A top Southern Baptist official who was accused of plagiarism in a radio segment that claimed civil rights leaders and President Obama used the Trayvon Martin case to stir racial tensions will lose his weekly call-in program but can keep his main job, a church panel announced Friday (June 1).
Richard Land, the influential head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the denomination’s top policy spokesman, was rebuked  for racial insensitivity and for not attributing the source of his radio commentaries after a review by ERLC trustees.
The controversy over Land’s explosive remarks in a March 31 radio program was especially awkward as Southern Baptists are expected to elect an African-American pastor, the Rev. Fred Luter, as the denomination's first black president later this month.
The investigators chided Land for “his hurtful, irresponsible, insensitive, and racially charged words” in a broadcast of the “Richard Land Live!” show in which Land accused Obama and black civil rights activists  of using the Trayvon Martin shooting to foment racial strife and boost the president’s re-election chances.
Martin is the 17-year-old unarmed black youth who was shot to death in February by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla.
Martin was walking back to his father’s house with a bag of candy and an iced tea when he was confronted by George Zimmerman, who was patrolling the gated community where Martin was staying. Zimmerman is awaiting trial on second-degree murder charges that were filed after a public outcry led authorities to investigate the case.
Land initially dismissed criticism of the racial tenor of his comments, but two weeks later it emerged that his comments were lifted from a Washington Times column  without attribution.
It is not clear whether Friday’s findings will calm the storm.
Ten days before the panel was to release its findings, the head of the five-member investigating committee resigned, reportedly to spend more time volunteering for his church. His replacement immediately expressed support for Land and a desire to see Land continue “his ministry.”
In the findings released Friday, the trustees said that the “content and purpose” of Land’s radio program was “not congruent with the mission of the ERLC” and that it would be terminated as soon as the broadcast contract allowed.
But the trustees also said that in reading material without attribution, Land was “accepting practices that occur in the radio industry,” albeit “unwisely.” They also praised Land for his apologies and said he “exhibited a very compliant spirit and was fully cooperative during the investigation.”
“Damage was done to the state of race relations in the Southern Baptist Convention,” the investigating committee said. “We recognize that there is more work to do before the members of Southern Baptist congregations are as diverse as the citizens of our great nation. We and Dr. Land remain dedicated to that cause.”
For his part, Land said the review “was conducted in a Christian manner by Christian gentlemen” and he said he looked forward to continuing with his work as ERLC head.
Whether Land’s reprimand and Luter’s impending election can change the racial dynamics for the SBC is uncertain. A number of Baptist leaders and experts noted that Land is a veritable institution in the SBC, and that Luter will serve as president for no more than two years – hardly enough time to give him the kind of visibility and influence that Land enjoys.
"The real issue is whether denominational leaders, of whom Land is perhaps the most public right now…have any intent on sharing real denominational leadership with Luter or other non-whites outside the traditional networks of denominational power," Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in North Carolina, told Christianity Today .
Founded in support of slavery before the Civil War, the Southern Baptist Convention has 16 million members and is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. But its growth has stalled in recent years and church leaders are trying to broaden the SBC’s appeal beyond its predominantly white, Southern base.
Luter initially called Land’s radio remarks “unhelpful” but later added, “I don’t think you should throw out a lifetime of doing good because of one mistake.”
In its statement on Friday, the investigating committee pledged to “redouble our efforts to regain lost ground, to heal re-opened wounds, and to realize the dream of a Southern Baptist Convention that is just as diverse as the population of our great Nation.”
David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He writes for RNS and until recently covered the religion beat for AOL's Politics Daily. He blogs at Commonweal magazine, and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.