One of the Southern Baptist Convention’s most prominent voices has announced he’s retiring next year after completing 25 years as head of the 16 million member church’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Richard Land took over in 1988 after the conservative resurgence in the church. (Land and ERLC Vice President Barrett Duke, pictured above, visited IRD in 2010.) The shift was often dramatic, as his predecessor, Foy Valentine, had joined with the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society to help found the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights in 1973.
Land established a D.C. presence for his agency and transformed it into an outspoken pro-life advocate. In recent years he and his agency also have been stalwartly defenders of traditional marriage. And Land, who served over a decade on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, has always been outspoken on behalf of the persecuted globally. Unlike some other evangelicals, he has actively resisted tying the Gospel to Big Government or an unthoughtful environmental agenda.
Land and his ERLC were essentially the only consistently conservative representation for any denomination in the nation’s capital, especially after the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod closed its D.C. office. Having emerged during the theological struggles within the Southern Baptist Convention in the1970’s and 1980’s, he was refined by battle. His experience and confidence protected him from cavalier compromise with the secular culture that is always eager to applaud evangelicals who shift left.
Prior to Land’s announcement, the longtime liberal-leaning D.C. political representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also announced his departure after 25 years. John Carr directed the bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, often aligning with liberal Protestant and evangelical activists like Jim Wallis. He helped organize last year’s “Circle of Protection” with Wallis that aligned churches with President Obama and against Congressional Republicans during the August 2011 debt ceiling crisis. Land’s ERLC noticeably abstained from participating.
After 12 years, the head of United Methodism’s Board of Church and Society in D.C. is also expected to step down. Jim Winkler has continued his agency’s steadfast liberal advocacy to the consternation of conservative church members. United Methodism operates the largest Protestant church political lobby in D.C.
But Richard Land’s ERLC, whose headquarters is in Nashville but has a D.C. presence, was far more influential. Unlike the United Methodist lobby, the ERLC represented most of its church’s members and limited itself to key issues on which the Southern Baptist Convention had adopted a clear stand. Land has also been a prominent media presence and a key leader among social conservatives nationwide.
ERLC’s very capable vice president and D.C. office director is Barrett Duke, who’s been with ERLC since 1997. I hope he will seek to succeed Land. He would be a worthy successor and would steadfastly continue ERLC’s consistent traditional Christian witness among the nation’s lawmakers.