This week my Baylor colleague Barry Hankins and I published a USA Today editorial, “Southern Baptists Cleanse Past,” commending the SBC’s election of its first African American president, Fred Luter. From the column:
America remains torn by racial problems – and Sunday morning is still America’s most divided hour – but even the most cynical observer must admit we’re making progress.
Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention – founded in 1845 to defend slavery – elected its first black leader, New Orleans pastor Fred Luter.
We reviewed the history of the SBC, including the SBC’s 1995 apology for its slave owning past. Ironically, Richard Land was one of the key organizers behind that apology. Land, the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, recently came under fire for comments he made about black political leaders using the Trayvon Martin shooting to “gin up the black vote.” Luter and other SBC pastors rebuked Land for the statements, and the SBC pulled the plug on Land’s radio program. The column continued,
So, just weeks before the election of the convention’s first black president, the key person behind the resolution had to apologize for racial insensitivity. The path to ending racism is never as straight or smooth as one might wish.
Southern Baptists have no equivalent to the Catholic pope; neither Land nor Luter nor anyone else is the final representative of the denomination and its stance on race. And critics note that the Southern Baptist president actually has little substantive power. But in spite of these limitations, and of regrettable statements like Land’s, there can be no question that with Luter’s election, the convention is continuing to address what a writer once called the denomination’s “original sin.”
Included among the friendly critics of the convention is SBC pastor Dwight McKissic, of Arlington, Texas, who may speak for many African American Southern Baptists when he says “We’re very excited and thankful for this major symbolic step, but it must be followed by substantial action in hiring African-Americans as entity heads. That’s when real progress will be made.” As McKissic suggests, the SBC President is a significant, influential position, but he does not wield as much actual power as, say, the CEO of the Executive Committee or a seminary president.
I would be interested in your take — does Luter’s election represent a real milestone for the SBC, one that might even signal a post-racial era for the denomination? Or is it a good but mostly symbolic step that leaves the denomination with much work left to do on race?