Southern Baptists poised for historic election

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The person expected to be in the running to become the first black man in the No. 2 position of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination didn’t choose to become a Southern Baptist. By Fred Luter Jr.’s account, it just sort of happened.

In 1986, Mr. Luter was hired at the head pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, a Southern Baptist Convention affiliate. Ever since, he has been breaking racial barriers in the predominantly white denomination.

In 1992, he was the first black elected to the executive board of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. In 2001, he was the first black to preach the convention sermon at the SBC annual meeting.

When the Southern Baptist Convention elects new officers at its annual conference in Phoenix beginning Tuesday, the 54-year-old Mr. Luter will be in the running for first vice president. Some prominent Southern Baptist leaders already have said they hope that position will lead to his election as president next year when the 2012 convention is held in his hometown.

Mr. Luter said he doesn’t want to speculate on that.

“I’m a street kid from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans,” he said in an interview last week. “It’s very humbling. It’s really an honor just to be nominated.”

Technically, Mr. Luter hasn’t been nominated yet. But Danny Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., already has announced that he will nominate Mr. Luter.

“To my knowledge, no one has announced to run against him,” Mr. Akin said, “and I would be very surprised if anyone does.”

Mr. Akin called Mr. Luter a “much-loved, much-respected pastor” who “can be elected on his own merits regardless of skin color.”

The move to elect Mr. Luter comes at the same time the SBC is making a push for greater participation among what it sometimes calls its “non-Anglo” members in the life of the convention, particularly in leadership roles.

Mr. Luter’s church is one of an estimated 3,400 mostly black churches in the Southern Baptist denomination, a small slice of more than 45,700 total SBC-affiliated churches with about 16 million members total.

The denomination formed in 1845 in a split with the American Baptist Convention over the question of whether slave owners could be missionaries. The SBC was silent on or opposed to civil rights through the 1970s, and many congregations excluded blacks.

Mr. Akin said his planned nomination of Mr. Luter is not related to a resolution on diversity scheduled to be presented at this year’s annual meeting but “just coalesced beautifully.”

“I’m a white boy from the South, but I’d love to see the convention of churches become more diverse in terms of ethnicity and race,” he said. “I long to see the church on earth look like the church in heaven, around the throne.”

The push for increasing minority participation comes at a time of decline for the SBC. According to figures released Thursday by the denomination’s Lifeway Christian Resources, baptisms were down almost 5 percent in 2010 over 2009. Total membership declined slightly, by 0.15 percent to 16,136,044, the fourth straight year of decline.

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