The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, elected the first African-American president in its 167-year history on Tuesday. It was a landmark vote for a church that strongly defended slavery in its earliest days and that in more contemporary times was closely associated -- sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly -- with white supremacists. The election of the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. shows that the denomination and most of its members have moved far beyond that history.
The Southern Baptist Convention, which includes about 51,000 congregations with about 16 million members, is still a mostly white denomination. About 1 million members are blacks. Many black faithful who espouse the same conservative and strongly evangelical principles as their white counterparts prefer membership in mostly black groups like the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., which has about 7.5 million members. Luter acknowledges that fact, but believes that he can help attract minorities -- African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics -- into his church's fold.
Indeed, the convention's future might rest on the ability of Luter and other leaders to expand the church's traditional white and Southern base. In recent years, the denomination has suffered declines in baptisms and memberships. The way to reverse those declines, church leaders agree, is to attract new members in ethnically diverse communities, including urban areas where Southern Baptists have a relatively small presence.
That work will not be easy, given the denomination's historical association with slavery and the white supremacist movement. The church has worked diligently to put the past behind it. Those efforts have produced some success.
In 1995, the convention approved a resolution that apologized for "historic acts of evil such as slavery" and for excusing "racism in our time." There was no attempt to muddle the issue. The resolution plainly asked for forgiveness "from our African-American brothers and sisters." For the most part, the request seems to have been granted.
Still, there is enough lingering resentment among some blacks and refusal to part from the old ways among some whites to create tension within the convention. Luten hopes to bring those groups together and to attract others to the denomination through what he calls the traditional Baptist way -- evangelizing, serving believers and providing disaster relief. Denomination leaders and convention delegates obviously agree with his agenda. He was elected without opposition.
Tuesday's election signals major change in the Southern Baptist Convention. It does not mean, however, that the transformation from troubled past to mainstream present is complete. That will come when blacks and other minorities are quietly and routinely elected to positions of authority and power on the church's governing and administrative boards. Luten's presidency is a positive start in that direction.