Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, recently quit a group that defends the religious liberty rights of Muslims.
Even as Land quit the group because of criticism from some Southern Baptists, he defended his decision to join the group and claimed he was still supporting religious liberty rights. The move caps months of Land’s wavering on religious liberty rights for Muslims.
The Anti-Defamation League created the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques last fall during controversies surrounding several proposed mosques across the country. Many people were attacking in particular plans to build an Islamic cultural center, called Park51, several blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City. Critics often inaccurately called it the “Ground Zero Mosque.”
The ADL, a Jewish group that fights against anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, started the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques after facing criticism when ADL leader Abraham Foxman publicly opposed the construction of Park51. With the ICOM, the ADL has become a leader in advocating for the religious liberty rights of Muslims, even though it did not change its perspective on the New York City proposal.
Similarly, Land opposed the plans for Park51 even as he said he supported the religious liberty rights of Muslims. Land’s arguments, however, often included contradictions as he attempted to defend his decision as a non-religious one, even as he voiced his opposition in religious terms.
As Land struggled to articulate his opposition to the proposed New York City center, he publicly defended the rights of Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tenn., to build a mosque in their community.
“The First Amendment guarantees people the right to worship where they live,” Land stated at the time. “I am calling for all people of faith and good will to stand up for the rights of our Muslim fellow citizens.”
Since then, Land and the ICOM have supported the rights of Muslims to build mosques in various locations, including Murfreesboro and Temecula, Calif.
As Land left the ICOM, he continued to defend his decision to join the organization. He said he was resigning because of criticism from some Baptists – but that he disagreed with the criticism.
“I don’t agree with that perception but it’s widespread and I have to respect it,” Land said. “My constituents, many felt, ‘Yes. We certainly believe in religious freedom. People ought to have a place of worship. But it’s a bridge too far not only to advocate for that, but to file suit.'”
Land also said that despite his resignation from the interfaith coalition, he and Southern Baptists were “not going to back up in our defense of religious freedom.”
Land’s resignation has sparked criticism from some Baptists and others who argue that merely stating support for religious liberty is not enough, but that one must actually work to support the religious liberty rights of minorities like American Muslims.
“The whole world is watching how Baptists relate to Muslims,” Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists and president of the Norman chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote in an email to EthicsDaily.com.
“Richard Land heads an agency that purports to stand for the principle of religious liberty. Principled leaders stand on their principles. Land admittedly lacks the courage of his principles. Southern Baptists should be ashamed to follow his example.”
Land’s office said he was currently out of the country and unable to respond to questions from EthicsDaily.com.
Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of an evangelical mega-church in Orlando, Fla., remains part of the ICOM and said he has received “surprisingly little” criticism.
“Most conservative evangelicals I talk to in my own congregation are really clear on First Amendment rights, that every religion has a right to free expression,” Hunter said.
Last year, Land was appointed to another term on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The commission, which monitors religious freedom rights in other countries, is already facing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed by a Muslim who alleges the Commission on International Religious Freedom discriminates against Muslims.
In 2009, Land was criticized by the ADL for using Nazi references in his attacks on health care reform legislation. Land apologized and pledged to avoid such references in the future, but then quickly backtracked away from that promise.
Editor’s Note: EthicsDaily.com has produced two interfaith documentaries: Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims and Sacred Texts, Social Duty (that explores how members of the Abrahamic faith traditions address taxation).
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.