The trustees of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) released their unanimous report following the month-long investigation into controversial and plagiarized remarks by the ERLC’s president.
The light action taken against the agency’s head, Richard Land, quickly sparked criticism from Baptists and journalists, while others praised the ERLC actions.
Land, whose frequent media appearances to discuss political matters make him one of the most visible faces of the SBC, has been criticized for two months for comments he made regarding the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager in Florida who was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer.
ERLC trustees announced two “reprimands” of Land, which appeared to be simply statements criticizing his actions.
Additionally, they announced the cancellation of his radio program “Richard Land Live!”
Land made his controversial comments on the Martin case – and numerous other controversial remarks – on the program.
The ERLC statement started by noting the damage caused by Land’s racially charged remarks. The trustees criticized Land’s “hurtful, irresponsible, insensitive and racially charged words.”
“Damage was done to the state of race relations in the Southern Baptist Convention,” the statement explained. “We also convey our own deepest sympathies to the family of Trayvon Martin for the loss they have suffered. We, too, express our sorrow, regret and apologies to them for Dr. Land’s remarks.”
The trustee statement also criticized Land for “for quoting material without giving attribution,” noting that “instances of plagiarism occurred because of his carelessness and poor judgment.”
However, the trustees continued previous efforts of attempting to downplay the seriousness of the issue by claiming – without evidence – that plagiarism frequently occurs on radio programs.
The statement claimed that by plagiarizing, Land was “thereby unwisely accepting practices that occur in the radio industry.”
The trustees ended their statement by announcing the cancellation of Land’s radio program since they determined it “not congruent with the mission of the ERLC.”
The issuing of verbal “reprimands” led some Baptists and journalists to question the seriousness of the ERLC trustees in dealing with the controversy.
In particular, individuals expressed concern about the effort to downplay the problem of plagiarism because it occurred on a radio program.
Bill Tillman, the T.B. Maston Professor of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University, told EthicsDaily.com that canceling Land’s radio program was “more stringent than I thought the trustees would implement.” However, he added that the trustee statement indicated an incomplete view of plagiarism.
“The trustees acted but still with a relatively limited understanding of what constitutes plagiarism,” Tillman argued. “Our culture operates with a quite superficial understanding, though. Some of that superficiality stems from inadequate appreciation for what is property. An irony of living in the information age is that too many people do not realize with the huge amount of word production there should be even more care in what is used in any presentations, whatever the medium.”
Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, insisted the minor punishment leveled against Land set a poor example to Southern Baptists regarding the seriousness of plagiarism.
“Allowing Land to continue as an SBC official – without even an unpaid leave of absence – will create a banquet of distasteful consequences for the SBC related to how seminaries address plagiarized papers and churches deal with plagiarized sermons,” Parham argued. “By excusing his plagiarism as ‘unwisely accepting practices that occur in the radio industry,’ the trustees have alleged that plagiarism is an industry standard on radio talk shows. One wonders how they reached that conclusion, what was their source.”
EthicsDaily.com previously asked the ad hoc investigative committee for evidence supporting this claim, but received none.
Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association and manager of Religion News, LLC, previously offered disagreement to EthicsDaily.com regarding earlier claims by the ERLC that standards for radio differed from other news mediums.
Since Friday’s report, other journalists also seemed weary of the ERLC claim about rampant plagiarism on the radio – a claim still uncorroborated by the ERLC.
Syndicated Christian radio host Steve Deace told the Tennessean that the claim of plagiarism being common on talk radio simply was not true.
Journalist Peter Smith, who covers religion issues for the Louisville Courier-Journal, noted that Land serves on the board of directors for the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB).
Smith noted the NRB’s code includes commitments to “not bring shame or reproach to the name of the Lord or the NRB or its members” and to “speak the truth in love.”
Others, however, defended Land and his comments – even claiming he was not guilty of plagiarism despite the fact that the ERLC admitted he did commit plagiarism.
Tom Tradup, a vice president for Salem Radio Network (which carried Land’s show and will now lose the programming), defended Land on both the content of his racially charged remarks and the charge of plagiarism.
Tradup dismissed the complaints about Land’s plagiarism as the issue of “so-called plagiarism.”
Similarly, Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and a self-identified friend of Land, tried to downplay the seriousness of the charges against Land by arguing that the anticipated election of the first African-American SBC president outweighs the controversy.
George even attempted to suggest the controversy was about if Land did or did not say something instead of what the controversy was actually about – what should be the consequences for the comments even Land admitted were wrong.
“For a denomination to have been conceived in the womb of slavery … and now to elect its first African American president has to be seen in a much wider arc of history from 1845 to the present,” George claimed. “That far outweighs any present flopping controversy over what Richard Land said or didn’t say.”
Regardless of the mixed responses to the action against Land, the controversy will soon bring his radio program to an end. As Parham noted, the recent controversy is not the first to involve Land’s program.
“ERLC trustees were long overdue in canceling Richard Land’s radio show on which he has made many untruthful and hateful comments well before the Trayvon Martin episode in which he plagiarized large portions of a newspaper column,” Parham explained.
EthicsDaily.com has covered numerous controversial remarks uttered by Land on his radio program, including using the show as a forum for name-calling, making false statements about American Muslims, misstating environmental information to defend the oil industry, using poor information to falsely claim the earth is cooling, using debunked information to attack health care reform, using debunked information to call President Barack Obama “a playboy,” defending BP while attacking Obama for BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and noting his partisan voting decision (despite claims of being nonpartisan).
Although Friday’s ERLC report allows Land to keep his job, his radio program will soon leave the airways and his reputation as the SBC’s top ethicist may never recover – especially among journalists weary of his plagiarism.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.