I’ve been following an interesting back and forth between two prominent American religious figures. The individuals involved are Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and professor of American religious history at Columbia University.
It all started in January with Richard Land calling Charles Schumer, a Democratic Senator from New York, a “schmuck.” The comment was made during a lecture series sponsored by Criswell College in Dallas. Land was speaking on the topic of God and country. Senator Schumer was not present when Land made his remarks.
It turns out that the word “schmuck” is not a nice word. It’s an obscene Yiddish word for male genitalia. According to Ethicsdaily.com, comedian Lenny Bruce was once arrested for using the word in a comedy routine. I guess what was once offensive in barroom comedy is now acceptable in conservative Christian classrooms.
At any rate, when Randall Balmer read about the slur he immediately called for Land to step down as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Since Sen. Schumer is Jewish, Balmer wondered if Land’s comment was rooted in anti-Semitism.
In a column appearing on Ethicsdaily.com Balmer wrote, “Richard Land has fashioned an entire career out of bald partisanship and offensive comments. But even by Land’s standards, these remarks represent a new low. You’ve crossed the line once too often, Mr. Land. It’s time to go.”
In the face of mounting criticism, Land finally released a statement in which he seemingly apologized for the remark. You can judge for yourself the depths of Land’s contrition. “In reviewing these criticisms I have learned some consider the word crude, if not obscene,” he wrote. “I apologize for my ignorance of that fact.”
But then, not wanting to dwell too long on the edge of penitence Land continued, “I am deeply offended that anyone would interpret my remarks as anti-Semitic.”
Apparently a Jewish slur against a Jewish Senator is now what passes for Christian love.
Whether anti-Semitic or not, the comment and subsequent response reeks of arrogance. This is what happens when faith becomes immersed in partisan politics. When faith gets involved, its not just party loyalty anymore–it’s sanctified party loyalty. It’s not just competing political ideas open for debate, it’s God’s word versus the forces of darkness.
The dangers here are obvious. Once a group convinces itself, as Land and other Christian conservatives have done, that they alone speak for God, then whoever opposes them is fair game. Opponents are no longer mere political adversaries. The opposition party becomes the enemy of God. And apparently once you become the enemy of God the children of light are free to use offensive gutter language to talk about you.
Mr. Land should apologize not only for his ignorance, but also for his arrogance. And even better than an apology would be some genuine repentance. I don’t know what Mr. Land has been reading lately, but he might want to revisit the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus put name calling on the same level as murder.
Should Richard Land step down from his post as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission? Southern Baptists need to think about that. After all, what does it say about a denomination that allows its leaders to call people names in the name of Jesus?
James L. Evans serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.