The Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday elected the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. as the first black president in its 167-year history. Is this a game-changing event or a church-branding moment just in time for Juneteenth?
Luter brings leadership diversity to the predominantly white convention; he is the group's first vice president, and a longtime pastor who leads the largest Southern Baptist congregation in Louisiana. He helped draft the 1995 Southern Baptist resolution repenting for the convention’s pro-slavery past and denouncing racism.
Too bad Southern Baptists didn’t elect a black president long ago. What if the spiritual descendants of those who aligned with the slavery economy over the Gospel in the 19th century had elected a black president in the late 1990s or early 2000s — long before the nation elected Obama as president in 2008? The principle of authentic repentance could carry a deeper meaning in American culture. Christians could be perceived as trendsetters instead of trend followers. If an omniscient and omnipotent Jesus is the head of the church, the church never needs to ride the coattails of culture. Why be viewed as the “Church of The No?” My goodness. What has God said “yes” to?
The Religion News Service reported that blacks in the convention anticipated Luter’s election cautiously. Luter’s presidency will be a visible change, but not necessarily a systemic one. Transformational change on race within the convention’s 45,700 congregations isn’t expected to occur in the blink of any eye. Of those congregations, only 3,500 are African American. Could there be an “Obama effect” beneath the measured response to Luter’s election? The turbulent Obama presidency has become a narrative of race and power that historians will talk about for years to come. Even on the road toward multiethnic unity, a person of color in office can become the harbinger of racial tension.
In Luter’s case, he will represent nearly 16 million “messengers” of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he must address issues on many fronts. The denomination faces its fifth consecutive year of declining membership, the nation’s economy continues to hurt many American families, numerous Southern Baptist congregations remain largely racially divided, and a contentious presidential election has begun. Of course Luter will uphold the convention positions on social issues. But will his responses temper the racially tinged ones that sometimes come from social conservatives?
And if those challenges weren’t enough, the presumptive GOP nominee in the presidential election, Mitt Romney, follows the Mormon faith. In the past, Southern Baptists and Mormons have clashed over theology. Will those issues reemerge or will they be covered over as less important than defeating President Obama? Politics can make strange theological friends in the pews when it comes to power and ambition. What will the effect of Luter’s future leadership have, if any?
If Luter’s election is only symbolic, it will look like an episode of too little, too late. If ‘the fire-breathing, miracle-working pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist” leads the convention beyond window dressing, look out.
Judy Howard Ellis is a Dallas-based creative consultant for entrepreneurs and the author of “Fall of the Savior-King,” a fantasy novel inspired by the Book of Genesis. Previously, she was features editor at the Denver Post. Follow her on Twitter at @JudyHowardEllis