fred_luter_web.jpgrichard_land.jpgNASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The head of the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy arm has criticized the response of many black leaders to the Trayvon Martin case as “shameful.” And some black pastors within the nation's largest Protestant denomination said the comments by the official, Richard Land, are setting back an effort to broaden the faith's appeal beyond its traditional white Southern base.

Land said he stands by his assertion that President Barack Obama “poured gasoline on the racialist fires” when he addressed Martin's slaying and that Obama, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton have used the case “to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election.”

Land, who is white, said in an interview he understands why the case has touched a nerve but that people are justified in seeing young black men as threatening: a black man is “statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man.”

“Is it unfair? Yes? But it is understandable,” he said.

The comments during his weekly radio show came as the denomination is trying to diversify its membership after a past that includes support of slavery and segregation.

Last year, the denomination for the first time elected a black pastor to its No. 2 position of first vice president and the Rev. Fred Luter is expected to become the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention at this year's annual meeting in June.

When asked about the concern that Land's comments hurt the effort to attract non-white members, Luter said, “It doesn't help. That's for sure.”

While SBC presidents are elected for one-year terms, as the head of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for 23 years the outspoken Land is arguably the most powerful person in the denomination and certainly its most visible spokesman.

“I think his statements will reverse any gains from the rightful election of Fred Luter,” said the Rev. Dwight McKissic, a black pastor at the SBC-affiliated Cornerstone Baptist Church is Arlington, Texas.

McKissic said he plans to submit a resolution at the SBC's annual meeting asking the convention to repudiate Land's remarks.

“If they don't, we're back to where we were 50 years ago,” he said.

Land counters that he has been working for racial reconciliation for his entire ministry.

He was one of the chief architects of a 1995 resolution by the Southern Baptists apologizing for their role in supporting slavery and racism. Since that resolution, black membership in the SBC has tripled, Land said, going from about 350,000 in 1995 to about one million today.

“Part of racial reconciliation is being able to speak the truth in love without being called a racist and without having to bow down to the god of political correctness,” he said.

Photo: Rev. Fred Luter, left and Rev. Richard Land, right.