The trustees of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention voted Tuesday to elect a new president.
Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., will replace Richard Land, who is retiring in October after 25 years of leading the ERLC.
Moore’s selection provides a younger image for the SBC’s top political figure and may serve to offer a more civil voice.
Although Land and Moore share their theological conservatism, their approach to public engagement appears to differ in some key ways.
Land announced his retirement last year following national criticism for controversial and plagiarized racial comments.
An investigation into Land’s comments resulted in trustees deciding last June to reprimand publicly Land and to cancel his radio program “Richard Land Live!”
Although Land issued two apologies for his remarks, he quickly tried to move on and rebuild his image.
In August, Land announced his retirement, but insisted he would still remain active in the “culture war.”
“Let me be clear, I am retiring from the ERLC, not from the ministry, or from what is popularly called the “culture war,” Land explained in his statement. “I believe the ‘culture war’ is a titanic spiritual struggle for our nation’s soul and as a minister of Christ’s Gospel, I have no right to retire from that struggle.”
It remains to be seen if Land will be able to garner the media attention and influence he has enjoyed in the past.
While still leading the ERLC, Land’s prominent presence on the ERLC’s website was replaced by information about the presidential search.
A theological conservative like Land, Moore’s background suggests he is more concerned with changing society through the church than governmental legislation.
As a result, he brings a less partisan perspective to the position that will make him the voice of Southern Baptists on matters of politics and public policy.
Like Land, Moore’s background includes political activism and leadership in Baptist higher education. When Land took the top job at the ERLC in 1988, he was serving as the vice president for academic affairs at Criswell College in Dallas.
In the year prior to joining the ERLC, Land took a leave of absence from Criswell to serve as administrative assistant to Republican Gov. William Clements Jr.
Moore, on the other hand, frames his political work as occurring “[p]rior to entering the ministry.”
A native of Mississippi, Moore worked as an aide to Democratic U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi. In addition to serving as a pastor, Moore has also been a professor of theology and ethics at Southern Seminary.
As Moore shifts away from academia, it remains to be seen how he balances partisan leanings and what tone he develops when dealing with politics and religion.
In recent years, Land’s rhetoric grew to be more controversial. In January 2008, Land used an obscene Yiddish slur to mock the name of U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). In 2009, he used Nazi analogies to criticize President Barack Obama’s health care reform.
Many of these attacks came on his radio program “Richard Land Live!,” which is the same forum on which he made his controversial and plagiarized comments about the Trayvon Martin case.
When the ERLC trustees announced they would cancel the radio program, they explained they had determined it was “not congruent with the mission of the ERLC.” Land used his position at the ERLC to push a partisan agenda.
Land’s ERLC events showed a clear Republican bias. He joined a behind-closed-doors effort to launch the presidential campaign of Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry and joined a summit to plot how to defeat Romney in the Republican primaries and Obama in the general election.
“The go-along, get-along strategy is dead,” Land declared in 1998 as he explained his hope for the Republican Party and evangelicals to unite. “No more engagement. We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of the marriage.”
Moore also has sparked controversy with his comments in the past.
Moore has criticized ecumenical efforts, used a Nazi metaphor to criticize SBC bloggers, attacked the New Baptist Covenant as “voodoo ecumenism,” and advocated “biblical patriarchy,” attacking the spirituality of those who disagree with his position on gender roles.
In terms of partisan rhetoric, Moore joined Land in criticizing 2008 Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani on abortion and criticizing governmental efforts to curb climate change during testimony before Congress.
Yet, Moore has not engaged in blatant partisanship, instead urging Christians to follow biblical imperatives regardless of what political leaders say and do.
Rather than partisan politics, Moore instead often pushes public policy issues like adoption.
Trustees of the ERLC met with Moore Monday night after he was chosen by the search committee.
EthicsDaily.com had previously learned Moore would be the nominee. As trustees voted for Moore on Tuesday, they initiated a new era for the ERLC.
What remains to be seen is how much it differs from Land’s work to establish the ERLC as a strident and controversial ally of the Republican Party.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.