NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics chief was reprimanded Friday and his radio show canceled after he made inflammatory comments about the fatal shooting of unaramed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Among other things, Richard Land accused President Barack Obama and other black leaders of shamefully exploiting Martin’s death for political gain. He also said racial profiling was understandable given the crime statistics for black men.
Land’s comments upset many black Southern Baptist leaders, one of whom called for Land’s resignation. The controversy got more intense when a blogger revealed that Land’s commentary was copied nearly verbatim from an editorial in The Washington Times, although Land did not credit the newspaper on the air.
After an investigation, the trustees board of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission reprimanded Land for the comments and the plagiarism. Land, who is the commission’s president, had previously apologized for both.
The commission takes public stands on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In his position at the commission’s head for nearly 24 years, the outspoken Land has become the Southern Baptist Convention’s most visible spokesman. But his comments on Martin came as America’s largest Protestant denomination is attempting to distance itself from a past that includes support for slavery and segregation.
Faced with declining membership, the Nashville-based SBC is trying to broaden its appeal beyond its traditional white, Southern base — a goal that Land supports. He was one of the chief architects of a 1995 resolution by Southern Baptists apologizing for their role in supporting slavery and racism. Since that resolution, black membership in the SBC has tripled, going from about 350,000 in 1995 to about one million today.
African-American pastor Fred Luter Jr. worked on the resolution with Land. Later this month at its annual meeting, the denomination is expected to elect Luter as the first African American president in the SBC’s 167-year history.
The SBC board’s statement, which was released in the Baptist Press, calls Land’s comments about Martin “hurtful, irresponsible, insensitive, and racially charged.”
Martin was the unarmed Miami Gardens teenager shot to death on Feb. 26 by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman who said he thought he looked suspicious and maintains that he was defending himself from the teen. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder.
Land declined to be interviewed for this story, although he issued a statement to the Baptist Press expressing support for the oversight and governance of the trustees. He also expressed a desire to work with them “to continue to minister the Gospel of our Savior across our great land.”
Photo: Richard Land