October 18, 2012
By Bryan Hall
Richard Land was the last person I interviewed for the documentary UNRESOLVABLE: The Kingdom of God on Earth. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t even know who he was when he first reached out to me. My publicist had arranged the call and was briefing me virtually seconds before I picked up the phone. My ignorance though is understandable. Far too few Mormons seem to be interested in or aware of religious leaders outside our own. At the time of Dr. Land’s call I was still drinking from a fire-hose of various religious leaders we had interviewed for the film.
Dr. Land had seen an unfinished version and concluded that I didn’t know what I was talking about when it came to Southern Baptists, Evangelicals or conservative Christians. To a large extent he was right. But he wasn’t concerned about being right as much as he was concerned about helping me understand his community better.
Since that first of what would be numerous conversations I’ve never got the sense that he had any other purpose in life than to help outsiders better understand conservative Evangelical Christians and why their political positions are relevant – even when you disagree with him – he never varies from that mission.
But here’s the catch: He’s never unreasonable about it. Ever.
Yes he’s made a few gaffes. But let’s be serious here – a very few when compared to 25 years as the public policy spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Convention – and none for which he hasn’t remedied the situation.
This is a man who has to be on message every single day in a position that by default sets him at odds with 50% of the country. Yet he remains consistently reasonable at every step; and when I say “reasonable” I don’t just mean calm or logical – I am also referring to the Princeton and Oxford-educated intellectual capacity in his approaches, meaning: If Dr. Land has exhausted every other avenue in trying to persuade you to see his position – whether you agree with him or not – and decides then to play the ever-over-used “because God said so” card, he will do it in a way that will still allow room for you to respond while he listens.
This is what I discovered both on and off camera with him. This is what I gathered from observing him in formal and informal settings around the country as he participated with us in various panels and early focus-group screenings of the film. This is what I observed one evening at a dinner in Washington DC with a dozen or so conservative leaders gathered at the same table (how I got there is a long story). On three separate occasions slanderous words were slung about liberal leaders. The first was an attack on Hillary Clinton. The second was against then Senator Obama and the third was levied on President Clinton. As the laughter and sneers ensued Richard Land responded firmly with almost no facial variation “That’s not true,” “I don’t believe that,” and “No, that’s just not true.” Each time he responded that way the disparaging conversation was changed to another topic or shut down completely. Silence.
Maybe no one else was watching. But I was.
His behavior at those times when it seemed it wouldn’t matter mattered to me – a quiet, outside observer.
So why is his approach so valuable to those of us who identify ourselves as moderate or to the left of center?
Because without him who are we left with as spokespersons or discussion partners on the right? Particularly the Religious Right? One of the biggest complaints we hear on the left is lack of reason and rational debate coming from religious people on the right. Richard Land gives the left what they yearn for: A logical position and a listening ear. I’m not suggesting that he takes their positions or compromises the conservative’s positions in any way. I’m saying he brings a much needed level of sophistication and diplomacy to these very difficult conversations – yes, conversations, not shouting matches.
Look at the back of his book The Divided States of America? What Liberals AND Conservatives are missing in the God-and-country shouting match! (an excellent read by the way) and you’ll see glowing words of endorsement from former U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright for many of the same reasons I’m trying to present: “Dr. Land sheds light where others-from left and right-sow confusion…[the book] is essential reading for fair-minded people.”
Open up the book and you’ll find a solid forward by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman: “In the Divided States of America? Richard Land makes a strong case for rescuing the “values” debate from the extremes and moving it toward a common-sense middle where people of all faiths and no faith can calmly, candidly, and constructively talk to each other about how to make our lives better.”
How often do we expect to find major conservative leaders with these kind of endorsements? Are we going to find them on the backs of books by any of the major conservative talk show hosts? Are we going to find them in the propaganda of the fringe? Of course not.
Other people will likely have different views of Richard Land. I can only vouch for what I have personally observed. The only thing I know at this point is that, whether the left can appreciate this or not, they will lose something when Richard Land retires.
Originally published on the UNRESOVABLE Directors Blog on October 15.