First Black President for Southern Baptists?

The Rev. Fred Luter is expected to be the next leader of the formerly segregated, all-white denomination. Will his presidency make a difference?

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The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. (Franklin Avenue Baptist Church)

Even those in leadership roles with the Southern Baptist Convention agree that the association has a lot to answer for when it comes to race. "We were a segregated, virtually all-white denomination as late as the 1960s," Richard Land, president of the convention's policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told the New York Times. (Yep, he's the guy who recently accused President Obama of trying to capitalize politically on the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, called the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton "race hustlers" and suggested that racial profiling was justified.) Not to mention, it was created in 1845 in defense of slavery and provided a spiritual home to white supremacists for much of the 20th century.

But efforts are under way to change that reputation, and it looks as if their public face will be the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., a black New Orleans pastor who is expected to be the only candidate for office Tuesday when the Southern Baptists gather for their annual meeting and election.

"That I can be president of the largest Protestant denomination in the country is unbelievable," Mr. Luter said in an interview last week after one of his trademark cadenced sermons that drew "amens" from the predominantly black congregation.

His anticipated victory is being hailed as a milestone by white and black pastors alike in the convention, a grouping of 51,000 congregations with 16 million members, about a million of them black. Acutely aware of the nation's changing demographics, the fiercely evangelical Southern Baptists have been working to draw in more black, Hispanic and Asian members, often by starting new churches in ethnically diverse urban areas in the country.

If, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said of the nation's churches, Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America, the Southern Baptists have carried a special burden, giving added resonance to this week's election.

"Given the history of the convention, this is absolutely stunning," said Michael O. Emerson, an expert on race and religion at Rice University.

Could Luter's election, combined with the other diversity efforts, represent a real racial come-to-Jesus moment for the denomination?

Read more at the New York Times.

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