This afternoon, in a move that has been anticipated for at least a year, the Southern Baptist Convention elected the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. as its new president. Luter, the 55-year-old pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans and first vice president of the SBC, will be the first African American to head the denomination, which was founded in defense of slavery in 1845.
In a rousing nomination speech, the Rev. Dr. David Crosby, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of New Orleans, said Luter is “qualified in every way to hold this office.” Crosby described Luter as a “man of integrity” who has a “loving family” and an “unblemished, untarnished reputation” in his community. Crosby also said Luter “would likely be a candidate for sainthood one day if he were a Catholic.” The men got to know each other after Hurricane Katrina when they shared worship space and did ministry together, he said.
Because Luter ran unopposed and because of the historic nature of his election, all convention “messengers” were asked to rise to affirm his nomination, which they did. Wiping away tears, Luter simply said, “To God be the glory for the things he has done. God Bless you. I love you.”
The New York Times reported that there are “51,000 congregations with 16 million members” in the SBC. “Luter shares the Baptists’ firm rejection of abortion and same-sex marriage, but he preaches more about personal salvation than politics. Though he never completed seminary training, he is renowned for his rapid-fire sermons filled with wordplay and hypnotic repetition,” the article said. Luter told The Times that his first priorities will be “the traditional Baptist goals of evangelizing, serving believers and providing disaster relief,” but that he would “use his power of appointments to get more minorities on the governing boards.”
The Rev. Dr. Dwight McKissic, senior pastor Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, first advanced Luter for the presidency in 2010, according to an Associated Baptist Press article published earlier this year. Today, McKissic told UrbanFaith he thinks Luter’s election signals that the SBC wants to send a message that the denomination is ready to welcome African Americans.
“The next step I believe will be a real position of power in the Southern Baptist Convention. Unfortunately the president of the convention controls no budget, no personnel. It has influence, but it has no real inherent authority or power. … The jury is still out, but we’ll see when they get ready to hire an entity head whether or not they’re serious,” said McKissic.
“Symbolism has the capacity to make folks feel good about themselves without actually doing anything,” Robert Parham, executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics and EthicsDaily.com told USA Today.
“It is symbolism, but it’s major symbolism in the right direction that will open the door for full inclusion and empowerment of African Americans in the Southern Baptist Convention,” countered McKissic. Last year McKissic published two blog posts about egregious racism in SBC churches. UrbanFaith asked him if there has been any improvement in the situation since then. “The jury is out. Only time will tell. I don’t take this move to say that there is,” he said.
“This is not some tokenism. It’s symbolism with substance,” said Dr. Robert Smith, professor of divinity and Christian preaching at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. Smith spoke to UrbanFaith this morning. “Fred Luter pastors Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, which is the largest Southern Baptist Church in terms of membership in the entire state of Louisiana. … He is greatly beloved and appreciated—the keyword is respected—by the convention. Otherwise he wouldn’t be elected,” added Smith.
After Luter’s election, UrbanFaith talked to Parham about Smith and McKissic’s responses to his USA Today quote. “Southern Baptists sought for decades to address the issue of racism with symbolic acts, such as pulpit swaps with African-American Baptist pastors. That symbolism of racial reconciliation was encouraging and positive,” Parham said. “When the white power structure in those pews sought to maintain economic privilege and maintain racial inequality, then the symbolism of pulpit swaps was often of little earthly good. … A lot of folks, including those in the national media, are reacting to the election as if it represented immediate, substantive transformation. Casting a single ballot is not the same thing as denominational reformation.” Still, Parham, like many others, tweeted his congratulations to Luter.
Quoting French author Victor Hugo, Smith said, “There’s nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. [Luter’s] time has come. It’s the right time. … He’s a middle of the way kind of person, aggressive with tenderness and mercy and patience. Things will not be changed overnight. …. I think he is the kind of person who is willing to see it through and waiting to see it through.”
“He will not be a black president. He will be a president black. What I mean by that is that if you say ‘black president,’ that means black is the adjective, which, in a way, modifies his presidency. No, he will be a president who just happens to be black. So it’s the presidency that is crucial and blackness happens to be who he is ethnically, but he’s been called to be president of the entire convention,” said Smith.
He also said it should be noted that “Fred really is not Fred without [his wife] Elizabeth.” “He has such great love for her and she has great love for him that they have a duel ministry and she will bolster his ministry in a tremendous way, because she has the same ideals.” Elizabeth Luter has spoken to “many of the great Southern Baptist churches” with white congregations, Smith said. “She is a mediating presence as well and has the ability to mix and mingle with different people and to love them as people and to not have a prejducial regard.”
Smith and McKissic were in New Orleans for the SBC annual meeting. Smith described the atmosphere this morning as “placid, peaceful, and anticipatory.” He said he overheard white men and women talking about “how wonderful it is” that Luter would be elected. “Everyone is standing on tip-toe anticipation, expecting it, and many are saying it’s a long time coming and should have been sooner,” said Smith.
It seemed few African Americans were tweeting with the convention hashtags #SBC12 and #SBC2012 throughout the day, and Dr. Nathan Finn, associate professor of historical theology and Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted that “The
#SBC12 is still a sea of white faces.” However, Smith said he saw “pockets of African Americans” at the convention, including a large contingent from the . This group will host a banquet tonight in honor of Luter’s election, he said.
McKissic may be cautiously optimistic about the significance of Luter’s ascendency, but he put forward three race-related resolutions that he said will be voted on tomorrow. One opposes connecting same sex marriage to the civil rights movement; another denounces racism in Mormon source documents; the third seeks recognition of Baptist minister George Liele as America’s first missionary.
The “skuttlebut” is that the first and third resolutions will pass, but that the Mormon one will not, McKissic said. “For some reason, the Southern Baptist Convention is declining to carry that resolution forward. I’m amazed by that,” he said.
He put forth the resolution regarding George Liele, a former slave who became a missionary to Jamaica, to “correct historical error,” he said. “They were not telling us the truth to say [Adoniram and Ann Judson] were the first missionaries.” Leile embarked in 1782, while the Judsons left for Burma in 1812, his resolution says. “I thought it would also be great in the year of Fred Luter that they are bookends, so to speak,” McKissic said.
“We need to look back and recognize the George Lieles … and other people like that who’ve paved the way so that we can rejoice over what God is doing and not forget about the individuals who have gone through the struggles and walked the stony road and shed the tears that we might enjoy what [has happened] today,” said Smith.