NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Southern Baptist leader apologized this week for any hurt caused by explosive remarks accusing President Barack Obama and other Black leaders of exploiting Trayvon Martin's death for political gain.
"I am writing to express my deep regret for any hurt or misunderstanding my comments about the Trayvon Martin case have generated," Richard Land wrote in letter to Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright. "It grieves me to hear that any comments of mine have to any degree set back the cause of racial reconciliation in Southern Baptist or American life."
The head of the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy arm, Land also issued an apology for not telling listeners to his radio show that several of his comments were not his own, but were taken from an editorial in the Washington Times.
He faced plagiarism allegations over the weekend after blogger Aaron Weaver did an Internet search on Land's comments.
Weaver is a doctoral student of religion and politics at Baylor University. He said he was surprised that Land would lift his commentary from another source.
"He's a pretty articulate guy," Weaver said. But Weaver said he also found it troubling because Land, as president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for 23 years, is the denomination's ethicist.
Land issued a statement on Monday calling the lack of attribution an oversight. He said there was no attempt to deceive his listeners and that he always provides links to his source material on his website.
"I am grateful this oversight was brought to my attention. One can always do better and I certainly pledge to do so," the statement reads.
Land declined to be interviewed for this story.
Martin was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on Feb. 26 in the central Florida town of Sanford. Zimmerman said he fired his 9 mm handgun after Martin attacked and beat him. Martin's family and supporters claim Zimmerman was the aggressor, targeting the unarmed Martin for suspicion mainly because he was Black. Zimmerman's father is white and his mother Hispanic.
Last week, Florida prosecutors charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder in Martin's death. Zimmerman, who is claiming self-defense, faces up to life in prison if convicted.
As of late last week, Land had said that he stood by his assertion that Obama "poured gasoline on the racialist fires" when he addressed the killing of Martin.
Land had alleged that Obama and two civil rights activists — the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton — had used the case "to try to gin up the Black vote for an African American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election." Land, who is white, had also said he was confident that a vast majority of Southern Baptists agreed with him.
His comments came at a time when the nation's largest Protestant denomination is trying to broaden its appeal beyond its traditional white, Southern base. And Southern Baptists say their efforts have been working.
SBC spokesman Roger S. Oldham has said that ethnic congregations made up about 13 percent of SBC churches in 1998. That had increased to 18 percent by 2008, with African-American and Hispanic congregations each making up about 6 percent of SBC churches, Asian churches at about 3 percent and other ethnic churches making up another 3 percent.
Last year, the 16-million-member denomination for the first time elected a Black pastor to its No. 2 position of first vice president. The Rev. Fred Luter is expected to become the first Black president of the SBC at this year's annual meeting in June.
Luter was among those concerned that Land's remarks could hurt the denomination's efforts to diversify.
In his letter of apology, Land reiterates his commitment to racial reconciliation, noting his key role in the SBC's 1995 apology for past support of slavery and racism.
"I look forward to the day when our convention membership reflects the ethnic and demographic diversity of the general population, with no difference between Southern Baptists and the nation," the letter reads.
While this week's letter does not appear to apologize for the substance of the comments, Land does commit himself to addressing controversial issues with more sensitivity in the future.
"I appreciate him coming forth and giving the apology," James Dixon Jr., president of the SBC's National African American Fellowship, said in an interview Tuesday. "I accept his apology and I hope this has been a teaching moment for him."
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin, who has been one of the chief promoters of Fred Luter's presidency, tweeted, "Thankful. Wish he had said more. 4give. Move 4ward." -- (AP)
NEW ORLEANS — The Southern Baptist Convention voted Tuesday to elect its first African-American president in one of its biggest steps yet to reconcile the 167-year-old denomination's troubled racial past and appeal to a more diverse group of believers.
The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. was unopposed in being elected by thousands of enthusiastic delegates on Tuesday at the annual meeting of the nation's largest Protestant denomination in his hometown of New Orleans.
Pastor David Crosby of First Baptist New Orleans nominated Luter, calling him a "fire-breathing, miracle-working pastor" who "would likely be a candidate for sainthood if he were Catholic."
Crosby recalled how Luter built the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church from a tiny congregation to a megachurch of nearly 8,000 before the buildings were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Members of Luter's mostly Black church came to worship at Crosby's mostly white church, and the pastors worked together for 2 ½ years as Luter rebuilt Franklin Avenue. Today, with a Sunday attendance of 5,000, Luter's church is once again the largest Southern Baptist church for attendance in the state.
"Fred Luter is the only megachurch pastor I know who had to do it twice," Crosby said.
Crosby said the SBC needs Luter at the head of the table as it increasingly focuses on diversifying its membership.
"Many leaders are convinced this nomination is happening now by the provenance of God," he said.
Delegates clapped and cheered when Luter's election was announced by current SBC President Bryant Wright, who told those gathered for the convention that they were "priveledged to be here for this historic occasion."
Luter wiped tears from his eyes as he accepted the position.
The historic election comes as the denomination tries to expand its appeal beyond its traditional white Southern base. Membership and baptisms have been generally declining in recent years.
The Nashville, Tenn.-based denomination was formed before the Civil War in a split with northern Baptists over slavery and had reputation over much of the last century for supporting segregation.
Seventeen years ago, Luter was one of the authors of an SBC resolution that apologized to African-Americans for its past support of racism and resolved to strive for racial reconciliation.
Since that gesture, the denomination has grown its non-white congregations from only 5 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2010. But its leadership has not diversified as rapidly as membership.
Also on Tuesday, delegates planned to vote on whether to adopt an optional alternative name, Great Commission Baptists.
The "Great Commission" refers to Matthew 28:16-20, in which Jesus instructs his disciples at Galilee to go forth and make disciples of all nations.
Fearing the Southern Baptist name carried negative associations for many outsiders, current SBC President Bryant Wright formed a study committee last year to consider a change. While the committee deemed a full and official name change to be too difficult and expensive, it suggested the alternative name as an option.
While Southern Baptists have been publicly united in their support for Luter, the alternative name faces opposition from some members who are proud of the denomination's association with conservative theology and politics.
The notion of changing the Southern Baptist name is not new: It was first proposed in 1903 and has been unsuccessfully brought up more than a dozen times since. Even if the compromise alternative is approved, it is unlikely to put the issue to rest for good. -- (AP)