The interim president of Criswell College recently used the ethnic slur “wetbacks” prior to teaching Sunday school at First Baptist Church of Dallas. Lamar Cooper’s statement on April 25 was picked up live on a local Christian radio station broadcasting his Bible lesson.
Leaders at both First Baptist and Criswell College not only quickly defended Cooper but also attempted to downplay the seriousness of his remark. Cooper’s comments came during a discussion of Arizona’s new immigration law that many conservative and liberal critics contend is unconstitutional and encourages racial profiling.
Since 2008, Cooper has served as the interim president of Criswell College, which has been owned and operated by First Baptist since its creation during the pastorship of prominent Southern Baptist W. A. Criswell. Cooper is slated to remain the interim until this summer when the church and the college will complete a formal split.
Cooper’s comment was broadcast on KCBI-FM, which is now jointly owned by First Baptist and Criswell College. Each Sunday, the station broadcasts the church’s worship services and a Sunday school class. Since the incident involving Cooper, the Sunday school segment has been indefinitely suspended.
Leaders at both First Baptist and Criswell College quickly defended Cooper.
First Baptist spokesman John Grable attempted to downplay the seriousness of the remark. He also noted that the church was not planning a public response.
“There was an offhanded comment that was made by the teacher that was derogatory and unfortunate,” Grable stated. “It was before he started his lesson. It was not part of the lesson.”
“This is not something we will deal with on the mass level,” Grable added. “We’re about healing hurts of all kinds.”
Criswell board chairman Michael Deahl offered a written statement: “Dr. Cooper is very remorseful about the offhand and hurtful comment he made. … I have known and worked with Dr. Cooper at the college for many years and he is not a racist.”
On another occasion, Deahl argued that Cooper was merely “trying to interject some humor, some light-heartedness” to the discussion on immigration policies.
Deahl noted that Cooper is not a candidate for becoming the next president of Criswell College because they want someone younger. He added that the ethnic slur would not impact the board’s decision.
On April 29, Cooper read a short public apology.
“I deeply regret having made the inappropriate, off-the-cuff statement,” he said. “I apologize to any and all who were offended by my comments and ask for their forgiveness.”
Cooper also was to offer an apology during the next Sunday school class, although it was not broadcast on the radio.
In an email to EthicsDaily.com, Cooper noted he had publicly and privately apologized for the remark. He also suggested that he did not recognize that it was a word he should not use.
“I am 69 years old and in my generation illegal Hispanics called themselves by that name,” Cooper wrote. “I meant to impugn no one and I was responding to something another person had said. It is hard for my generation to know all the right things to say or not to say.”
Cooper has previously served as a pastor of several churches in Louisiana and Texas and worked at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1989, Cooper became the director of denominational relations for the Christian Life Commission (now known as the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission), a position he held until 1995.
Richard Land began his tenure as head of the CLC (now ERLC) in 1988 and continues to lead the organization today. Land, who formerly taught at Criswell College, has also come under fire in recent years for using ethnic slurs.
In 2009, Land invoked the Nazis in his attacks on health care reform efforts. After his comparison drew the ire of the Anti-Defamation League, Land apologized and pledged to avoid such references. However, Land quickly backed away from that promise.
Land’s tactic of frequently resorting to name-calling has also been noted in other cases, including examples of him comparing Hillary Clinton to a witch, mocking Al Gore with animal noises and questioning the faith of Jimmy Carter.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.