How Long? Not Long: Southern Baptist Convention Elects First Black President, Fred Luter

June 3, 2012
The Rev. Fred Luter, pastor of the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, greets congregation members during Sunday services in New Orleans. Luter is the new face of the Protestant denomination that formed over a split with its northern counterpart over the issue of slavery before the Civil War. Faced with growing diversity in the United States and declining membership in some of its churches, the denomination is making an effort to distance itself from its troubled racial past.
Gerald Herbert / AP

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

That quote from Martin Luther King at the steps of the Alabama state capitol following the turbulence of the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 rings hollow at times.  Sure the arc of the moral universe is quite long, but based on our mayfly existence here on this celestial orb, the bent toward justice can take a long time to traverse.  The election of one Fred Luter is one of those long journeys.

Rev. Fred Luter, the pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church here in New Orleans is poised to be the next titular head of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Inc.   It’s not just that he’s the first black president of SBC, but its because of the storied history of SBC what makes this so historical.  When other denominations elected their first black president it didn’t make national news, but SBC has its roots clearly in the slave movement in the antebellum South.  In 1844, following national unification movements amongst the Baptists, they split over the issue of slavery.  Specifically, the southern slaveowners wanted to participate within the denomination and the northern Baptists refused to elect them to positions if they owned slaves.  So, they seceded.  Simple as that.  Oddly enough, the next year in 1845, the Methodist Episcopal Church split as well forming the Southern Methodist Episcopal Church.*

For me, it’s not just the slavery issue in 1844, some 167 years ago, but really the recent issues that have embroiled SBC.  The SBC has an image problem, but it’s one they seem only to now be worried about with the election of Rev. Luter as president.  Let’s recall the following:

 

Yes, the one and only Rev. Jerry Fallwell and yes he did say that and meant it.

My issue is that it took the Southern Baptist Convention until 1995 to acknowledge the fundamentally racist history in which it had been founded.

1995.  I was good and alive by then.

This was after apartheid in South Africa had ended and Nelson Mandela was the country’s president, yet one of the largest religious affiliations in this country was still okay with their foundations.  For me, the simple apology or even acknowledgement means a whole lot: it acknowledges wrong doing and it begins the foundation for reconciliation.  The reconciliation means what can we do to move forward together.

The SBC has had a storied history of supporting right-wing conservative political ideologies, thanks to the likes of Jerry Fallwell and others.  SBC has been in bed, figuratively, with the likes of James Dobson and Focus on the Family and other uber-evangelical and conservatively religious agencies.  These people have pedaled gross xenophobia to hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting Christians.  Using religion as a tool of hate has resulted in an ever growing millennial generation firmly adopting a “spiritual, but not religious” mindset because far too often the Fallwell’s of the group act as the poster child for the millions of churchgoers across the country.

This is not to suggest that the current churches, pastors and members of SBC across this country are a bunch of homogenous rednecks with no semblance of enlightenment whatsoever, but I do believe that the majority of them do subscribe to theological beliefs that perhaps are antithetical to that of Rev. Luter and certainly that of his congregation.

To understand where I’m coming from, one needs to understand that Franklin Avenue Baptist Church is a typical inner-city megachurch in a working class black neighborhood of St. Roch where upper middle class blacks to those perhaps on assisted living attend.  This demographic of the church is the complete opposite of what SBC is traditionally seen as.  These are the black folk who voted for Obama, no questions asked.  These are the black folk that agreed with former Ray Nagin when he said New Orleans will always be a “chocolate city.”  There may be some black folk at this church who still believed the eponymous “they” blew up the levees and flooded the 9th Ward.

There may also be black folks at this church who don’t believe in same-sex marriage or women in the pulpit either.

Oddly enough, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention often times isn’t the one called on when issues of politics intersect at that socio-religious level.  Think back, does anyone really remember who the previous SBC president was?  No, most don’t.  But those who read this type of schtick often enough are familiar with the name Albert Mohler.   Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  Past quotes on issues ranging from homosexuality to religious tolerance and understanding of other religious faiths falls well within the range of corrosive and hateful.

To which, I want to ask Rev. Luter, what say ye?

Let’s be clear, it’s not a matter of if but when these white, patriarchal and heteronormative males speak out with SBC looming not to far in their associative rearview mirrors, I ask, what will Rev. Luter say?  I don’t ask this question so much based on his skin color, but rather based on the existential reality of his members.

To be honest, I doubt many of his members know what Southern Baptist Convention supports and believes theologically and politically.  But I  think most average church goers don’t.  I talked to one of my friends who attended his church momentarily and she asked why didn’t I attend.  I flat out said “Because they’re Southern Baptist and they don’t ordain women and they aren’t open and affirming.”  To which she asked “What’s Southern Baptist?”   To be fair, I think this is true of most church members.  If you press non-seminary trained lay persons about some basic theological tenets and political aspects of their denominational affiliation you’ll be met with a blank stare.

Nevertheless, I am very interested to see when these controversies arise what will Rev. Luter say and how will he respond.  Also I do think it is interesting that Rev. Luter has not been to seminary.  The majority of the persons who are controversial with SBC backing, for what ever it’s worth, do have the Master of Divinity degree.  Of course, no amount of formal education can train one to be a hate-mongering carnival barker the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell, but oddly enough, it does give one grounds to stand on for debate and controversy. Whether one considers it erroneous or not, Mohler and even the preceding SBC president, Bryant White are formally educated and it means they read.  The ability to read something, process it as knowledge is a powerful tool.  I believe part of the reason media loves going to Mohler isn’t so much that he’s a lightning rod for a controversial topic inasmuch that they can tag the name “theologian” to his by-line or something to put next to his name in a radio or TV news report.

Let me perfectly clear: I think Fred Luter is a great guy and the model image of what it means to be a pastor.  I met him last year and he’s a standup guy and I couldn’t imagine a better pastor.  He truly has a servant’s heart and he would go down for the parishioners of his church, and all of them know that–everyone in the city of New Orleans knows that.  I don’t want this to be interpreted as some personal vendetta against Luter or that somehow I’m casting aspersions at him as an individual and his qualifications to be elected.

What I am saying is that I hope SBC isn’t nominating or electing him as a token.

The possibility of Luter being a token has nothing to do with him, but all about what does SBC say in fashioning and creating their own future.  For SBC to reiterate in the year 2012 that they have stuck to their 1995 pledge means that they’re trying too hard.  One doesn’t need to talk about it, but be about it.  If they were serious about it, they wouldn’t have to remind everyone they were serious about it.   And while I’m sure Nathan Finn, professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological seminary, meant well by his tweet, if the election of one black president is the salve to decades of racial strife, then yes, Obama’s presidency has effectively ended racism in America.

There is no one cure-all to racism.  What I have discovered in my own personal journey, the racial boundaries come when you literally sit down and eat dinner with someone of the other race.  When I did a summer internship at a white church as a youth counselor, I came with my own prejudices that at times I had to deal with and get over.  And it was obvious for some, they had their own prejudices as well that got challenged and discussed as they met me.  For some, they went over well, and for others it went poorly resulting in Facebook friend removals.  Whatever the case, I feel I’m better for it and eternally thankful for the experience.

Is it a step in the right direction?  Maybe.  I would hope so, but I’m not counting my eggs before they hatch on this one.

Keep it uppity and truthfully radical, JLL

* The Southern Methodist Episcopal Church reunited with their 1845 split in 1939 to form The Methodist Church and again in 1968 merged with another Evangelical United Brethren to form what now recognize as the United Methodist Church.

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