Dr. Richard Land of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission may have become an impediment to the trend toward racial reconciliation in the SBC. As the SBC was steaming toward the NOLA Annual Meeting with high hopes of racial harmony and excitement about the election of our first black SBC president, Dr. Land made himself the iceberg that could sink that ship.
Land, on his radio show, made some comments about the Trayvon Martin tragedy, accusing people of playing politics and being especially critical of those like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who tend to infuse themselves into tragedies like this. Land said,
“The rule of law is being assaulted by racial demagogues and it’s disgusting, and it should stop.”
These comments have been trumpeted throughout the press, generally in a bad light.
Last night, Baptist press published Land’s apology for his comments. He apologized for the controversy they have created. He recounted his commitment to racial reconciliation and his dismay that his comments hindered the progress of harmony.
Fred Luter also issued a gracious statement accepting the apology and trying to diffuse the situation.
But the controversy doesn’t end there. Dr. Land has also been accused of plagiarism by Aaron Weaver, who blogs (and comments here relatively frequently) as “Big Daddy Weave” or BDW, in two articles entitled, “Richard Land the Plagiarist: Top SBC Ethicist Stirs Up Controversy with Someone Else’s Rant – Updated,” and, “More Plagiarism from Head of Southern Baptist Ethics Agency.” The accusations of plagiarism, a serious ethical breach, have also been covered in the mainstream media, as this Washington Post article demonstrates.
Weaver, in his article, makes a compelling case. He clearly demonstrates large sections of Land’s March 31 and February 4 radio programs in which he quotes lengthy sections of articles written by others without mentioning the sources. In both cases, Land linked to the articles he quoted in the show’s online notes, but did not mention the sources on air. One listening to the program would believe that Land’s words were his own and were not quotes of other’s writings. Clearly, Weaver is not a fan of Dr. Land, accusing him of “fraud” and calling him “ethically-challenged.” But in spite of Weaver’s disdain for Land, the evidence seems unassailable and is clearly troubling.
It appears beyond debate that Land used material on the air that was written by someone else and failed to credit that person.
Is that plagiarism, since he linked to the sources on the website? I’m not an expert, so I don’t know if the charge of plagiarism is technically fair. But it seems clear that what Land did was not ethically right. It bothers me that the head of the ERLC would fail to properly attribute quotes on air. Shouldn’t an ethicist know the ethics involved here?
Land apologized for that in the Washington Post article linked to above.
“On occasion I have failed to provide appropriate verbal attributions on my radio broadcast, and for that I sincerely apologize. I regret if anyone feels they were deceived or misled. That was not my intent nor has it ever been.”
Land admits that he failed to give proper credit on air for material from others that he used. He, essentially, claimed carelessness, not an intent to deceive or to plagiarize. Of course, as Weaver demonstrates, he did this more than once, making the carelessness defense less tenable.
But the facts, as they stand, are uncontroverted.
- Land apologized for issuing remarks that have inflamed racial tensions within the SBC in a time in which racial reconciliation seemed to be progressing rapidly.
- Land apologized for speaking words he took from other conservative authors and spoke them as if they were his own.
So, twice in the last couple of days, Land has been forced to issue public apologies for his words and actions in this case.
1. Dr. Land represents us
Land, in his position as president of the ERLC, is viewed by the public and the press as an official representative and spokesman for us as Southern Baptists. His words carry weight, because he is part of the SBC structure. So, in public perception, Land speaks for me when he opens his mouth.
The problem is that pretty often, when he speaks, I cringe.
2. Is this what he is hired to do?
I have no great appreciation for either Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. They seem like political opportunists who use tragedies to further their own political aims.
But is the discussion of a tragic death something that Southern Baptist’s representatives need to be taking a position on?
Land should be focused on issues of religious liberty, moral issues on which we Baptists have strong stands (abortion, etc) and other issues to which the Bible speaks clearly.
I just do not understand why Richard Land is getting involved in issues like the Trayvon Martin shooting. What principle of Baptist conviction is at stake here?
3. The SBC’s ethics leader doing unethical things is troubling.
I’m not big fan of journalism as it is practiced today. But most print or broadcast journalists would be fired if they did what Land did. If someone did something similar in an academic paper, they would find themselves in the tall weeds.
Land’s explanation that this was a simple oversight would carry more weight if it had happened once. But it was a repeated phenomenon and that is deeply troubling.
4. Does the secular world view plagiarism more severely than the Christian world?
In 30 years of public ministry, I have preached sermons based on other people’s sermons probably less than 5 times. John MacArthur has a message about stages of God’s judgment from Romans 1 that used as the basis for a message. I can’t remember other times I did this, but I’m sure it has happened. But when I did it, I referenced the other person as the foundation for the message.
But I am afraid that sermon-stealing is more common than we’d like to admit, especially now that online repositories exist. It is unethical and immoral to do so. The preacher’s most sacred task is to search the scriptures for God’s word to his people every Sunday. To simply “borrow” someone else’s words aborts that process.
But the fact that it is done so often may explain why Land’s actions have not created more of a scandal.
5. Apologies require forgiveness, but do not alleviate all consequences.
Land has apologized twice and we should accept that apology in the Spirit of Christ. But the fact that he has apologized and been forgiven does not change the fact that he has committed some serious offenses which speak, potentially, to both his ability to fulfill his dutes and his personal integrity.
If I committed a serious ethical sin (immorality, dishonesty, etc), and repented, my church would be required to forgive me, but they would not be required to continue my employment as pastor. In fact, I think they would be foolish to do so.
We should accept Land’s apologies, as Luter has, but that does not nullify questions of his fitness to continue in his job.
Where Do We Go from Here?
I don’t know. But if I understand Land’s job correctly, it is hard to see how he can do it effectively anymore.
As I understand it, Land has two jobs. First, he educates Southern Baptists about certain ethical and moral issues. Perhaps he can continue to do that. But I also understand that his job is to represent us and issues we care about in Washington. He is both an educator and an advocate.
Does Land still have credibility in Washington? He has been caught doing something that is inexcusably careless at best and unethical at worst. Can he represent us in Washington now?
It is time for the ERLC to face a tough question. Is Richard Land an effective spokesman for Southern Baptists? It may be time for Land to shuffle off into retirement and let someone else try their hand at the helm of the ERLC.