The former spokesman for the National Religious Broadcasters who was fired for talking positively about COVID-19 vaccines has been hired to restart an ethics and public policy center at a Southern Baptist Convention seminary.
Dan Darling, former senior vice president for communications of the NRB, will lead the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. That center is named for a seminal figure in the SBC schism of the 1980s and ’90s, Richard Land, and focuses on the study and research of ethics, public policy and other cultural and philosophical issues.
After conservatives took control of the SBC’s agencies and institutions through what they called a “conservative resurgence,” one of the first targets was what then was known as the SBC’s Christian Life Commission, later renamed the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Land, who had been affiliated with First Baptist Church of Dallas and its Criswell College — as had Paige Patterson, co-architect of the conservative takeover of the SBC — was installed to lead the ERLC in a more conservative and more political direction. He held that post for 25 years until he was derailed by making derogatory comments about the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Land recently retired as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, a nondenominational school based in Charlotte, N.C.
Before coming home to Texas and to lead Southwestern, Patterson was president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., beginning in 1992. From 1975 to 1992, he served as president of Criswell Center for Biblical Studies, now Criswell College, in Dallas. Richard Land served Criswell College as vice president for academic affairs from 1980 to 1988, working alongside Patterson.
Honoring conservative ‘heroes’
One of Patterson’s far-reaching initiatives at Southwestern was to create permanent tributes to himself and others considered “heroes” of the conservative movement. This took the form of making stained-glass windows in the likeness of some prominent people and naming programs and buildings for others.
The 40 stained glass windows were removed from the chapel after seminary trustees fired Patterson in 2018 amid allegations that he had mishandled reports of sexual abuse and after his co-leader of the conservative movement, Paul Pressler, was accused of sexual misconduct with a teenage boy.
Before that, though, Land was given the double honor of being immortalized in stained glass in the seminary’s chapel and having a center named for him in 2007.
In announcing the new center, Patterson said: “Religious liberty is under attack today in our own country where we never thought it would be.” He then praised Land for leading Southern Baptists to stand against secularism and religious persecution, including fighting against abortion and for “general moral and ethical reform in the social order.”
Patterson concluded: “The time has come to honor this servant who has given himself so tirelessly to the cause of New Testament Christianity.”
This new center, a seminary news release said at the time, “will provide a location for focused research, conferences and the study of Christian morality and action.”
Land Center leadership
In 2007, 28-year-old Evan Lenow came to Southwestern Seminary from Southeastern Seminary, where he had been a student and staff member under Patterson’s administration there. He first landed as director of what was initially called the Smith Center for Leadership Development, now known as the Riley Center. This is a campus hotel and conference center.
By August 2012, Lenow was named associate director of the Land Center, then given the title of director two years later, in August 2014. There is no public record showing anyone else serving as director of the center from its inception in 2007 until Lenow was named associate director and then director.
Patterson was fired by Southwestern trustees in May 2018. One year later, in July 2019, soon after a new seminary president was named, Lenow was gone as director of the Land Center and relocated to Clinton, Miss., where he became director of church and minister relations at his alma mater, Mississippi College, a Southern Baptist-affiliated school.
From that time to the present — 27 months — the Land Center appears to have been on hiatus.
Now, a new leader
On Oct. 25, Southwestern announced it has hired Daniel Darling — described in a news release as a “Southern Baptist thought leader” — as the new director of the Land Center. He also will serve as assistant professor of faith and culture at Texas Baptist College, Southwestern’s undergraduate school.
“In a day of moral upheaval and widespread rejection of God’s design for human flourishing, it is our unwavering commitment that the Land Center be a trusted partner in helping Southern Baptist churches and the broader evangelical world to understand the times and to apply effectively gospel truth in this day,” President Adam Greenway said in the news release. “Dan is the right person to elevate Southwestern Seminary’s work in cultural engagement, and in God’s providence now is the time.”
Darling served as senior vice president for communications of the National Religious Broadcasters until August this year, when as Christianity Today reported, “Darling was fired from NRB this week when he refused to sign a statement saying his pro-vaccine messaging amounted to insubordination.”
His dismissal made international headlines because he was a well-known spokesman for the religious broadcasters — a historically conservative group — and because it highlighted the deep divides within evangelical Christianity about COVID and the vaccines. Evangelical Christians remain among the most-likely Americans to refuse vaccination for the virus and the most likely to deny the seriousness of the virus.
Apart from his NRB identity, Darling is an author and serves on the pastoral staff at Green Hill Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in suburban Nashville. There he works in the areas of discipleship and leadership development and shares some of the preaching duties.
He and his family landed in Nashville when in 2013 he took a job as vice president for communications of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, working with then-President Russell Moore.
Darling plays a minor role in the unusual saga of leaked letters and audio recordings at the heart of a major dispute within the SBC over mishandling of sexual abuse claims. Through those records, Russell Moore asserts that leaders of the SBC Executive Committee and others mounted a pressure campaign against him and the ERLC for speaking out in support of sexual abuse victims. Moore eventually resigned his post, apparently in part because of the hostility.
In one of the leaked letters, reported by Baptist Press and Religion News Service, Moore wrote about an interaction with “another SBC leader” who expressed concern to Moore about the hires of Darling as the ERLC’s vice president for communications and Trillia Newbell as director of community outreach, “because they did not have adequate Southern Baptist backgrounds.”
Baptist Press and RNS identified the person filing the complaint as Paige Patterson.
Darling earned a bachelor’s degree in pastoral studies from Dayspring Bible College in Illinois, has studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and earned a master of arts degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
He is a columnist for the conservative online news service World Opinions and has contributed to national publications including USA Today, Christianity Today, the Washington Post, and National Review.