Trayvon Martin, Romney and Evangelicals

by Maura Jane Farrelly

The Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land has been generating some controversy in recent weeks. First, there were his comments about the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, delivered during his nationally broadcast radio show. According to Land, the demonstrations calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Martin, were the work of “race hustlers” looking to “gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble.” Land, who is the head of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, compared George Zimmerman to the white lacrosse players at Duke University who were falsely accused of raping a black woman in 2006.

Then there were Land's comments this past Sunday on CBS's “Face the Nation.” He called upon GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum – whose candidacy was extremely popular with evangelical voters – to “seriously consider leaving the race now” and throw his support behind the Mormon front-runner, Mitt Romney. It's not clear whether Land's advice played a role in Santorum's decision to suspend his campaign this week. But Land's comments, which were shared during a broadcast on Easter morning, undoubtedly disappointed many of his fellow Baptists. 

R. Philip Roberts, for example, who is president of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has made a career out of “unmasking” the Mormon faith and has expressed deep concern that a Romney presidency would enable the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to “use his position around the world as a calling card for legitimizing their church and proselytizing people.”

That Land's comments about Rick Santorum – and his implicit endorsement of Mitt Romney – might be criticized by members of the evangelical community is, perhaps, not surprising. The mainstream news media, after all, have done a wonderful job of covering both the antipathy that evangelicals feel toward the Mormon faith as well as their historically interesting enthusiasm for the Latin Rite Catholic candidate from Pennsylvania. Indeed, Richard Land himself has said on more than one occasion that he does not consider Mitt Romney to be a Christian – which should prompt journalists to interrogate him about his comments on “Face the Nation,” especially now that Santorum is no longer running.

But the notion that Land's comments about the handling of the Trayvon Martin case might also be criticized by evangelicals is a little less obvious, given the way the evangelical community is frequently portrayed in the mainstream media. Evangelicals, after all, are not typically presented as leaders of liberal causes or even champions of racial justice. And yet some of the loudest criticisms of Land's comments on the death of the Florida teen have come from within the evangelical community. Robert Parham, for example, who is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tennessee, called Land's radio comments “reckless,” and he predicted that they would “feed the deep-seated racial resentment among many Southern Baptists and jeopardize the efforts of other Southern Baptists to advance racial reconciliation.”

The fact of the matter is that the evangelical community in the United States is not a monolith – a reality that has been very much on display this week in Washington, DC, as more than 700 progressive and conservative evangelicals have gathered for the sixth annual “Q Conference.” Modeled after the TED conferences that have been bringing people together from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design since 1984, the Q Conference and its organizers hope to create a platform for “the best and brightest ideas” about how to “redeem entire cultures” and “regain Christianity's cultural influence” in the United States.

Richard Land is among this year's participants. So is Jim Wallis, the evangelical founder of the progressive advocacy group Sojourners who also serves a spiritual adviser to President Obama.  David Brooks, the moderately conservative columnist from the New York Times, also plans to be at the conference. He's not even a Christian; Brooks is Jewish – though as a child, he did attend a school in New York City that was affiliated with the Episcopal Church.

Since its founding in 2006, the Q Conference hasn't attracted much attention from mainstream reporters. But Brooks' participation in this year's conference could change that. And if it does, the change would certainly be a welcome one. Americans of all political and religious stripes could only benefit from a more nuanced understanding of evangelical Christianity that doesn't automatically equate the teachings of the faith with the pronouncements of Richard Land.

Maura Jane Farrelly is assistant professor of American Studies and Director of the Journalism Program at Brandeis University. In the past, she was a reporter for Voice of America and Georgia Public Radio. Her first book, Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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