NEW ORLEANS — Four years after America elected its first African-American president, America’s largest Protestant religious body elected its own.
In an unusual display of unanimity, more than 7,800 delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting stood and affirmed the election of Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans as the 57th SBC president.
“To God be the glory,” said a tearful Luter, a lifelong resident of New Orleans who was the only nominee for the position. “God bless you. I love you.”
Luter’s election came on June 19, also known as Juneteenth, a day that has become the symbolic anniversary of the freeing of the slaves. The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 by men who defended slavery as biblical.
“Many leaders are convinced this nomination is happening now by the providence of God and by divine appointment,” said Dr. David Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans.
Crosby nominated Luter, describing the 55-year-old pastor as a “fire-breathing, miracle-working pastor” who “would likely be a candidate for sainthood if he were Catholic.”
Luter, who grew up in a black Baptist denomination, has been pastor of the SBC’s Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward since 1986. Before the church was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it had 8,000 members.
“We grew a Southern Baptist Church in the ‘hood,” said Luter, whose rebuilt church is back up to 5,000 members.
Luter first gained the convention’s attention when he spoke to the SBC Pastor’s Convention in 1995. The next day, delegates of the 15-million member SBC formally apologized for the role slavery and racism played in its founding 150 years before. Luter was one of the authors of that apology.
“My election is a genuine, authentic move by this convention to show our doors are open to all. For years we’ve been talking about racial reconciliation. Now we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”
Luter was elected to a one-year term, but it’s rare for Southern Baptist presidents not to serve two terms. He will be up for re-election at next year’s convention in Houston.
At his postelection news conference, Luter said he hopes to be a unifying force in the Southern Baptist Convention, which over the years has experienced well-publicized splits over politics and theology.
“Will we have less politics in the SBC? I don’t think that’s gonna happen,” Luter said. But he said he wants the convention to spend less time focusing on “petty differences.”
“I just have a reputation of getting along with folks.”
Tuesday’s historic meeting drew international attention, but some delegates said Luter’s election is more than symbolic.
“Fred was not elected because he is African-American,” said Rev. Michael Ellis, a New Orleans native who is pastor of Impact Baptist Church in Frayser, one of the SBC’s nearly 2,000 African-American congregations.
“He was elected because he was the best man for the job. He has all the qualities and credentials needed to lead this convention.”
After Luter’s election, delegates began debating a less historic but equally image-altering change.
An SBC committee is suggesting that individual Southern Baptist congregations be allowed to adopt an alternative name — Great Commission Baptists.
The “Great Commission” refers to Matthew 28:16-20, in which Jesus instructs disciples to “go forth and make disciples of all nations.”
Some fear the Southern Baptist name carries negative associations for many outsiders, especially in areas outside the South.
Under the proposal, Southern Baptist Convention would continue to be the association’s legal name.
Delegates voted Tuesday by secret ballot. Results are expected to be announced today.
“I think it’s a win-win for all of us,” Luter said. “I’m surprised there has been so much debate about it.”