- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2006

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Rev. Richard Land wants to stay above the shoutfest of American politics.

As head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy arm, Mr. Land has lobbied for a conservative agenda in Washington for almost 20 years. He knows some on the left might expect him to rant from the pulpit, but he’s more inclined to a thoughtful discussion of the issues.

Yet his subtlety and intellect make some liberal critics consider him even more of a threat.

“His skill is to keep the SBC from being totally marginalized from American society,” said David Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

The 59-year-old Mr. Land has credentials as an intellectual and theologian, with degrees from Princeton and Oxford. He reads political biographies and Jane Austen — one of her six novels each year until he completes them all and starts again.

Like any lobbyist, he can talk in detail about bills before Congress and past political campaigns, but he also likes to talk about larger ideas.

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Land said the Southern Baptists want to promote an American society — not necessarily a government — that “affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority.”

He acknowledges differences between liberals and conservatives, but said he doesn’t think Americans are as politically divided as some might think. He has just finished a manuscript for a book called “The Divided States of America? What Conservatives and Liberals Are Missing in the God-and-Country Shouting Match,” due out next spring.

“My book is hopefully an equal-opportunity offender,” Mr. Land said. “I really try to expose what I think are some problems with some of the things conservatives say and some things liberals say and try to point the way forward to a new debate.”

Critics say Mr. Land gives the Southern Baptist Convention a reasonable face, even while arguing on behalf of what they say are extremely conservative positions on abortion and homosexual rights.

Southern Baptists, for instance, boycotted the Walt Disney Co. for years for offering benefits to partners of homosexual employees. They have also banned female pastors.

“When the fundamentalists took over the SBC [in the late ‘80s], there were not that many people qualified to take on the various bureaucratic positions, and he was one of the few that could,” Mr. Key said. “He could look sophisticated in the halls of power.”

Jerry Sutton, senior pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, who ran for president of the SBC in June and lost, has known Mr. Land for nearly 28 years and said that Mr. Land will criticize conservatives if he thinks they’re wrong.

“He’s a very convictional guy,” Mr. Sutton said. “He’s never in his life played to the crowd. He doesn’t take a public-opinion poll and ask what will make everybody happy and please everybody.

“He realizes there’s a major culture war going on. He’s the kind of person who can articulate the conservative issues and basically not embarrass conservatives. Anytime I’ve heard him speak, it’s been well-reasoned, well-thought through.”

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