How Significant is Fred Luter’s Election for Southern Baptists?

How Significant is Fred Luter’s Election for Southern Baptists? June 26, 2012

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?

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  • John C. Gardner

    I graduated from a Baptist university in the mid-1960s. Therefore, I appreciate the changes in the SBC. I remember traveling to Florida in 1960 on a Sunday and saw a church that was segregated. I also was involved in the Civil Rights movement and taught at two black colleges. I say bravo to the SBC but also there will need to be real changes. We as Christians should not equate Christianity with any one political party and should be willing to help those who are in need. God bless Pastor Luter and forgive all of us southerners who grew up in segregated schools.

  • agreed, John. thanks for reading the post.

  • Maybe it is my imagination or naivete, but I had supposed individuals were selected to serve as trustees, committee chairs & seminary presidents on the basis of MERIT, not skin color. If the SBC has become an affirmative action apology board, it’s time to turn off the lights & go home.
    “For it is necessary for the overseer to be blameless as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not violent, not greedy for dishonest gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, prudent, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast to the faithful message according to the teaching, in order that he may be able both to exhort with sound instruction and to reprove those who speak against it.” Titus 1:7-9
    “The saying is trustworthy: if anyone aspires to supervision, he desires a good work. Therefore the overseer must be irreproachable, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, skillful in teaching, not addicted to wine, not a violent person, but gentle, peaceable, not loving money, managing his own household well, having children in submission with all dignity (but if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), not newly converted, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation of the devil. But he must also have a good testimony from those outside, in order that he may not fall into disgrace and the trap of the devil.” 1 Timothy 3:1-7
    “Just as I urged you when I traveled to Macedonia, remain in Ephesus, so that you may instruct certain people not to teach other doctrine, and not to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which cause useless speculations rather than God’s plan that is by faith. But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a faith without hypocrisy, from which some have deviated, and have turned away into fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the law, although they do not understand either the things which they are saying or the things concerning which they are speaking confidently.
    ‘But we know that the law is good, if anyone makes use of it lawfully, knowing this, that the law is not given for a righteous person but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and totally worldly, for the one who kills his father and the one who kills his mother, for murderers, sexually immoral people, homosexuals, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is opposed to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God that I was entrusted with.” 1 Timothy 1:3-11
    ……… funny, I didn’t see ANYTHING there related to a person’s seratonin levels & everything about his doctrine. So, was Fred Luter elected because of his doctrines, ability to teach & lead, willingness to refute error … or was he elected because he is black? If it is the latter, this election is will not heal what is wounded in our SBC.