A prominent Christian conservative, Richard Land, has at long last condemned torture, at least in the extreme form of waterboarding, and many in the press have heaped accolades on him for this change of heart.
Baptist Press praised the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission for saying in an interview on May 6 that there is no circumstance in which torture should be permissible in interrogations by U.S. officials. “I don’t agree with the belief that we should use any means necessary to extract information,” said Land. “I believe there are absolutes. There are things we must never do under any circumstances.”
He went on to say that he could not in good conscience “waterboard” someone and thus he must oppose its practice. “It violates everything we believe in as a country.”
What is conspicuously missing in the May 7 Baptist Press release is any indication of real repentance on his part. The rest of the interview seemed to be little more than backtracking, particularly by criticizing President Barack Obama for releasing Bush administration Justice Department memos that approved the use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
He did not specifically repudiate earlier remarks he had made—for example, labeling the National Association of Evangelicals’ March 2007 statement on torture as “an exercise in moral self-congratulation”—nor had he done anything to persuade his conservative Christian constituency to curb their enthusiasm for torture as long as it was a Bush administration practice.
In 2004 he refused to condemn those at the top for allowing the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison, casually dismissing them as the action of bad apples in the military who should be prosecuted as far up the chain of command as necessary.
So, has the leopard really changed his spots? I think not. This was pure opportunism on his part. He had been an enthusiastic supporter of all the Bush policies and as a result had direct access to the White House. He mirrored the knee-jerk Republican conservatism of his SBC constituency and used it to his own political advantage. Although trained as a historian, he had forgotten the history of his persecuted forebears and settled into a comfortable seat in Caesar’s palace.
The Southern Baptist honchos pulled out all the stops to defeat Obama but failed miserably. Even in the South, in states like Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, Southern Baptist preachers were unable to mobilize enough of their parishioners for John McCain. Land had eagerly championed George W. Bush in 2000 and gotten the Southern Baptist ducks nicely in line. In 2008 he suffered a disaster of monumental proportions.
Now there was a new pharaoh in Washington, one that knew not Richard Land. He had a different agenda on social issues than Bush/Land. No longer would the White House gate swing open whenever he knocked. He wasn’t even appointed to the president’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
To denounce torture in the generalized sense was a safe thing to do, and the move seemed intended to prevent him from being consigned to the outer darkness of irrelevancy. There was no confession of sin, no repentance for supporting the misguided Bush policies. To condemn torture like he did was tantamount to affirming God, mother and apple pie. How could that upset anyone?
As a Baptist, I complained for years that Land’s phone number was in every reporter’s Rolodex, and he always seemed to be the one chosen to express the “Baptist” position on virtually any issue. That time is now past. He is the spokesperson for a lost cause; few are interested in the “Southern” Baptist point of view any longer.
It’s time for his handlers in Nashville to bring him home. Other Baptists in Washington can represent our views more accurately.
Richard V. Pierard is professor of history emeritus, Indiana State University, and the general editor of Baptists Together in Christ, 1905-2005; a Hundred-year History of the Baptist World Alliance. He lives in Hendersonville, N.C., where he is a member of Providence Baptist Church (CBF).