Southern Baptists will make history if on Tuesday they elect Fred Luter Jr. their first black president.
This could be a monumental shift for the church, whose beginning in the mid-1800s included a split from the First Baptist Church in America over support for slavery. Northern Baptists believed that God disapproved of racial superiority notions, while Southerners believed that segregation was of God.
Luter, a pastor from one of America’s biggest melting pots, New Orleans, said that his church, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, shares in his joy for the presidential possibility.
“I’m really pumped about this,” Luter told Reuters. “My church is so excited man because they know my common background. They know where I came from. … I’m really excited for them.” The Southern Baptist Convention has over 16 million members and was established in 1845.
Luter is credited with growing a post-Hurricane KatrinaFranklin Avenue Baptist Church to the denomination’s largest church in Louisiana.
Luter was the first African American elected to the Executive Board of the Louisiana Baptist Convention in 1992. Nearly a decade later he was also the first African-American to preach the Southern Baptist Convention message.
These feats could underscore a shift in Southern Baptists toward inclusivity as the United States’ demographics change. Census estimates reported that for the first timemore babies of color were born in the US than non-Hispanic white babies.
One of the nation’s most important institutions, religion, must keep pace with the nation’s composition.
Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination. When they originated the focus was on “eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the Baptist denomination of Christians, for the propagation of the gospel, any law, usage, or custom to the contrary notwithstanding,” according to the Southern Baptist Convention charter in 1845.
While spreading Christianity was the goal, a noted practice of excluding people of color was the reality. Although the religious group continues to make efforts to separate its present and future from a racist past, Southern Baptists continue to face controversy.
Church officials said that race relations were negatively impacted earlier this year when Ethics Chief Richard Landaccused U.S. black leaders of attempting to use the killing of black teen Trayvon Martin by white and Hispanicneighborhood-watch self-appointee George Zimmerman for political benefit.
Despite Land’s ire-earning commentary on the Martin killing, he also spoke out about division to the New York Times and has historically addressed racism.
“(Southern Baptists) were a segregated, virtually all-white denomination as late as the 1960s,” Land, who co-authored a 1995 resolution apologizing for slavery and racism, said.
The move to diversify is publicly supported throughout the group.
First Baptist New Orleans Pastor David Crosby will nominate Luter for president. Crosby said that the move will show ”we not only love people of color, we want them in our leadership.”
Religious leaders express hope and skepticism.
Danny Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina is not convinced that Luter’s nomination will rectify history, but he said that it is a step forward for a denomination now seeing growth among people of color.
The vote will occur Tuesday during the annual Southern Baptist convention meeting in New Orleans. Luter is expected to remain unopposed.