Southern Baptists Elect First Black President

The Southern Baptist Convention has elected Fred Luter as its new president, making Luter the first African-American to lead the 167-year-old denomination.

From the AP:

The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. was elected president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination on Tuesday at its annual meeting. He is the pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.

The historic move comes as the denomination tries to expand its appeal beyond its traditional white Southern base. Membership and baptisms have been generally declining in recent years.

The Nashville, Tenn.-based denomination was formed before the Civil War in a split with northern Baptists over slavery and had reputation over much of the last century for supporting segregation.

NPR has a profile of Luter. The story notes the significance of his election and the long path ahead of the church if it is to overcome its racist past.

[Cornerstone Baptist Church Senior Pastor Dwight] McKissic says the two-year presidency is a good first step. But he says African-Americans are absent from all the real positions of power.

Some say there's a latent racism in the denomination. And many were troubled by a recent broadcast on Land's radio program in which he said President Obama and black leaders were using the death of Trayvon Martin for political purposes.

“This is being done to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election,” Land said on the air.

“It was like someone took a knife and stuck it in my heart,” McKissic says. “It validated suspicions that many black Baptists have had all along, that this is how a good number, if not the majority, of Southern Baptists felt.”

Land has apologized and asked for forgiveness.

“I don't want anything I've said, or any mistakes I've made, to detract from — in any way — from what is going to be a truly historic moment — a historic moment in which I rejoice,” he says.

Luter has forgiven Land; he says it's time to look forward. He notes that if he's elected, it will be because white Baptists voted for him.

“It won't be because of the handful of black folk that's going to be there,” Luter says. “So, it will say something to the country and to the world — that the Southern Baptist Convention is not just talking this thing, we're actually walking this thing.”

Gabe Bullard

Gabe Bullard is the director of news and editorial strategy.

@gbullard

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