NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The nation's largest Protestant denomination is set to take its biggest step yet toward resolving its troubled racial past.
On Tuesday, the Southern Baptist Convention is expected to vote on whether to elect an black pastor as its president for the first time in the denomination's 167-year history. The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. is running unopposed so far.
Seventeen years ago, Mr. Luter was one of the authors of an SBC resolution that apologized to blacks for its past support of racism and resolved to strive for racial reconciliation.
Since that gesture, the denomination has grown its nonwhite congregations from only 5 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2010, but its leadership has not diversified as rapidly as membership.
Bill Leonard, an expert in Baptist history at Wake Forest University's School of Divinity, said some other denominations have been much more intentional about diversity. The American Baptist Churches USA in the 1970s added quotas for ethnic groups in its denominational leadership.
Such a system likely would not be accepted by the Southern Baptists.
A recent poll of SBC pastors conducted by the denomination's Lifeway Research found that 10 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement, "Without regard to any individual, I think it would be a good thing to have an African-American as president of the Southern Baptist Convention."
Lifeway Research President Ed Stetzer said at least some of those negatives are likely from people who believe that race should not be a factor in choosing a president. But faced with declining membership, Mr. Stetzer believes, the 16-million strong Nashville, Tenn.-based denomination will have to be deliberate about its efforts to diversify.
"I think they thought racial diversity would happen ... now they realize they have to make it happen," he said.
As delegates from Southern Baptist churches across the United States gather in New Orleans for their annual meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday, they will take at least two votes tied to diversifying the denomination.
One is the vote for president. The second is the adoption of an optional alternative name, Great Commission Baptists.
The "Great Commission" refers to Matthew 28:16-20, in which Jesus instructs his disciples at Galilee to go forth and make disciples of all nations.
Fearing the Southern Baptist name carried negative associations for many outsiders, current SBC President Bryant Wright formed a study committee last year to consider a change. While the committee deemed a full and official name change to be too difficult and expensive, it suggested the alternative name as an option.
While Southern Baptists have been publicly united in their support for Mr. Luter, the alternative name faces opposition from some members who are proud of the denomination's association with conservative theology and politics.
The notion of changing the Southern Baptist name is not new: It was first proposed in 1903 and has been unsuccessfully brought up more than a dozen times since. Even if the compromise alternative is approved, it is unlikely to put the issue to rest for good.