By TRAVIS LOLLER
NEW ORLEANS - The Southern Baptist Convention voted today to elect its first African-American president in one of its biggest steps yet to reconcile the 167-year-old denomination's racial past and appeal to a more diverse group of believers.
The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. was unopposed in being elected by thousands of enthusiastic delegates today at the annual meeting of the nation's largest Protestant denomination in his hometown of New Orleans.
Pastor David Crosby of First Baptist New Orleans nominated Luter, calling him a "fire-breathing, miracle-working pastor" who "would likely be a candidate for sainthood if he were Catholic."
Crosby recalled how Luter built the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church from a tiny congregation to a megachurch of nearly 8,000 before the buildings were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Members of Luter's mostly black church came to worship at Crosby's mostly white church, and the pastors worked together for 2 1/2 years as Luter rebuilt Franklin Avenue. Today, with a Sunday attendance of 5,000, Luter's church is once again the largest Southern Baptist church for attendance in the state.
"Fred Luter is the only megachurch pastor I know who had to do it twice," Crosby said.
The historic election comes as the denomination tries to expand its appeal beyond its traditional white Southern base. Membership and baptisms have been generally declining in recent years.
The Nashville, Tenn.-based denomination was formed before the Civil War in a split with northern Baptists over slavery and had reputation over much of the last century for supporting segregation.
Seventeen years ago, Luter was one of the authors of an SBC resolution that apologized to African-Americans for its past support of racism and resolved to strive for racial reconciliation.
Since that gesture, the denomination has grown its non-white congregations from only 5 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2010. But its leadership has not diversified as rapidly as membership.
Also on today, delegates planned to vote on whether to adopt 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 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.