Throughout this election year, journalists have often asked for political insights from Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He remains a key source for the media’s understanding of evangelicals and politics, despite frequently offering inaccurate analysis.
During the 2008 election, Land offered several inaccurate predictions about the political feelings and influence of evangelicals. As Land’s predictions failed to materialize, he quickly made new claims about how there is consensus among Southern Baptists or other evangelicals for a particular candidate. Still, when his new predictions turn out to be inaccurate, he confidently offers analysis about the new political trend that he claims is energizing evangelicals.
Land first began touting the eventual candidacy of former Tennessee senator and “Law & Order” star Fred Thompson. Land called Thompson “a Southern-fried Reagan” and claimed that seeing “Fred work a crowd must be what it was like to watch Rembrandt paint.”
“This is Fred Thompson’s race to lose” Land also argued. “I have never seen anything like this grassroots swell for Thompson. I’m not speaking for Southern Baptists, but I do believe I have my hand on the pulse of Southern Baptists and I think I know where the consensus is.”
However, Land’s analysis proved to be quite inaccurate as Thompson’s campaign failed to gain momentum. Thompson dropped out of the race less than five months after he became a candidate. Thompson failed to win a single state and won just nine delegates.
Land also falsely claimed that Thompson was “a very regular attender” at Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Va., which Land thought would help Thompson politically. Thompson himself acknowledged that he rarely attended church.
Much of Land’s analysis during the Republican primary centered on his belief that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee. Although Land insisted that he would not vote for Rudy Giuliani just to defeat Clinton, he used Clinton’s candidacy as a primary factor in deciding which of the other candidates evangelicals should support.
“Winability is a bigger issue in this campaign because of the Darth Vader-like specter of a Hillary Clinton presidency,” Land claimed. “[Evangelicals] want the most socially conservative candidate they can find, who can win.”
Land even claimed that the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant earlier this year, which he inaccurately called the “Baptist Covenant for a New Century,” was a political effort to help Clinton. Despite the claims of Land, who was not at the gathering, the only candidate whose campaign was praised was that of former Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee.
Land claimed that in contrast to the celebration, when the ERLC hosts gatherings with politicians, it is bipartisan. However, an analysis by EthicsDaily.com revealed that Land’s claim is inaccurate.
Land also used the Clinton inevitability argument to explain why he did not think Huckabee would do well in the primaries.
“But nobody thinks he can beat Hillary, and a fear of another Clinton White House outweighs almost everything,” Land argued after stating that Huckabee was a likable person.
Huckabee later won Iowa and several other states on his way to becoming a top-tier candidate in the Republican race, while Clinton placed third in Iowa and eventually lost the Democratic nomination. Huckabee even criticized Land for comments made about Huckabee’s chances and complained that “Richard Land swoons for Fred Thompson.”
Early in the primary process, Land claimed that evangelicals were concerned about John McCain’s “unpredictability” and “don’t have any real confidence about where McCain is going to come down on issues of importance to them, like embryonic stem cell research and the federal Marriage Protection Amendment.”
Land claimed that although McCain had a pro-life voting record, evangelicals did not like that he was a “maverick” and did not trust him on the marriage issue and judicial nominees. Land even claimed that McCain’s opposition to a federal marriage constitutional amendment would prevent McCain from capturing the nomination.
“Voting pro-life is not enough,” Land stated. “He has got to express himself in other venues.”
“If he doesn’t change his mind and support this amendment,” Land argued about the federal marriage constitutional amendment, “he will have a virtually impossible task to win the Republican nomination.”
However, once McCain captured the delegates needed to become the nominee, Land frequently claimed that evangelicals would support McCain because they viewed him as substantially better than his Democratic opponent.
“What I hear from people,” Land argued, “is, ‘John McCain was not my first choice, John McCain was not my second choice, John McCain was not my third choice. However, I would rather have a third-rate fireman than a first-class arsonist.’ And they view Obama as a first-class arsonist.”
Land, who has frequently made the fireman-arsonist analogy, appears to be about the only person who has used that comparison despite claiming that is what he heard from many Southern Baptists and other evangelicals.
Despite Land’s claims during the primaries that McCain needed to do more than just point to a pro-life record, once McCain captured the nomination the abortion issue began to trump all other issues in Land’s analysis of why evangelicals would support McCain.
Land claimed that McCain has “a very reliable pro-life record” and thus will be supported by evangelicals because “he’s running against someone who is pro-choice and who is running on a party platform that has never met an abortion they couldn’t at least live with ”if they didn’t like.”
As McCain neared the announcement of his vice presidential pick, Land offered public advice and warnings to McCain. Despite having spent months claiming that evangelicals were going to support McCain, Land began claiming that evangelical support depended on the “critically important” decision of who McCain would choose as his running mate.
“I think that the vice presidential choice that John McCain makes is probably the most important choice he’s going to make in this entire campaign,” Land argued. “Because he has no room for error, no margin for doubt. If he picks a pro-choice running mate, it will confirm the unease and the mistrust that some evangelicals ”and don’t forget this, social conservative Catholics ”feel about McCain.”
Ironically, Land had previously argued that McCain’s best choice to win the election would be Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice because she is an African-American woman and “one of the most impressive human beings that Americans will ever meet.” Yet, despite Land’s claims that McCain could not choose a pro-choice candidate and win, Rice is pro-choice. Land later acknowledged that he could not support her because that position “would deactivate the evangelical base” and meant she “would not be the strongest pick.”
Once Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was announced as McCain’s choice, Land quickly expressed his excitement and claimed that evangelicals would support the ticket. Land argued that McCain “hit a grand slam” with the selection of Palin and claimed that her pick “electrified” the evangelical base of the Republican Party.
“It was as if the whole Republican convention had started drinking Red Bull,” Land offered.
I can’t tell you how the enthusiasm gap has disappeared; it’s gone,” Land added. “[Evangelicals are] as enthusiastic about this ticket as they were about George Bush.”
As the election neared, Land began offering his opinion on what would happen if McCain lost. Although Palin was supposed to energize evangelicals to support the Republican ticket, Land claimed that a loss would also galvanize evangelicals.
“An Obama victory will galvanize social conservatives for 2010 and 2012 and they will look for a standard bearer they can rally around,” Land argued, adding that Palin would be one of the key leaders to “rally the troops.”
“She has star power,” Land said about Palin. “The base identifies with her. That’s the harmony. The melody is that she has a gift ”star power. I think she’s a major player in 2012.”
By 2012, however, Land may be singing another tune about what evangelicals think and what will galvanize them. As political winds shift, Land completely changes his political claims to once again suggest that evangelicals support candidates he seems to support and that evangelicals will be a key to those candidates’ electoral successes.
Many in the media continue to ask Land for insight and believe that he offers a voice for millions of Southern Baptists and other evangelicals. But confident claims aside, Land’s analysis often proves inaccurate.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.
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Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.