Interview: Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land on Obama Transition Team's Religious Outreach Offensive

A prominent evangelical on Obama's open-door policy to religious groups.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

For my story today on the Obama transition team reaching out actively to religious groups as it crafts a policy agenda and prepares to set up its own version of the Bush White House's Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, I wanted to know if conservative religious groups were receiving the same red-carpet treatment as their faith-based counterparts on the left. So, I called Richard Land, president of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest evangelical denomination. Here's our interview. Excerpts:

Some traditionally liberal religious groups have attended a dozen meetings so far with the Obama transition team. Have you or others at the Southern Baptist Convention been invited to those meetings?

I did receive a phone call from Mr. [Joshua] Dubois [the Obama transition team's director of religious affairs] and he wanted to thank me for my letter to the president-elect. I sent him an open letter that's on our website. The gist was that I hoped that he understood that there are tens of millions of Americans that didn't vote for him that are nevertheless delighted that an African-American has been elected president; that despite our racist past, this election says something kind and noble about America; that we were going to pray for him and for his safety and wisdom; that we are going to support him where we could, and that when we aren't able to do that, we're going to use our constitutional right to push for alternative policies. It zeroed in on the pro-life issue. The Democratic pro-life caucus sponsored a bill in the last Congress that basically calls for government programs that seek to reduce the number of abortions by 95-percent in 10 years and this cuts across disagreements and fulfills the Democratic Party platform.

What did DuBois, the transition team's religious affairs director, tell you?

Mr. DuBois told me that he wanted to keep the bridges of communication open and that the door was always open for us to voice concerns. I congratulated him on having picked Rick Warren to do the invocation at the inauguration. It was a sign that [Obama] is not going to let the minority marginalize the majorities. The marginal position is support for same-sex marriage. To marginalize Rick Warren's position is absurd, and the president-elect is smart enough to know that. I told Rick that I'm at a loss to understand those [evangelicals] who are criticizing him. For him not to accept would have made evangelicals seem petty, vindictive, and mean. But beyond that phone call, have you or your Southern Baptist Convention colleagues been invited to sit down with the transition team?

I haven't been invited to any meetings or involved in any meetings. It would surprise me if anyone in an official role in the Southern Baptist life was invited and I hadn't been informed. So, are the bridges of communication to the Obama administration truly open, or is that an empty promise?

It's not an either/or situation. The much ballyhooed shift of evangelicals [to the Democratic column on Election Day] didn't materialize. Seventy-four percent of people who identify as evangelicals voted for McCain, down from 78-percent for Bush. Obama got about he same percentage as Gore got in 2000. So, about a fifth to a quarter of evangelicals voted liberal. The others won't, as long as they have to make a choice between the life issues and the other issues. Do they want to expand the agenda? Yes. Do they want more attention paid to other issues? Yes. Can they accept an exchange of issues? No. So, I would understand that if three quarters of evangelicals did not vote for President-elect Obama, that they would be having meetings with groups that did support Obama, not with groups that didn't. Do you think your relationship with the Obama administration will be similar the Clinton years?

The Clinton administration—the only Democratic administration we've had since I've been in this position—they did their best to co-opt us. I got the charm offensive. We were in agreement with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and I was invited to the Rose Garden when [Clinton] signed it in '93, and we appreciated the outreach effort. But the administration didn't like our critique with things they were doing wrong. And it became apparent that we weren't going to be seduced. I'm not trying to equate the Clinton administration with the Obama administration. President-elect Obama and former President Clinton are very different people. We've had a different relationship with each administration. We were critical of Bush 41 for not intervening in Bosnia and Herzegovina and we were supportive of Clinton for intervening in Kosovo. I think a lot of Southern Baptists were offended at the deep lack of respect accorded to President Bush by his opponents. And they are going to try very hard to behave better without compromising their principles.

  • Read more about Team Obama's religious outreach.
  • Read more by Dan Gilgoff.