NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Richard Land, the highly visible top ethics official for the Southern Baptist Convention, announced Tuesday that he would retire next year.
Land said he will step down as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in October 2013 on his 25th anniversary at that post.
"Let me be clear, I am retiring from the ERLC, not from the ministry, or from what is popularly called the 'culture war,'" Land wrote in a letter to the ERLC board of trustees. The resignation was first reported by the Baptist Press, the news service of the SBC.
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission takes public stands on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. In his position at the commission's head for nearly 24 years, the outspoken Land has become the most visible spokesman for the nation's largest Protestant denomination. He often appears on television and until last month he hosted a weekly call-in radio show on the issues of the day.
Land was forced by the commission's board of trustees to give up that show after he made what the board called "hurtful, irresponsible, insensitive, and racially charged" remarks on the air about the Trayvon Martin case. That included claims that President Barack Obama, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson had exploited Martin's death for political gain. Martin was an unarmed black Florida teenager shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer.
"We have carefully considered the content and purpose of the Richard Land Live! broadcast," the board's public reprimand said. "We find that they are not congruent with the mission of the ERLC."
The statement went on to say the board was especially disappointed because the remarks did not accurately reflect the body of Land's work. That includes being one of the chief architects of a 1995 resolution by Southern Baptists apologizing for their role in supporting slavery and racism. The denomination was founded when Baptists splintered over the issue of slavery during the run-up to the Civil War.
The controversy over Land's remarks came amid a diversity push aimed at increasing declining church membership and just weeks before the SBC annual convention where the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. was chosen as the convention's first black president.
David W. Key Sr., director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said Land might be known as a strong conservative but at times he has "kept the SBC from going too far to the right."
For example, under Land's leadership the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has supported a version of the DREAM Act — the proposed law that would allow illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to earn legal status, either by going to college or serving in the military.
Land's letter said his retirement would free him to engage more fully in the "culture war's political debates."
"I believe the 'culture war' is a titanic spiritual struggle for our nation's soul and as a minister of Christ's Gospel, I have no right to retire from that struggle," Land wrote.