Aurora, Barton Gingerich, Colorado, Daniel Bober, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Fox News, grieving, Institute on Religion and Democracy, IRD Blog, Richard Land, shooting, Southern Baptist, tragedy
On July 20th, Southern Baptist leader Richard Land was called upon by Fox News in the wake of the Aurora theater shootings. Although he lost his radio program for comments made during the Trayvon Martin case, the head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) should make Baptists everywhere proud for his public appearance, which you can watch here.
First thing you’ll notice: there’s not a lot of hard-hitting theological insights or chucking around Bible verses. So what’s so impressive about this situation? Land (along with fellow guest Dr. Daniel Bober of the Psyciatric Consultants of Florida) avoided the petty rhetorical traps while granting room for national mourning.
“Unfortunately, in our society, we have people who go off the rails and sometimes don’t give very many signals ahead of time that they’re going off the rails, and they perpetrate these terrible atrocities, and we’re all left to grieve as a nation for our fellow Americans…It’s just a terrible terrible tragedy,” Dr. Land explained in a grandfatherly manner. While being cut off by the Fox News anchor, he added, “We need to pray for these people.”
The conversation quickly turned to suspect James Holmes. “I think when something like this happens, we sort of have a knee-jerk reflex. We want to try to understand it and try to make sense of it, but I think the thing to do is not to be reactionary and not to change policy based on one event,” Dr. Bober posited, “There are just some individuals who are deranged and who have sick delusional fantasies, and they live in their own world. There’s nothing we can do as a society on a policy level standpoint to keep that from happening.”
The interviewer then turned to Land again. She obviously wanted to give him a helpful doorway to a narrative about moral decline. She cited the drop in people who consider themselves religious. According to one study, 1 in 5 people do not hold to religious beliefs (which the fine print revealed was a 6% increase from 1990). She inquired, “Does this tell you something about today’s society that might produce the kind of event we saw today?”
What the media wanted: a pastoral figure to complain about how less religion somehow abstractly led to this atrocity, as if moral horrors don’t occur within more Christianized societies. This decline narrative is convenient, brings a sort of tragic-Stoic pleasure to the pious, and is an easy stump speech for when orthodox religion enters the public square. It is, in a word, type-casting for the news cycle.
Land was having none of it, and this is where even progressives should admire him. “Well, perhaps so, although I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on that,” he answered. He then discounted the supposition of massive agnosticism and atheism; he instead described the rise of the “none’s”–those young people who have no affiliation in particular. The anchor then attacked him for being complacent; Land responded that, as a minister of the Gospel, this situation is not good, but other statistics show that America is still one of the most religious countries in the world. Dr. Bober also failed to see a direct link between the statistics and the shootings, but he did observe that America as a culture is in a time of troublesome transitions. He mentioned especially the breakdown of the traditional family and the rise of social media. He noticed that religion gave a “moral and structural framework for people on how to live their lives, and I think we’ve strayed away from that and I think we have some different ideas about that now.” In other words, the two commentators did not disqualify this concern about declining religion and morality, but they were hesitant to tie it inevitably to the shooting itself.
Both Land and Bober decried how social media have replaced social relationships. As such, young people like Holmes are “cocooned” in their houses and entertainment. In many ways, they are caught in the screen of their own egoistic web presence. People may have been surprised with Holmes’ behavior since perhaps no one really knew him. Land recommended turning back to a culture “where we look out for each other.” Bober agreed–cutting off neighbors from one another has been quite harmful.
The American public square has tended to deal with the Aurora shootings in a ham-handed manner. As a Southerner, I found it downright rude of the policy buzzards to swoop in to argue the Second Amendment while the bodies of the victims were still warm. It is improper and obnoxious to crowd out proper grieving with partisan politics. I suppose in the news service, decorum must be stripped away in favor of entertainment via policy debate. In many ways, a revivalistic spiel about decaying morals in this context could be as abstract and exploitative as attacks against and defenses for gun laws.
In his refusal to stoop down to that level–despite the temptation–I commend Richard Land. Many liberals may despise his policy stances; revisionist Christians may shudder at his personification of Southern Baptist public witness (the SBC being a denominational bogeyman for progressives in its own right). In this media appearance, though, they’d be dishonest to ignore that Land handled this situation with remarkable–and unfortunately rare–grace in the face of national tragedy. In a 24-hour news cycle of talking heads, he proved himself a human.