The Culture Warrior in Winter

Richard Land’s fall and the end of the old Religious Right.

National Journal
Tiffany Stanley
July 10, 2014, 7:56 a.m.

In the spring of 2012, Richard Land went on the ra­dio and uttered a series of sen­ti­ments he would come to re­gret. It was March 31, a month after the shoot­ing death of Trayvon Mar­tin, and Land — for dec­ades one of the pree­m­in­ent lead­ers of the Re­li­gious Right — was hold­ing forth on his weekly, three-hour ra­dio show, Richard Land Live! The Mar­tin dis­cus­sion star­ted when a caller asked about ra­cial pro­fil­ing. Land did not mince words in re­sponse: He ac­cused Afric­an-Amer­ic­an lead­ers of us­ing the killing of Mar­tin to “gin up the black vote” in an elec­tion year. He de­rided Jesse Jack­son, Al Sharpton, and Louis Far­rakhan as “race hust­lers.” He ar­gued that Pres­id­ent Obama had “poured gas­ol­ine on the ra­cial­ist fires” by sym­path­iz­ing with the Mar­tin fam­ily. And he pos­ited that George Zi­m­mer­man was be­ing pre­ma­turely con­victed in the me­dia. “In­stead of let­ting the leg­al pro­cess take its in­de­pend­ent course,” Land said, “race-mon­gers are anoint­ing them­selves judge, jury, and ex­e­cu­tion­ers.”

Land, who was 65 at the time, has a nat­ur­al ra­dio voice, a deep bari­tone with a smooth Tex­an drawl, and he is a skilled po­lemi­cist. But he wasn’t mainly known as a ra­dio host. As the long­time head of the Eth­ics & Re­li­gious Liberty Com­mis­sion of the South­ern Baptist Con­ven­tion — the largest Prot­est­ant de­nom­in­a­tion in the United States, with a mem­ber­ship of nearly 16 mil­lion — he was one of the Re­li­gious Right’s top spokes­men in Wash­ing­ton. “In that po­s­i­tion, he was the last of the clas­sic Mor­al Ma­jor­ity-Chris­ti­an Co­ali­tion-Chris­ti­an Right cul­ture war­ri­ors,” says Mark Silk, a pro­fess­or of re­li­gion in pub­lic life at Trin­ity Col­lege. In 2005, Time magazine had named Land one of the most in­flu­en­tial evan­gel­ic­als in Amer­ica and dubbed him “God’s lob­by­ist.” For years, he had been a fre­quent source for journ­al­ists and a reg­u­lar on the talk-show cir­cuit. Dur­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion of George W. Bush, he was known to have the White House’s ear; in 2001, Bush ap­poin­ted him to the U.S. Com­mis­sion on In­ter­na­tion­al Re­li­gious Free­dom, where he ended up serving five terms.

In short, Land was a polit­ic­al power­house — which was one of the reas­ons his Trayvon Mar­tin com­ments were soon draw­ing plenty of scru­tiny. Call­ing the re­marks “dam­aging, ali­en­at­ing, and of­fens­ive,” one prom­in­ent black South­ern Baptist min­is­ter asked the SBC to fire Land — and oth­ers fol­lowed suit. Then, two weeks after the ini­tial broad­cast, a Ph.D. stu­dent at Baylor Uni­versity blogged that Land had lif­ted nearly half his words on the Mar­tin case from a con­ser­vat­ive colum­nist at The Wash­ing­ton Times, and had done so without at­tri­bu­tion. He had done the same in at least two oth­er seg­ments of his show. Land, the head of an eth­ics or­gan­iz­a­tion, was labeled a pla­gi­ar­ist.

For a time, Land re­mained de­fi­ant. “True ra­cial re­con­cili­ation means that you do not bow to the false god of polit­ic­al cor­rect­ness,” he said. He is­sued a half­hearted apo­logy to any­one who might have mis­un­der­stood him and been of­fen­ded. But the fur­or con­tin­ued. Land sat down for a nearly five-hour meet­ing with black South­ern Baptist lead­ers and, with­in a week, pub­lished a second, five-part apo­logy. That June, the de­nom­in­a­tion pub­licly rep­rim­anded him and can­celed Richard Land Live! Eight weeks later, he an­nounced he would re­tire.

Dr. Richard Land (Richard A. Bloom)Today, Land is a long way from Wash­ing­ton — 416 miles to be ex­act. He says he had 10 job of­fers after he went pub­lic with his re­tire­ment plans, but none were in South­ern Baptist life. Even­tu­ally, he star­ted a new job as pres­id­ent of the nondenom­in­a­tion­al South­ern Evan­gel­ic­al Sem­in­ary, loc­ated in a sub­urb­an en­clave out­side Char­lotte, North Car­o­lina. Only 22 years old, SES is a tiny in­sti­tu­tion, with an un­der­gradu­ate and gradu­ate pop­u­la­tion of just 350 stu­dents — a ma­jor­ity of them on­line only — and a re­cent gradu­at­ing class of 43.

