Let’s sit and think about it again: The Southern Baptist Convention has selected Reverend Fred Luter as its first African-American president. This is a stunning event for an organization founded in slavery and racism.
Luter, from New Orleans, has a reputation as a pastor who can build up congregations. He has done so with the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church and intends to improve the Southern Baptist Convention’s minority outreach efforts. He needs to.
With 16 million members, outside of the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptists are America’s second-largest religious domination. However, just one-sixteenth of its members are black, as a super-majority of African-American Baptists prefer the National Baptist Convention. This is because the SBC officially resisted the inclusion of black members through the 1960s.
Originally part of the Triennial Convention, Southern Baptists split on questions over slavery and whether slave-owners could be missionaries. They chose the wrong path. Recognizing the stained nature of its founding, the SBC eventually repudiated its racist founding. Not right away, exactly; the Convention did wait until 1995.
Nonetheless, the selection of Luter is groundbreaking. Sunday morning has traditionally been America’s most segregated hour and this move by the Southern Baptist Convention is cathartic for American religion.
The Civil Rights Act opened up places of public accommodation and the Voting Rights Act said blacks could vote just like everyone else, but laws cannot change people’s hearts – at least not right away. What we are seeing here is the cumulative effects of the Civil Rights movement. The protests, the marches, the boycotts, the violence, and the laws kept changing America. The headlines may have stopped in the 1960’s, but what Civil Rights movement’s grand accomplishment was in allowing all Americans to interact with each other, as equals, generation after generation.
Once people experienced life together as equals, something odd happened. Americans finally realized that we are equal, and given real equal opportunities, America’s minority population can perform as well as anybody at anything – even leading America’s second largest Christian denomination.
Luter’s selection as Southern Baptist Convention president is validation of his hard work. But, it is also recognition by the Southern Baptist Convention that its future lies in a direction 180 degrees different from its past. Finally, it is proof that change can happen anywhere.
If you do not believe me, just ask Barack Obama.