Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has demonstrated in recent days that he knows as little about ethics as he does religious liberty. He has accused me of wanting to be a “speech czar.”
As a professional historian and scholar of German history, I called him to task for misusing the Nazi analogy in the health-care debate. The best he could do to counter my argument was to pull out the shibboleth of the anti-abortion movement.
Perhaps he gets his rhetorical rubbish from his right-wing fellow travelers and media blabbermouths who throw around the Hitler and Nazi slogans with abandon in order to counter arguments on behalf of the desperately needed reform of our broken health-care system.
For example, he uses the Nazi euthanasia program as an example of what would happen if the proposals of President Obama and the Democratic Party leadership were adopted. Actually, he doesn’t grasp that the infamous “death panels” already exist: the health insurance companies decide who will and will not receive payment for the treatments that may save their lives. Thousands of people die needlessly every year because of denied treatment. Physicians are supposed to practice medicine, but all too often it is the insurance companies that do so.
The Anti-Defamation League was apprised of Land’s egregious statements – given at a meeting of the Christian Coalition of Florida on Sept. 26 – that the Democrats were attempting to do “precisely what the Nazis did” and Obama health-care adviser Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel was analogous to the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele of Auschwitz.
National director Abraham H. Foxman, himself a Holocaust survivor, telephoned and wrote Land about the inappropriateness of his Nazi comparison. Land replied with a humble letter of apology (posted on the ADL site) that on the surface indicated he recognized the errors of his actions.
However, the repentance that we should have seen from him was not to be found in this response. He said: “It was never my intention to equate the Obama administration’s healthcare reform proposal with anything related to the Holocaust,” and the reference to Dr. Mengele “was using hyperbole for effect.”
Piffle! He told EthicsDaily.com’s Brian Kaylor in an email earlier that “the analogy is apt and I stand by it.”
The ADL had him dead to rights, but it too quickly accepted his apology.
Land defended his actions in Baptist Press on Oct. 21. He attempted to parry my criticisms of his Nazi analogy as “an attempt at censorship of people who choose to express themselves in ways he [Pierard] finds unacceptable.” It is curious that Land did not accuse Foxman of this.
He went on to say: “The last time I checked, Dr. Pierard had not been made speech czar” and Land promised to exercise his “First Amendment rights whether he [Pierard] likes it or not.”
So Land shifts the discussion to free speech, much as the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks of the world do to justify their despicable utterances over the air.
No one is more committed to the principle of free speech than I, but I also realize that the words that flow from my mouth or pen do have consequences. I do not exercise this freedom as an absolute because I know it is possible for me to needlessly harm a person through the thoughtless and injudicious use of words.
To put it another way, every sensitive person exercises restraint in his or her use of speech. The right to run at the mouth and say whatever one pleases about any given matter is, of course, guaranteed by the First Amendment, but it does not protect the person from the consequences of those utterances.
In our home up north, my brother and I were forbidden to use the N-word. Why? A black lady had explained to my grandmother how much this word hurt her. I try to utilize “inclusive language” in my speech and writing because I know that many women are offended by the ubiquitous use of masculine pronouns in situations that involve both sexes. And I am sure Land avoids the use of swear words in his everyday discourse.
By saying the outrageous things he did and drawing upon himself the public chastisement by Foxman, Land has shown carelessness. He was more concerned with scoring ideological points and receiving the acclaim of his fellow right-wing extremists than demonstrating what Christian speech is all about – civility, empathy, honesty, accuracy and truthfulness.
His use of hateful speech to counter the arguments for health-care reform revealed the shallowness of his own thinking on the matter as well as his indifference to the sensitivities of Jews and his contempt for Christians like me who view matters differently than he does.
Moreover, by so doing, he embarrassed all of us who “name the name of Christ” and especially those who identify themselves as Baptists. As a Baptist layperson, a scholar of the German church in the Nazi era, and the recipient of the “Eternal Flame Award for Exceptional Contributions to the Field of Holocaust Education” in 2000 from the Scholars’ Conference on the Churches and the Holocaust, I felt particularly obligated in my commentary on Oct. 9 to apologize to my Jewish friends for Land’s unfortunate choice of Nazi illustrations to undermine the case for health-care reform.
Southern Baptists should be just as disturbed by Land’s statements because he has brought his denomination into disrepute. His half-hearted repentance included the suggestion that he would continue to expose the ideas of “lethal and deadly philosophies loose in 20th century Germany prior to the Nazis’ ascendancy to power” that seemed to be relevant to contemporary life-and-death issues. In other words, it appears he will continue to draw on the Nazi analogy when it might help him in the struggle with other Christians who do not share his views on “life” issues.
The concerns many of us have about Land’s own civility inevitably reflect back on the integrity of the denomination that appointed him and stands behind him. Both he and his superiors need to reflect carefully on what Christian speech is really all about and on their need to turn their backs on old ways of expressing disagreement. This is truly a question of “ethics.”
Richard V. Pierard is professor of history emeritus at Indiana State University. He lives in Hendersonville, N.C.