An advertisement for a trip in May 2022 to Israel and the West Bank

Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, garnered numerous headlines on May 6 after he publicly denounced waterboarding as torture. Virtually ignored in the discussion of his comments, however, was why he shifted his position and why he had not spoken out sooner.


“I don’t agree with the belief that we should use any means necessary to extract information,” Land stated. “I believe there are absolutes. There are things we must never do under any circumstances.”


In addition to arguing that waterboarding was torture and unethical, Land argued that hitting someone with a fist or beating them are tactics he “cannot condone.” Land also rejected the argument that torture was justified to try and save lives.


“That is ‘the end justifies the means’ argument,” Land argued. “That is a very slippery slope to dark and dangerous places.”


Land’s comments quickly drew national attention and praise from torture opponents. However, few questioned what took Land so long to speak out against torture. Land also did not address why he changed his public stance.


In 2007, Land criticized an anti-torture statement issued by the National Association of Evangelicals. He dismissed it as “an exercise in moral self-congratulation.” He added that unlike “uniformed prisoners of war,” terrorists “are not guaranteed the protections of the Geneva Convention. We ought to at least be able to question terrorists with the same vigor with which we question criminals at the local police station.”


In 2004, Land dismissed the torture at Abu Ghraib—which he called “abuse” and not “torture”—as an “aberration” and not as bad as what occurs in Chinese and North Korean prisons. He also argued that such actions were “not a breakdown in the system” but the result of individuals whose “moral compass didn’t work for some reason.”


Land has spoken out against torture in the past, but only that which was being conducted by other nations. In 2002, Land argued that the U.S. needed to act “to stop the torture” in Sudan. In 2004, Land argued that the “video-taped torture-murder” of American Nick Berg by terrorists in Iraq was “as graphic an example as we’re likely to find of the difference between the civilized world and the uncivilized world.” Land has also condemned torture in China and North Korea.


In 2003, Land justified his continued support of the U.S. military action in Iraq because it removed Saddam Hussein. He added that nearly every Iraqi knew someone “who has been tortured or killed by this evil regime.”


Land’s comments condemning Hussein’s torture were less about torture and more about defending the U.S.’s military efforts in Iraq. For the last six years, he remained one of the most ardent supporters of President George W. Bush’s military decisions. Land publicly supported Bush’s decision to invade Iraq prior to the start of the military effort and has continued to praise Bush’s handling of the war since then.


On nearly every point, Land supported Bush’s military decisions. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Land praised John McCain for pledging to continue Bush’s Iraq policies and attacked Barack Obama for criticizing Bush’s approach. In June 2008, Land harshly criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for ruling against the Bush administration by declaring that Guantanamo Bay detainees had legal rights.


In fact, even as Land condemned torture on May 6, he praised Bush and criticized President Barack Obama. Land said that although the Bush administration should not have authorized waterboarding, he “appreciates the concerns and lengths to which the Bush administration went in limiting the use of any enhanced interrogation techniques.”


Land, however, was not as gracious to the president who shares his newfound conviction against torture. Land called it a “horrible mistake” for Obama to have released the “torture memos” that were written by Bush administration officials to sanction waterboarding. Land claimed that other memos proving torture worked should have also been released and that there should not be prosecution related to the information in the memos.


“If [the release of the memos] were to lead to trials of some sort, it would rip the country apart domestically,” Land argued.


Although Land is now against the prosecution of those who tortured and authorized torture, he actually took a different stance in 2004. In response to the Abu Ghraib scandal, Land agreed with Bush that those who committed the acts should be punished.


“What happened in the Baghdad prison was horrific, and the perpetrators should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law as far up the chain of command as it needs to go to get to those who were responsible or whose dereliction of duty led to these abuses,” Land said at the time.


While many journalists and activists quickly lauded Land’s recent comments, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker questioned Land’s silence during the Bush years. She praised him for articulating an anti-torture position but noted that “Land had nothing to say about waterboarding when Bush was still in office, though many reports confirmed the administration’s use of the practice years ago.”


Noting that “conservative Christians were a favored constituency when Bush was in power,” Tucker argued that “[i]f Land had found his voice on torture then—and persuaded his conservative colleagues to join him—perhaps Bush would have seen the error of his ways.” She added that “Land and his fellow theologians might have been able to curb the enthusiasm for torture among their own parishioners.”


Not only did Land represent an influential Bush constituency, but Land himself often met with Bush and other White House officials. In fact, Land claims a friendship with Bush dating back to 1988.


The silence of the SBC’s top ethicist until now raises questions as to why he did not speak out against torture sooner. Why did he not speak out when he had more influence on those making public policy decisions? Did he fear he would lose presidential access? Why did he support trials during Bush’s presidency but now opposes them as harmful to the nation? Why has he not led the SBC to take a stand against torture?


Land often tells listeners of his radio program “Richard Land Live!” that everyone has “a circle of influence” and that no matter how big or small that circle is, everyone should try to persuade those within it. Although Land has now condemned torture, he has not explained why he did not follow his advice about using his “circle of influence” when he had the ear of the president.


Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for and an editorial assistant for the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.

Share This