In early May, I spent a day with Land at the sem­in­ary. He was vague on the de­tails of his typ­ic­al sched­ule at SES, pre­fer­ring to wax po­et­ic about the busy years he spent in his former po­s­i­tion. But he was also quick to note that he doesn’t miss the travel, the hec­tic agenda, or “hav­ing to give in­stant­an­eous an­swers — to very com­plex ques­tions, without any warn­ing — to the me­dia.” Plus, he ad­ded, “I don’t miss hav­ing 44,500 bosses” — a ref­er­ence to the ap­prox­im­ate num­ber of South­ern Baptist churches op­er­at­ing dur­ing his ten­ure.

On the second floor of the school’s sole build­ing — a large, brick struc­ture in a field of man­i­cured grass — we in­ter­rup­ted a class of a dozen stu­dents. Many of them were work­ing min­is­ters who travel to cam­pus from out of state for short stays to com­plete courses to­ward a doc­tor of min­istry de­gree. Most of them had nev­er met Land. He went around the room, ask­ing their names and in­quir­ing about their back­grounds. Mean­while, he re­galed them with his own stor­ies, which were of­ten funny, and had the kind of well-worn punch lines that fre­quent speak­ers and preach­ers em­ploy.

The only time Land froze up, los­ing his cheer­ful de­mean­or, was when someone men­tioned the man who now holds his old job as head of the Eth­ics & Re­li­gious Liberty Com­mis­sion. “How’s Rus­sell Moore do­ing?” a stu­dent asked.

“I guess he’s do­ing fine,” Land said. “Far as I know.”

“He seemed like a good choice as a re­place­ment, I thought,” the stu­dent said.

Land’s ebul­li­ence dis­ap­peared. “He cer­tainly be­lieves the Bible and is in­ter­ested in these is­sues. He’s do­ing his thing, I’m do­ing mine.” There was an awk­ward pause. It was the last ques­tion Land took be­fore bid­ding the stu­dents farewell.

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Later, Land told me he has no qualms about Moore’s lead­er­ship of the ER­LC. “I don’t have much con­tact with the com­mis­sion. And I don’t need to,” he said, adding, “I’ve moved on.”

If Land has moved on from his role as a lead­er of the Re­li­gious Right, the re­verse is also true: The Re­li­gious Right is in the pro­cess of mov­ing on from him. The move­ment is, by all ac­counts, en­ter­ing a new era, as Land’s gen­er­a­tion and the one be­fore his gradu­ally de­part the pub­lic stage. Jerry Fal­well has been dead for sev­en years. Pat Robertson is 84, and the Chris­ti­an Co­ali­tion he foun­ded has all but buckled un­der mount­ing debt. James Dob­son resigned from his Fo­cus on the Fam­ily or­gan­iz­a­tion in 2009, partly over dif­fer­ences with his young­er suc­cessor. For years, Land and these oth­er men helped to set the tone for what kind of move­ment the Re­li­gious Right would be. And now, in his dra­mat­ic de­par­ture, it is pos­sible to see the seeds of the very dif­fer­ent move­ment it is about to be­come.

LAND IS AN im­pos­ing fig­ure: a tall man with a boom­ing voice. A sixth-gen­er­a­tion Tex­an, he grew up in Hou­s­ton, the son of a weld­er. His house­hold was “bi­cul­tur­al,” as he tells it: His fath­er was a Yel­low Dog Demo­crat; his moth­er was a Bo­ston-born Re­pub­lic­an. The South­ern Baptist Church was the cen­ter of fam­ily life — ser­vices twice on Sundays, once on Wed­nes­days, and church camp in the sum­mers. By age 16, he felt God was lead­ing him to the min­istry.

Land’s par­ents in­ten­ded for him to be the first in the fam­ily to go to col­lege. He had his eye on the Uni­versity of Texas when a high school guid­ance coun­selor, promp­ted by Land’s SAT scores, en­cour­aged him to chan­nel his am­bi­tion north. She loaned him the money for his ap­plic­a­tion fee to Prin­ceton, where he was ac­cep­ted on schol­ar­ship.

If Land has moved on from his role as a lead­er of the Re­li­gious Right, the re­verse is also true: The Re­li­gious Right is in the pro­cess of mov­ing on from him.

The late ‘60s was a time of left-wing cam­pus tu­mult, at Prin­ceton and else­where. “They were so lib­er­al, they thought it was sort of exot­ic to have an evan­gel­ic­al in class,” Land re­calls. But un­like many Ivy Leaguers from mod­est back­grounds — who find them­selves cata­pul­ted in­to a new strat­um and may be temp­ted to for­sake parts of their up­bring­ing — Land did not aban­don his re­li­gious views at Prin­ceton. If any­thing, the ex­per­i­ence seems to have ig­nited his re­li­gious fer­vor in op­pos­i­tion. And, closer to home, he found a boost­er. A prom­in­ent law­yer, former state le­gis­lat­or, and fu­ture judge, Paul Pressler — a Prin­ceton alum and a con­ser­vat­ive South­ern Baptist — in­vited Land to lunch, in es­sence of­fer­ing his ment­or­ship. Pressler ran a Bible study pro­gram in his home for Chris­ti­an stu­dents bound for East Coast col­leges. In between his years at Prin­ceton, Land spent sum­mers un­der Pressler’s tu­tel­age, teach­ing in his Bible study.

