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.
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?
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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