A Southern Baptist Convention agency board announced last week plans to investigate charges of plagiarism against Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
Pastor Dwight McKissic called Richard Land's words "false, racially wrong and biblically wrong." (Photo: UMFC.yolasite.com)
"[W]e are reverently mindful of our obligations to the ERLC, Southern Baptists and, most importantly, to our Lord Jesus Christ, to ensure no stone is left unturned in addressing this controversy. Accordingly, the Chairman has appointed an ad hoc committee to investigate the allegations of plagiarism and recommend appropriate action to the Executive Committee. We, of course, expect full cooperation with this investigation from all of our staff and we pledge to take all necessary action to address any wrongdoing that may be discovered," read the statement.
Land was accused of quoting large sections of text from conservative columnists on his radio show "Richard Land Live!"
A Baptist blogger and Baylor University doctoral student, Aaron Weaver, discovered the plagiarism.
Land subsequently apologized for failing to "provide appropriate verbal attributions" on April 16, but said regular listeners knew he provided links to the columns. He said he regretted "if anyone feels they were deceived or misled."
The ERLC statement read in part: "Dr. Land has admitted that he quoted sections of articles related to the Trayvon Martin matter in his Richard Land Live! radio broadcast without giving clear and proper credit to the authors of those articles. We understand that additional instances of this kind in connection with the Richard Land Live! program may come to light."
Critics pointed out that Land's position as chief ethicist of the SBC obligated him to follow journalistic and academic standards when using other authors' material.
The board statement acknowledged the need for high standards of attribution: "We expect Dr. Land and the ERLC to embody the highest moral and ethical standards, as befitting a group of people devoted to following Jesus Christ."
However, the board appeared to justify Land's plagiarism by claiming a different standard for radio shows.
"Though the source citation standards prevailing among talk radio shows are different from those applicable to journalistic work or to scholarly work in the academic setting, we nevertheless agree with Dr. Land that he could, and should, do a better job in this area," read the statement.
EthicsDaily.com has asked the ERLC to provide reasoning, precedent or authority for making the claim that "citation standards prevailing among talk radio shows are different ..."
As of press time, the ERLC spokesperson said the executive committee is "still working on an answer."
Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association and manager of Religion News, LLC, said she "begs to differ" with the committee's statement.
"The public doesn't differentiate between different standards for different media," Mason said. "Media is media, and all are obligated to uphold high standards, whether broadcast, print or online. People assume the standards that apply to newspapers also apply to other media."
Mason said the most widely accepted code of ethical conduct in journalism is the list compiled by the Society of Professional Journalists.
"At RNA we felt SPJ's set of ethics is comprehensive," Mason said. "I think industrywide people agree."
The standard set by SPJ is very simple: Never plagiarize. The organization assumes journalists will understand the definition of the word.
The ERLC executive committee also addressed the content of Land's March 31 program – the one that led to charges of plagiarism.
Land plagiarized a Washington Times column by Jeffrey Kuhner in which Kuhner called Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton "racial ambulance chasers," accusing both men, and by extension President Obama, of "racialist demagoguery."
The committee wrote: "We recognize that Dr. Land's comments, substantively, have angered many and opened wounds from the past."
The committee also praised Land's racial track record: "It should be noted that Dr. Land himself has contributed materially to progress in the area of racial equality. Among other things, he was a primary driver of the Convention's 1995 apology for its past positions on race issues."
When EthicsDaily.com pointed out that the only example of Land's track record was 17 years ago and requested more examples, a spokesperson directed EthicsDaily.com to search Baptist Press for examples.
Land's remarks come at a critical time for the SBC. The annual convention is eight weeks away, and at that gathering, the messengers are expected to elect New Orleans pastor Fred Luter as president, making him the first African American to hold that title.
Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, and an African-American pastor who has worked to bring black churches into the SBC fold, was one of those angered by Land's remarks.
He called Land's apology a "non-apology," and he demanded the SBC repudiate Land's remarks.
Given the opportunity on CNN's "Starting Point With Soledad O'Brien" on April 18, SBC president Bryant Wright would only ask that everyone forgive Land.
McKissic said Land's apology was not a genuine apology because "Land repented of the fruit of his words, not the root. Land and the SBC have repeatedly done this," McKissic said. "Dr. Land just presented the 21st century version of the 'curse of Ham,' that old doctrine that was still available in Lifeway stores only two to three years ago. The SBC has never repented of those words, either."
Calling Land's words "false, racially wrong and biblically wrong," McKissic said he is concerned about the SBC's response to Land's words just weeks away from Luter's possible election.
McKissic said the election of a black president does not solve the racial subtext of much of the conversation.
As for the executive committee's statement, McKissic said it sounded as if they were "talking out both sides of their mouths."
Greg Horton is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of philosophy and humanities. He lives in Oklahoma City.