After gradu­at­ing from Prin­ceton in 1969, Land moved on to New Or­leans Baptist Theo­lo­gic­al Sem­in­ary, an SBC school that leaned more con­ser­vat­ive than most of the de­nom­in­a­tion’s sem­in­ar­ies at the time. Pressler en­cour­aged him to reach out to a young doc­tor­al stu­dent named Paige Pat­ter­son, a kindred con­ser­vat­ive cru­sader, who be­came one of Land’s closest friends. He also met his fu­ture wife of 43 years, Re­bekah, who was a stu­dent in the sem­in­ary’s coun­sel­ing pro­gram. When they mar­ried, Pat­ter­son and Pressler were in the wed­ding.

Far from be­ing the Chris­ti­an sanc­tu­ary one might ex­pect, sem­in­ary proved to be chal­len­ging for Land. “I got a repu­ta­tion for be­ing a trouble­maker,” he re­calls. Mod­ern bib­lic­al cri­ti­cism had made its way to many schools, even tra­di­tion­ally con­ser­vat­ive ones. Pro­fess­ors were now teach­ing that there were dis­putes over bib­lic­al au­thor­ship; that Moses or Paul or Peter might not have writ­ten all the books that tra­di­tion said they did; that the cre­ation story was more myth than sci­ence. And some theo­lo­gic­al lib­er­als were dis­miss­ing teach­ings they deemed ana­chron­ist­ic, such as wo­men’s sub­mis­sion. Or they were point­ing out that Je­sus didn’t talk about ho­mo­sexu­al­ity, so how im­port­ant could it be?

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These de­vel­op­ments were ana­thema to Land and his friends. When they wer­en’t rais­ing their con­cerns in class, they would gath­er in the cafet­er­ia to talk over their dis­sent. “There were a lot of us who were very up­set about what was taught in sem­in­ary,” he says. “And we were de­term­ined when we had an op­por­tun­ity to do something about it, we would.”

After sem­in­ary, Land en­rolled in a doc­tor­al pro­gram in theo­logy at Ox­ford, an en­vir­on­ment he found more ac­cept­ing. “They thought, “˜How tol­er­ant of us, we have both an Amer­ic­an and an evan­gel­ic­al,’ “ he re­mem­bers. He spent much of his time there in an un­heated lib­rary wear­ing gloves and an over­coat, while read­ing 26 volumes of hand­writ­ten, 17th-cen­tury de­bates over church-state sep­ar­a­tion. When he fin­ished in 1975, Pat­ter­son offered him a job in Dal­las teach­ing at Criswell Col­lege, a fun­da­ment­al­ist in­sti­tu­tion that had been foun­ded five years earli­er.

By then, a South­ern Baptist holy war was in pro­gress, with Land’s friends Pat­ter­son and Pressler at the cen­ter of an in­tern­al con­ser­vat­ive re­bel­lion. In 1979, the same year Jerry Fal­well foun­ded his Mor­al Ma­jor­ity, fun­da­ment­al­ist South­ern Baptists staged a coup at the church’s an­nu­al meet­ing, elect­ing the first in an un­broken line of con­ser­vat­ive SBC pres­id­ents. “I was at the ground floor of the con­ser­vat­ive re­sur­gence,” Land likes to say. With­in a gen­er­a­tion, the South­ern Baptist lead­er­ship had gone from be­ing loosely for abor­tion rights to be­ing staunchly an­ti­abor­tion. Sem­in­ary pro­fess­ors, along with oth­er church staff mem­bers, were fired or resigned when they did not ad­here to the new con­ser­vat­ive doc­trine. South­ern Baptist wo­men were stripped of their right to pas­tor churches, though they had been or­dained in lim­ited num­bers since 1964. The lead­er­ship is­sued state­ments co­di­fy­ing a num­ber of be­liefs: that wives should sub­mit to their hus­bands, that ho­mo­sexu­al­ity and abor­tion are wrong, that the Bible is without er­ror.

The con­ser­vat­ive takeover of the South­ern Baptist Con­ven­tion par­alleled the rise of the Re­li­gious Right, and, of­ten, the church act­iv­ists and polit­ic­al act­iv­ists were one in the same. Many worked along­side Fal­well, an in­de­pend­ent-turned-South­ern Baptist, as well as Robertson, who had been or­dained in the de­nom­in­a­tion.

Land met Karl Rove while stump­ing for an­ti­abor­tion can­did­ates in 1987. (Tom Pen­ning­ton/Getty Im­ages)In Dal­las, Land got in­volved in Re­pub­lic­an Party polit­ics. In 1987, he took a leave from aca­demia to work for Texas GOP Gov. Bill Cle­m­ents as an ad­viser on church-state is­sues and on an­ti­abor­tion and an­ti­drug le­gis­la­tion. He met a polit­ic­al op­er­at­ive named Karl Rove who was stump­ing for Re­pub­lic­ans while Land was stump­ing for an­ti­abor­tion can­did­ates, mean­ing they were usu­ally cam­paign­ing for the same people. Through Rove, he was in­tro­duced to George W. Bush, who met with Land while he was shor­ing up sup­port for his fath­er’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

By 1988, the right-wing takeover of the SBC was well un­der­way, and Land was chosen to lead the Chris­ti­an Life Com­mis­sion, which later be­came the Eth­ics & Re­li­gious Liberty Com­mis­sion. Land and his fam­ily settled near Nashville, Ten­ness­ee, where the South­ern Baptist Con­ven­tion’s headquar­ters are loc­ated, and he com­muted back and forth to Wash­ing­ton. “He was really the first of the con­ser­vat­ive ex­ec­ut­ives to take a po­s­i­tion. He was the first one chosen to be an agency head,” says Pat­ter­son, who now serves as pres­id­ent of South­west­ern Baptist Theo­lo­gic­al Sem­in­ary.

The Chris­ti­an Life Com­mis­sion had been, un­til that point, a bas­tion of lefty, so­cial-justice-minded evan­gel­ic­als. “I went to the apple of their eye,” Land says. “The Chris­ti­an Life Com­mis­sion is where they used to go every year and con­grat­u­late them­selves on how pro­gress­ive they were.” One mod­er­ate South­ern Baptist re­portedly told him, “It’s like you eloped with our fa­vor­ite daugh­ter.” Land’s re­sponse: “It’s more like I got your fa­vor­ite daugh­ter preg­nant out of wed­lock.”

Land is fond of mar­riage meta­phors when it comes to polit­ics. He fam­ously told The New York Times in 1998 that so­cial con­ser­vat­ives wanted com­mit­ment from the GOP: “No more en­gage­ment. We want a wed­ding ring, we want a ce­re­mony, we want a con­sum­ma­tion of the mar­riage.” Dur­ing the 2012 cam­paign, he at­temp­ted to sway evan­gel­ic­als from Mitt Rom­ney to Rick San­tor­um. “Be­fore we marry the guy next door” — Rom­ney — “don’t you think we ought to have a fling with a tall, dark stranger and see if he can sup­port us in the man­ner to which we’d like to be ac­cus­tomed?” Land asked on NPR. “And if he can’t, we can al­ways marry the steady beau who lives next door.”

“Pi­et­ism, or with­draw­al from the cul­ture, has al­ways been a big tempta­tion for Amer­ic­an evan­gel­ic­als.”

With a lob­by­ing ca­reer that spanned four pres­id­en­tial ad­min­is­tra­tions, Land cul­tiv­ated a spec­trum of re­la­tion­ships with the White House, from the cor­di­al but luke­warm (George H.W. Bush) to the some­times hos­tile (Bill Clin­ton and Barack Obama). Without ques­tion, though, the zenith of his power came dur­ing the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. “I love the guy!” Land says. In his of­fice, he gets up from the con­fer­ence table, goes search­ing for his cell phone, and pulls up a photo of W. and mem­bers of the Land fam­ily — his wife, two daugh­ters, and son-in-law — at the Bush Lib­rary, which they vis­ited while they were in Dal­las for a wed­ding.

Land proved a valu­able pres­id­en­tial ally. When Bush called for pree­mpt­ive ac­tion against Sad­dam Hus­sein in Ir­aq, he was one of the few re­li­gious lead­ers to provide cov­er, writ­ing a let­ter sup­port­ing the pres­id­ent’s plan with his ver­sion of just-war the­ory. In 2003, after Bush signed the Par­tial-Birth Abor­tion Ban Act in­to law, Land joined Fal­well and oth­er min­is­ters in the Oval Of­fice, where they prayed with the pres­id­ent. In 2004, Land launched the “I Vote Val­ues” cam­paign, a mam­moth get-out-the-vote op­er­a­tion, which dis­trib­uted half a mil­lion voter guides to churches and in­cluded a cross-coun­try tour in an 18-wheel­er. Ac­cord­ing to exit polls, Bush won voters who said their top con­cern was “mor­al val­ues” by 80 per­cent to 18 per­cent.

Land was some­what less po­lem­ic­al than Fal­well and Robertson — and his ar­gu­ments were of­ten more soph­ist­ic­ated. “He was un­usu­al be­cause he of­ten had very subtle views on is­sues,” says John Green, a Uni­versity of Ak­ron pro­fess­or of polit­ic­al sci­ence. “I al­ways found him to be very eru­dite.” Moreover, he was not al­ways a hard-liner on policy. On church-state sep­ar­a­tion, for in­stance, Land ar­gued for the gov­ern­ment to al­low re­li­gious ex­pres­sion without spon­sor­ing it. And in re­cent years, he was a vo­cal ad­voc­ate of com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form. “At his best,” says Silk, “even though there are cer­tainly people who re­garded him as the prince of dark­ness, I think he could be a fairly adroit politi­cian in his own ram­bunc­tious way.”

Yet Land’s ag­gress­ive polit­ic­al style had de­tract­ors. He ac­cu­mu­lated what Robert Par­ham of the Baptist Cen­ter for Eth­ics, an SBC break­away group, calls “a well-doc­u­mented lib­rary of in­flam­mat­ory com­ments.” Among Land’s many barbs were a 2008 state­ment liken­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton to a witch and a 2009 speech com­par­ing the Demo­crats’ sup­port of the Af­ford­able Care Act to the work of the Nazis. In­deed, he cul­tiv­ated a co­zi­ness with the GOP — “he liked be­ing in the thick of party polit­ics,” Silk says — that ar­gu­ably had draw­backs for South­ern Bap­tism as a whole.

Land does not re­gret his polit­ic­al work, see­ing it as a spir­itu­al ne­ces­sity, born of his ef­forts to ab­ol­ish abor­tion. “Pi­et­ism, or with­draw­al from the cul­ture, has al­ways been a big tempta­tion for Amer­ic­an evan­gel­ic­als,” he says. “It took a lot to con­vince them to jet­tis­on that pi­et­ism and get in­volved, num­ber one. It took a lot for most of them to do so primar­ily through the Re­pub­lic­an Party, be­cause most of them were not raised Re­pub­lic­an.”

“One of my goals was to make cer­tain that evan­gel­ic­als wer­en’t used by the GOP in the way blacks were used by the Demo­crat­ic Party.”

By his ac­count, the align­ment of re­li­gious con­ser­vat­ives and the GOP happened when Re­pub­lic­ans more read­ily took on the an­ti­abor­tion mantle: “What I’ve al­ways said is “¦ we’re go­ing to be val­ues voters, we’re go­ing to vote our val­ues and our be­liefs and our con­vic­tions, and if that makes abor­tion a par­tis­an is­sue, then shame on the Demo­crats.” He pushed for a com­mit­ment from the GOP so evan­gel­ic­als would not just be an­oth­er vot­ing bloc but a con­stitu­ency whose con­cerns were a pri­or­ity. “One of my goals was to make cer­tain that evan­gel­ic­als wer­en’t used by the GOP in the way blacks were used by the Demo­crat­ic Party,” he says.

“Alito and Roberts are the gifts that keep on giv­ing, and we would have got­ten neither of those without our in­volve­ment,” said Land. (Alex Wong/Getty Im­ages)And it’s un­deni­able that the al­li­ance with George W. Bush car­ried be­ne­fits for evan­gel­ic­als. Look no fur­ther than the Su­preme Court, Land points out. “Alito and Roberts are the gifts that keep on giv­ing, and we would have got­ten neither one of those without our in­volve­ment,” he says. Land pre­dicts that, if he lives out a nat­ur­al lifespan, he will see Roe v. Wade “thrown onto the ash heap of his­tory.”

IN 1995, LAND was the ar­chi­tect be­hind the South­ern Baptist Con­ven­tion’s pub­lic apo­logy for its ra­cist past, which had in­cluded sup­port for slavery and se­greg­a­tion. He con­siders the apo­logy a cent­ral part of his leg­acy at the or­gan­iz­a­tion. This is what galls him most about the up­roar over his Trayvon Mar­tin com­ments. He was sur­prised at how many people took him for a ra­cist. “I would have thought that my en­tire re­cord, my en­tire adult life’s re­cord “¦,” he says, trail­ing off.

His leg­acy did help him save face with some black SBC lead­ers after he was rep­rim­anded. The Rev. Fred Luter, the first black SBC pres­id­ent, de­fen­ded Land in in­ter­views. The Rev. Bri­an King, a black South­ern Baptist pas­tor from Phil­adelphia, told me, “When I looked at the total his­tory of Dr. Land, the total his­tory of who he ac­tu­ally talked to and who he was ac­tu­ally with, set­ting aside his un­for­tu­nate com­ments “¦ he was a great as­set. Nobody can deny that.” (When the news first broke, however, King says he thought, “Some people should think about what they’re say­ing be­fore they say it.”)

To hear Land talk about it now, he is still not con­vinced he was in the wrong. He re­cog­nizes that black men face dis­crim­in­a­tion, but he claims that crime stat­ist­ics jus­ti­fy ra­cial pro­fil­ing and ar­gues the point un­apo­lo­get­ic­ally: “Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans are more likely to com­mit vi­ol­ent crime.” He also be­lieves that George Zi­m­mer­man killed in self-de­fense: “I think that, at the point that the shoot­ing took place, if Zi­m­mer­man hadn’t been armed, he prob­ably would have died.” In his telling, Land was simply try­ing to ex­plain to a black caller why ra­cial pro­fil­ing hap­pens. “I was ac­tu­ally try­ing to help an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an un­der­stand that he shouldn’t take it per­son­ally,” Land says.

The pla­gi­ar­ism? He had a stack of art­icles in front of him, which usu­ally would be cited on­line. “I try to give cred­it on the air, but some­times you run out of time.” He ad­mits he should have been more care­ful.

Scan­dals are com­mon with­in evan­gel­ic­al­ism, but Land’s con­tro­versy re­volved around race, per­haps the most com­plic­ated is­sue for the SBC, giv­en its his­tory. When news of his com­ments broke, the or­gan­iz­a­tion was a mere six weeks away from elect­ing Luter as pres­id­ent. The his­tor­ic change in lead­er­ship was seen as a great step for­ward. Land didn’t want to take away from that by pro­long­ing the scan­dal. “I had a lot of people say, “˜You ought to de­fend your­self,’ “ he re­calls. “I said, “˜No, I’m not go­ing to do it.’ “

Land’s suc­cessor as head of the Eth­ics & Re­li­gious Liberty Com­mis­sion was two and a half dec­ades his ju­ni­or. Rus­sell Moore, now 42, seemed an easy choice: an af­fable aca­dem­ic dean with a large so­cial-me­dia fol­low­ing and pop-cul­ture savvy. He has boy­ish looks — a slight build, thick, dark hair, and a passing re­semb­lance to the late disc jockey Ca­sey Kasem. “I think people like Rus­sell bet­ter than they like Richard,” says Dav­id Key, who dir­ects Baptist stud­ies at Emory’s Cand­ler School of Theo­logy. “Just on per­son­al­ity, Richard was much more, in some ways, ar­rog­ant and much more strident than what Rus­sell has been so far.”

Dr. Rus­sell Moore (Melissa Golden/The Wall Street Journ­al)Moore — like a lot of young­er evan­gel­ic­als — has shown him­self to be wary of the Re­li­gious Right’s tra­di­tion­al dis­course. Last year, in an es­say for the con­ser­vat­ive journ­al First Things, he wondered “where Evan­gel­ic­al­ism will go after tak­ing leave of the Re­li­gious Right.” “A young­er gen­er­a­tion rightly re­jects the tri­umphal­ism and huck­ster­ism of some as­pects of the old Amer­ic­an civil-re­li­gion polit­ic­al act­iv­ism,” he ex­plained. He also pre­dicted that as Amer­ica be­comes less re­li­gious, Chris­ti­ans will have to sur­render or en­gage. “The en­gage­ment,” Moore wrote, “will not be at the level of voters’ guides or con­sumer boy­cotts — and thank God.” Mean­while, in his first an­nu­al-meet­ing ad­dress as the newly elec­ted pres­id­ent of the ER­LC — in a speech giv­en just after a re­tire­ment video trib­ute to Land — Moore made a point of say­ing the church shouldn’t be­come “a polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee.”

In a re­cent phone in­ter­view, Moore told me he feels a con­tinu­ity with Land, but he also said, “We’re in a dif­fer­ent time than we were in 1988,” the year Land took of­fice. “I think Amer­ic­an cul­ture has changed, church life has changed, tech­no­logy has changed.” To be sure, Moore doesn’t di­verge wildly from his pre­de­cessor on the is­sues. He is strongly an­ti­abor­tion and against same-sex mar­riage. But he speaks in softer tones. He has cri­ti­cized Chris­ti­an talk ra­dio, the me­di­um that Land fa­vors, say­ing it makes people hate Chris­tian­ity. He con­tends that evan­gel­ic­als will con­tin­ue to speak out on cul­ture-war is­sues, but also says, “This doesn’t mean that we’re out­raged or angry or hos­tile to­ward any­one.” Act­iv­ism will sound dif­fer­ent than the harsh rhet­or­ic of past preach­ers. “We re­cog­nize and know that the people who dis­agree with us aren’t, bib­lic­ally speak­ing, our ul­ti­mate en­emies,” he told me. “The people who dis­agree with us are made in the im­age of God.”

Green says that Moore’s ap­proach is typ­ic­al of a new wave of young­er Chris­ti­an con­ser­vat­ives. “They might op­pose same-sex mar­riage, but they are un­likely to en­gage in an­ti­gay rhet­or­ic,” he ex­plains. “If con­ver­sion is their highest call­ing, then you don’t make con­verts by call­ing people names.”

“We re­cog­nize and know that the people who dis­agree with us aren’t, bib­lic­ally speak­ing, our ul­ti­mate en­emies,” said Rus­sell Moore.

When asked if he is a cul­ture war­ri­or, Moore va­cil­lates: “It de­pends on what someone means by cul­ture war­ri­or. For some people, when they say cul­ture war­ri­or, they mean someone who be­lieves in war­ring for cul­ture, ad­voc­at­ing and work­ing to in­flu­ence the cul­ture. If that’s what someone means by cul­ture war­ri­or, then, yes, I would be. What oth­ers mean when they say cul­ture war­ri­or is an angry, gloomy pres­ence who simply wants to scream at the cul­ture. If that’s what someone means by cul­ture war­ri­or, then, no.”

Moore is fond of say­ing that Chris­tian­ity should be “freak­ish” or “strange” and shouldn’t fit so neatly in­to the cul­ture at large. His ar­gu­ments sound re­min­is­cent of early-20th-cen­tury fun­da­ment­al­ists’ with­draw­al from pub­lic life, after their cul­tur­al set­back fol­low­ing the Scopes Mon­key Tri­al.

Yet Moore is also care­ful with his words and quick to say he’s not ad­voc­at­ing that evan­gel­ic­als re­ject polit­ics en­tirely. Last fall, a month after his in­aug­ur­a­tion, The Wall Street Journ­al ran a long pro­file of Moore with a head­line that said he was preach­ing a pull­back from polit­ics and the cul­ture wars. Ever since, in his writ­ing and re­marks, Moore has been coun­ter­ing that de­pic­tion. At times, he seems to be walk­ing a tightrope on the top­ic of polit­ic­al en­gage­ment versus with­draw­al.

“He doesn’t have the street cred with the main founders of the Chris­ti­an Right, and so he still has to prove him­self without ali­en­at­ing a young­er gen­er­a­tion that has been turned off by the ex­cesses of the Chris­ti­an Right,” Par­ham says. But, for now, Moore doesn’t ap­pear all that in­ter­ested in court­ing oth­er Re­li­gious Right lead­ers. “I don’t have that re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sell that I had with Richard,” says Tony Per­kins of the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil. “I don’t know Rus­sell that well. I think he’s still try­ing to find his way.”

Moore may not be call­ing for evan­gel­ic­als to dis­en­gage polit­ic­ally, but he cer­tainly has a dif­fer­ent fo­cus. He sees a clear Chris­ti­an dir­ect­ive on abor­tion, but un­like many of his Re­li­gious Right for­bear­ers, he doesn’t be­lieve that re­li­gion provides a spe­cif­ic policy frame­work for every is­sue. “Polit­ic­al ac­tion can nev­er be the ul­ti­mate an­swer to our prob­lems,” he says.

These al­tern­ate pri­or­it­ies may stem in part from a simple stat­ist­ic: The South­ern Baptist Con­ven­tion is bleed­ing Amer­ic­an mem­bers, down 900,000 from a high of 16.6 mil­lion in 2005. A gen­er­a­tion of politick­ing in the name of Je­sus, get­ting close to power in­stead of be­ing a proph­et­ic voice out­side the gates, has not made the church a more stable in­sti­tu­tion.

IN JUNE, THE South­ern Baptist Con­ven­tion gathered for its an­nu­al meet­ing in Bal­timore, with more than 5,000 mem­bers des­cend­ing on the city’s con­ven­tion cen­ter. On the second and fi­nal day of the con­fer­ence, Moore as­cen­ded the main stage, which was in a hall as high and wide as an air­plane hangar. Flanked by gi­ant video screens, he de­livered a rous­ing speech, re­port­ing on how his agency had rep­res­en­ted South­ern Baptists in the pub­lic square dur­ing his first year as pres­id­ent of the Eth­ics & Re­li­gious Liberty Com­mis­sion. He re­minded his flock that what mat­ters most is not polit­ics. “The primary vehicle for hope isn’t found on Air Force One re­gard­less of who is rid­ing in Air Force One,” he said. “The vehicle of hope is not found in the United States Cap­it­ol, re­gard­less of who is hold­ing the gavel in the United States Cap­it­ol. The vehicle of hope is found in lines and lines of chil­dren in Va­ca­tion Bible School.”

His mes­sage was not without polit­ic­al im­port, though. Be­hind Moore on­stage sat the Green fam­ily, own­ers of the Hobby Lobby craft chain. At the time, the Greens were await­ing the Su­preme Court’s de­cision on their re­fus­al to cov­er all con­tra­cep­tion for their em­ploy­ees, as man­dated by the Af­ford­able Care Act. Less than three weeks later, the Court would rule in their fa­vor.

The Hobby Lobby case is in many ways a mod­el for the new strategy be­ing pur­sued by the Re­li­gious Right. It rep­res­ents a way to en­gage in polit­ics that is less ag­gress­ive than the tac­tics of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of be­liev­ers. Back then, the key phrase was “fam­ily val­ues”; now, it is “re­li­gious liberty.” You see it every­where — from con­tra­cep­tion court cases to le­gis­la­tion to think-tank con­fer­ences.

Hobby Lobby sup­port­ers re­act to the Su­preme Court de­cision, June 30. (Mark Wilson/Getty Im­ages)This shift in rhet­or­ic has moved the Re­li­gious Right from of­fense to de­fense in the cul­ture wars, as Buzzfeed‘s McKay Cop­pins put it last year. The main aim, it seems, is not to op­pose con­tra­cep­tion or gay mar­riage but to be left alone: to ex­tract a prom­ise that re­li­gious con­ser­vat­ives will not have to pho­to­graph a gay wed­ding or pay for someone else’s birth con­trol. It is a ver­sion of the Re­li­gious Right that even the liber­tari­an wing of the Re­pub­lic­an Party — a his­tor­ic­al rival for in­flu­ence with­in the GOP — can get be­hind.

“We’re not un­real­ist­ic,” says Per­kins of the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil. “Our fo­cus is more keep­ing the bar­bar­i­ans at bay, really.” His or­gan­iz­a­tion has star­ted work­ing more at the state level on free­dom-of-ex­pres­sion laws. “We kind of saw that com­ing about three years ago and began shift­ing a lot of our em­phas­is on re­li­gious liberty.”

Hobby Lobby’s own­ers hap­pen to be South­ern Baptists and, on the stage in Bal­timore, Moore presen­ted them with the ER­LC’s an­nu­al re­li­gious liberty award. “This is for re­mind­ing us that re­li­gious free­dom is a gift from God, our birth­right, and not a grant from the state,” he said. In the span of a half-hour, Moore wiel­ded the phrases “re­li­gious liberty” and “re­li­gious free­dom” at least 16 times. His ca­dence grew faster as he pressed on, punc­tu­ated by stand­ing ova­tions. When the time for ques­tions ar­rived, the Rev. John Kil­lian, from Maytown Baptist Church in Alabama, stood at one of the mi­cro­phones scattered about the room and de­clared, “I want to thank you for one of the most stir­ring present­a­tions of re­li­gious liberty I have ever heard.”

THE DIF­FER­ENCES BETWEEN Moore and Land are real, yet it’s also im­port­ant not to over­state them. The concept of “re­li­gious liberty” as an or­gan­iz­ing prin­ciple for the Evan­gel­ic­al Right may have be­come much more cent­ral re­cently, but it isn’t new. The phrase, after all, was em­bed­ded in the name of the com­mis­sion that Land led.

Moreover, on gay mar­riage, Land, like oth­er re­li­gious con­ser­vat­ives, now sounds re­con­ciled to the more lim­ited goal of pro­tect­ing the rights of be­liev­ers, rather than con­tinu­ing to pur­sue out­right vic­tory. “I think we have lost polit­ic­ally. It’s go­ing to be a polit­ic­al fact,” he says. “But I think many of the people who don’t think it’s a big deal are get­ting ready to find out just how big a deal it is, and there’s go­ing to be a huge back­lash.” He lists re­cent ex­amples of private cit­izens be­ing vil­i­fied for their op­pos­i­tion to gay mar­riage — “the Col­or­ado baker, the New Mex­ico wed­ding pho­to­graph­er, the CEO of Moz­illa” — and says, “The goal of the gay-rights act­iv­ists is to mar­gin­al­ize and os­tra­cize any­one who doesn’t not only ac­cept but af­firm their life­style, for whatever reas­ons, re­li­gious or oth­er­wise, as the so­cial and mor­al equi­val­ent of the KKK.”

In ad­di­tion, Land was hardly per­sona non grata at the South­ern Baptist gath­er­ing in Bal­timore. At one point dur­ing the an­nu­al meet­ing, Moore saw Land and snapped a photo, up­load­ing it to In­s­tagram and Twit­ter, with the cap­tion: “Ran in­to my pre­de­cessor Richard Land today at our ER­LC booth.” When Land re­tired, the ER­LC trust­ees gave him the hon­or­ary title of “pres­id­ent emer­it­us,” and they still hand out an an­nu­al ser­vice award in his name. Moore even name-checked Land in his present­a­tion at the con­fer­ence, when he ar­gued in fa­vor of com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form and noted that his pre­de­cessor had done the same.

“There will be win­ners and losers, and there are con­sequences to los­ing.”

But it’s also clear that the tone of the Re­li­gious Right has shif­ted since Land’s hey­day. When I spoke to sev­er­al mil­len­ni­als who are South­ern Baptists, it was ap­par­ent they were strug­gling to come up with a middle path between the mil­it­ant rhet­or­ic of the past and total polit­ic­al dis­en­gage­ment. “The church, by defin­i­tion, is polit­ic­al, since its primary de­clar­a­tion is that the cru­ci­fied and ris­en Je­sus of Naz­areth is Lord,” Trev­in Wax, who is 33 and works at Life­Way, the pub­lish­ing arm of the SBC, wrote in an email. “However, a church’s polit­ic­al activ­ity can be­come prob­lem­at­ic when it falls prey to par­tis­an­ship and is co-op­ted by the vari­ous agen­das of dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al parties. Par­tis­an­ship robs the church of its proph­et­ic voice.”

Ash­ley Brusen­han — age 26 and the col­lege girls dir­ect­or at Cent­ral Baptist Church, an SBC mega-church in Col­lege Sta­tion, Texas — told me that Moore is “bold with truth but does it in a very kind way.” She also said that, a few years ago, she had the im­pres­sion that young evan­gel­ic­als were temp­ted to totally di­vorce them­selves from polit­ics, turned off by what they per­ceived as the neg­at­ive tone of the move­ment. Now, she says, the stu­dents she works with are seek­ing some sort of in­ter­me­di­ate ground: “I was in school from 2006 to 2010. I think my gen­er­a­tion wanted to re­treat from polit­ics al­to­geth­er, with people think­ing they knew what we were against in­stead of what we were for. Stu­dents now want to do a good job of hold­ing to their be­liefs while also be­ing kind and gra­cious to those who don’t agree with them — how do I re­solve those two? Our stu­dents are try­ing to pur­sue that.”

When I caught up with Land dur­ing the Bal­timore con­fer­ence, we talked about these gen­er­a­tion­al dif­fer­ences. He has many mil­len­ni­als as sem­in­ary stu­dents, but he re­mains un­cer­tain about the aims of the young­er gen­er­a­tion. He knows that young con­ser­vat­ive Chris­ti­ans are not as tough on the is­sues as he was, and that they are more tol­er­ant on same-sex mar­riage. (Forty-three per­cent of young white evan­gel­ic­als sup­port mar­riage equal­ity, ac­cord­ing to the Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute.) Land thinks they are na­ive. “I get the im­pres­sion that a lot of kids in the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion, both in­side and out­side the South­ern Baptist Con­ven­tion, were born on third base and they think they hit a triple,” he said, adding later, “It only wor­ries me in the sense that I think they un­der­es­tim­ate the in­ten­tions and the in­tent of their op­pon­ents, and they do have op­pon­ents. They are not merely dis­agree­ments. There will be win­ners and losers, and there are con­sequences to los­ing.”

Al­though he didn’t in­tend it this way, Land’s new job may have come at a per­fect time. The clout of the Re­li­gious Right has been on the wane in Wash­ing­ton; at least for the mo­ment, the White House is not a re­cept­ive place for the agenda of con­ser­vat­ive Chris­ti­an lob­by­ists. Train­ing a new gen­er­a­tion — and per­haps seek­ing to make them as ag­gress­ive as he once was — may be a bet­ter way for Land to in­flu­ence the fu­ture of the move­ment he helped to build. “What we’re now see­ing is a trans­ition from com­bat-troop lead­er­ship to oc­cu­pa­tion-troop lead­er­ship,” Land says of the gen­er­a­tion­al shift from of­fense to de­fense. But he warns, “Peace­time armies aren’t as dis­cip­lined, vi­gil­ant, or well trained as armies that have been in com­bat.”

Tiffany Stan­ley is a writer liv­ing in Wash­ing­ton.

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