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Baptist lobbyist toes the conservative line

(ran PC edition of Pasco Times)

The Rev. Richard Land's forehead shimmers with sweat as he barks his grim interpretation of the Bible's apocalyptic book, Revelation.

"Seize grace while you can lest you fall into the hands of God _ who will judge," he says in a recent sermon at Immanuel Baptist Church in Lebanon.

When he travels to Washington, he shows another side. Land shakes hands with White House aides and members of Congress as he promotes the conservative agenda of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Land's ability to mix preaching and politics has pushed him to the forefront of the nation's largest Protestant denomination, and of the religious right.

As president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist public policy arm, Land spends up to seven days a month in Washington representing the denomination on Capitol Hill.

In September, President Bush made Land the first evangelical on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent panel established by Congress to monitor religious liberty worldwide.

Land lobbies federal lawmakers on issues including abortion, stem cell research and gay rights _ on those three, he makes his denomination's opposition known.

"For me, it became very clear that my calling was a ministry calling with a public policy component," he said.

David Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, said Land has a quieter, contemplative approach that some in politics find more appealing than the fiery style of the Rev. Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson.

"He's not flashy," Key said. "He uses his educational background to project a very thoughtful perspective on his agenda."

Land, 55, said he was called to the ministry when he was 16 and growing up in Houston. The first in his family to attend college, he earned a full scholarship to Princeton University, where he studied history, psychology and religion.

After graduation he enrolled at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, then went on to earn a doctorate in theology from Oxford University. He returned to Texas, as a professor and later administrator at Criswell College, a small Southern Baptist college in Dallas.

During this time, Land earned a reputation as a leader among abortion opponents and in 1987 became an administrative assistant to then-Texas Gov. Bill Clements, to help enact laws regulating the procedure.

Later, he was elected president of what is now the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Land has expanded his influence as the host of three syndicated Southern Baptist radio programs, which he said draw an average 1.5-million listeners a week.

As Land's prominence has grown, so has the criticism from moderate Southern Baptists, including the Rev. Bill Sherman, who believes Land and other conservative leaders have ruined the denomination.

Sherman accused them of using selective Bible verses to support what he feels are unacceptable ideas. The Baptists approved a doctrinal statement in 2000 that wives must "submit graciously" to their husbands. Sherman also was angered by the denomination's boycott of Walt Disney Co. over providing employee health benefits for same-sex couples.

"I don't think that's where God's coming from," said Sherman, pastor of First Baptist Church of Fairview.

Land makes no apologies. Southern Baptists have maintained their membership because of their reluctance to stray from the Bible's teachings toward a less demanding version of Christianity, he said.

"Christianity is not a popularity contest," Land said. "We have found that many, many people are attracted to a denomination that is going to put itself under the authority of Scripture."

The conservative shift has caused a split, with Baptists in some states leaving the 15.9-million member denomination. Former President Jimmy Carter renounced membership in his lifelong denomination in 2000 due to what he called its "increasingly rigid" theology.

Land's response? "Good riddance."

"It's very clear that the Southern Baptist Convention is a conservative denomination and it's going to continue to be a conservative denomination. And when voices of opposition are raised, they're seldom successful," he said.