological issues, but in a number of places it also addresses the shape of American society. The views expressed enjoy wide but not universal support of Baptists in the United States.

The document calls on Christians to oppose “all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.” The statement adds: “We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love.”

In 1997, the convention put some of these principles into practice by overwhelmingly approving a boycott of Disney, including its movies, theme parks, and ABC television network. The convention cited the company's “anti-Christian and anti-family direction” in films such as Pulp Fiction and Priest, its policy of providing benefits to same-sex partners of employees, and its holding “Gay Days” at the theme parks. (The boycott was called off earlier this year with the departure of Disney CEO Michael Eisner.)

As for the family, the 2000 document states that while the husband and wife are “of equal worth before God,” a husband has “the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.”

Not all Christians agree with such assertions. Robert Parham, founder and executive director of the liberal Baptist Center for Ethics, describes the views of Land and others as “a narrow, rigid wing of Christianity which historically rejects other Christian expressions – Catholicism, liberal Protestantism, moderate Baptists.” To Parham, the ERLC’s agenda “retreats into a 19th-century cultural castle.”

Others, though, see Land as a more nuanced figure for whom it is important to be viewed as an advocate but not a zealot. For instance, one of his key agenda items has drawn broad support from human-rights advocates on the left and the right: a campaign to ensure religious freedom across the globe. And Land says he is most proud of his efforts at racial reconciliation.

As a child, Land recalls, he was taught that “racism was not only wrong, it was sin – it was against God’s will.” So one of the first things he did upon taking the ERLC job was to schedule a joint event with his more liberal predecessor in which they met privately with African-American leaders. That meeting led to a formal process of acknowledging the role that slavery and racial discrimination in the church’s earlier decades. In 1995, on the eve of the church’s sesquicentennial, the convention approved, with a 98 percent vote in favor, language that belatedly asked forgiveness from black Americans for the church’s history of racism. “That was big news, and it lanced the boil,” he says. “That’s my greatest accomplishment so far.”

Despite – or, perhaps, because of – criticism that the ERLC’s views lie on the extreme end of the debate, Land takes pains to frame hot-button positions as “accommodationist” – a moderate position that seeks neither avoidance of religion in courts or schools, nor active state support for religion. In his view, he says, the government should allow but not force individuals to express their religious beliefs in government locales.

In practical terms, the “accommodationist” view means supporting tuition tax credits and vouchers to parents for religious schools, but not “direct government aid” to parochial schools; allows voluntary prayer by individual judges and court employees, as long as no community religious groups are excluded; and allows manger scenes or Ten Commandments displays in government venues as long as they are privately funded and other religious groups have the same opportunity. This formulation places liberals and moderates on the extreme – which is an argument, of course, that most of them do not buy.

A key mission for Land, as it is for other evangelicals, is to change fundamentally the direction of the judicial system. “I would argue that our chief obstacle has been the court system,” he says. “We’re winning the battle for hearts and minds, but it hasn’t been reflected yet in the court system. We may be on the verge of a change in that direction. I think John Roberts will be one of the greatest – if not the greatest – chief justice. He has a rare combination of brilliance and humility.”

Critics like Parham charge that Land has played partisan politics. “From my perspective,” he says, “Land’s most grievous accomplishment is helping hard-wire fundamentalism to the Republican Party, fusing agendas and signaling that ‘GOP’ stands for ‘God’s Only Party.’ ” Parham cites a 1998 interview with Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times in which Land argued that the “go-along, get-along strategy” between religious conservatives and the Republican Party was dead: “No more engagement. We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of the marriage.”

Asked directly about the accusation of partisanship, Land says that he is supporting a philosophical view, not a party. He is unapologetic about the result.

“I’ve said it’s your Christian duty to be an informed voter and to vote your values, beliefs, and convictions,” he says. “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.”

On one occasion recently, Land did break publicly with the GOP. In George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, officials sought to obtain directories from evangelical churches to aid in voter mobilization. Land spoke out against the practice, saying it crossed a line between religion and politics.

Land says he has been asked more than once by conservative Christian parents whether he would send a child to Princeton. None of Land’s three adult children attended the University, but Land says he would recommend it – given the right circumstances. He notes that the Princeton of today is not the Princeton he attended: “When I graduated, if you had said to anyone, ‘By the way, in 2005, there will be well-attended evangelical services and hundreds of Princeton students involved in serious Bible studies,’ [the listener] would have said, ‘I don’t know what you’re on, but can I have some?’ ”

His answer to the parent: “It depends on the kid,” he says. “Is he obviously bright and a good student? 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, it’s probably not the best place to go. I saw guys at Princeton lose their faith.”

But if a student is “independent and not concerned about peer pressure, then they should go,” Land says. He continues, thinking of how he fit in himself. “There’s an upside and a downside to my kind of personality,” he says. “The upside is, I don’t care if everyone disagrees, 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.”

Louis Jacobson ’92 is deputy editor of Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress.