Rv. Fred Luter

(Gerald Herbert/AP Photo)

The Rev. Fred Luter held up his Bible and stomped his feet. It was Monday evening, and he stood on the stage of the convention center hall, delivering a sermon to delegates of the Southern Baptist Convention. Nearly 8,000 of them had gathered for the denomination’s annual meeting in New Orleans, Luter’s hometown. Denouncing ills ranging from armed robberies to immoral TV shows, he said, “We’re living in the last days, in some perilous times!” Some people, Luter noted, say this situation can be changed by different political leadership, by more jobs, fewer prisons, less crime: “But the question, my brothers and sisters, the question is, ‘What did it take to change you?’”

Luter answered with a rousing invocation of the gospels and the word of God—but his query to his fellow Baptists pertained to more than individual souls. Luter himself is the face of change in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). As of his election on Tuesday, he is the first African-American president of the SBC, a denomination founded by pro-slavery Southern whites in 1845. Through the civil rights period and beyond, sectors of the convention remained thickly entwined with white supremacy and segregation, though in recent years, it has made efforts to move past its history—for instance, drafting a 1995 resolution apologizing to all African-Americans for once espousing slavery. Still, the evangelical denomination remains quite white and Southern: 80 percent of its 16 million members are white and 90 percent are concentrated in the South and Texas.

Luter’s ascendency, from the pulpit of New Orleans’ Franklin Avenue Baptist Church to the head of his denomination, is part of a conscious push by SBC leadership to become more multi-ethnic and compete with burgeoning non-denominational evangelical churches that court the young. Directly before the official announcement of Luter’s election, Jeff Iorg, president of the SBC’s Golden Gate Theological Seminary in San Francisco, gave his annual report, touting the seminary’s deliberate promotion of minority leaders, bilingual approaches to ministry, consciously multicultural events, and celebration of interracial and intercultural marriages. “Southern Baptists, the demographics of America are changing and you will ultimately make these changes to spread your message—particularly in urban areas,” he said.

For the time being, the SBC holds the mantle as the world’s largest Baptist denomination and the second largest religious body in the United States after the Catholic Church. It’s also extremely well-funded, receiving gifts from members totaling $10.6 billion during the 2009-2010 fiscal year. But these numbers belie deeper trends. Only 6.2 million members of the SBC are estimated to attend church regularly. Attendance and new baptisms are slowly but perceptibly dropping, along with revenue. SBC leaders worry that if they do not improve their outreach in cities, among minorities, and in other regions of the country, numbers will continue to go down. On Monday night, just after his sermon, Luter told me, “The message doesn’t change—the message is always Jesus—but we’ve gotta change the method.”

SBC LEADERS CONSIDER Fred Luter’s leadership at Franklin Avenue Baptist to be deeply instructive. Luter, 55, was raised National Baptist, a historically black denomination, in the working class Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. He drifted away from the church during a troubled adolescence, but his faith was rekindled after he almost died in a motorcycle accident in 1977. After the accident, he vowed to dedicate his life to Christ and began preaching on street-corners in his neighborhood every Saturday at noon, motivated by a desire to reach old friends still enmeshed in lives of crime and substance abuse. When Luter took up the pastorship of Franklin Avenue, it was a dying SBC church in a dilapidated industrial neighborhood of single-family homes that had suffered from white flight. Fewer than 150 aging, white members attended every Sunday.

By his own account, Luter said that when he first took charge of Franklin Avenue Baptist, he was unaware of the SBC’s history. He said he didn’t know the denomination had been started by slavery sympathizers. “As I look back,” he said, “I’m glad I didn’t because I might have stayed away.” He now views his involvement as providential. With charisma, a strong preaching style, and deep community involvement, Luter expanded the church whose majority-black membership rolls now tally around 8,000. Franklin Avenue has an expanded building, two Sunday services, and events throughout the week. On any given Sunday morning, the narrow streets around the church are completely packed with cars.

Luter’s church-growing bona fides are beyond reproach because he resurrected a dying church not once but twice, rebuilding Franklin Avenue in the wake of severe flooding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Its membership has rebounded since the storm: next year Luter will break ground on a larger megachurch building in suburban New Orleans East in partnership with LifeWay Architecture, the SBC’s architecture firm. The transformation in Luter’s church—from dwindling, aging, and white to a robust, minority-dominated church with young members, its own bridal chapel, keen social involvement, progressive worship styles, and a deeply traditional message—may serve as a model for other SBC churches seeking to modernize and expand while staying true to their biblical foundation.  

The denomination appears keen to re-brand. On Tuesday, delegates also elected to allow the convention’s churches and organizations to adopt the informal descriptor “Great Commission Baptist” rather than “Southern Baptist,” in an effort to distance itself from its segregationist past. (“Great Commission” refers to Christ’s post-resurrection instruction to his disciples to teach his message to all nations.) The vote on the optional, informal name change passed by a hair-thin margin, with 53 percent in support, a reminder of how reflexively traditional the convention can be.

By contrast, an SBC task force found that minority members of the convention overwhelmingly said that identifying as “Great Commission Baptist” rather than “Southern Baptist” would help them overcome resistance among potential members, who still associate the SBC with its racist past and with the actions of its lobbying arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), which has generally supported Republican policies since the 1980s. Just this past April, Richard Land, head of the ERLC, made controversial remarks on his (now canceled) radio show about the Trayvon Martin shooting, where he accused President Obama, who condemned the shooting, of trying to “gin up the black vote.” At the convention, he again apologized for his statements, adding that he hoped he had not distracted from Luter’s historic election. During a press conference at the convention, Luter indicated he thought conservative political advocacy was in the SBC’s marrow. When asked if his appointment would mean less partisanship, Luter said, “Less politics? At the SBC? I don’t think so.”

The fanfare surrounding Luter’s election is a reminder of how far the convention has to go in changing its identity. At the same time as Luter’s election, 30,000 delegates from the predominantly black National Baptist Convention met in St. Louis for an education conference where leaders criticized Obama’s approval of gay marriage (echoed by Land at the SBC convention) but reiterated support for the Obama administration’s healthcare plan, which the SBC has lobbied against, and announced a voter registration campaign for November. The National Baptist meeting, and its timing, seemed to underscore the continued segregation and political polarization of black and white Baptists, in the South and beyond, even as the SBC makes concerted efforts to increase diversity. 

SBC MEMBERS LIKE TO SAY that they all agree on Jesus, but exactly what these beliefs entail in a wider political world has never been static. David Goldfield, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and an expert on race and religion in the South, said the election of Luter, while “an important symbolic step,” is not surprising given the complex, intertwined relationship of white and black evangelicals in the South. Though white Southern Baptists split from their brethren in the North over slavery, “it was quite common for slaves or even free black people to attend services of the SBC before the Civil War.” (Masters, however, often avoided books like Exodus, which preach liberation.) “It’s not typical for slaves to take on the religion of masters, but evangelicalism had a powerful message of salvation, which slaves interpreted to their benefit.”

Goldfield also explores the way these different visions of evangelicalism have been in constant negotiation during American history, as many black Baptists in the South took up ideals of Godly social transformation during the Civil Rights movement and some white Southern Baptists like W.A. Criswell, who had condoned segregation but later recanted, shifted their ideals of redemptive social order to the nuclear family, forging the conservative political identity that the SBC and the modern South are associated with to this day. Whether or how this identity will shift under Luter’s leadership, and as the demographics of the SBC continue to change, remains to be seen.

In the culmination of his sermon to the SBC, Luter gave a litany of things that trouble him in society and the church: he’s ashamed of abortion, divorce, racism, and divisiveness—in politics, in his own church, and in the SBC at large. “But,” he declared, building a crescendo of repetition until he passionately shouted, “Southern Baptists!—in spite of all the stuff I’m ashamed about I am NOT ASHAMED OF THE GOSPEL.” 

The thousands of mostly Anglo Baptists in the convention hall literally leapt to their feet and applauded wildly. The sermon came after two days of the SBC Pastors’ Conference, which had been marked by white Christian rock and white pastors’ earnest, somber expositions of Bible passages. There was some cognitive dissonance to hearing Luter’s passionate sermon— a textbook example of the rhetorical “call and response” tradition within many black churches—in such an environment. But in future generations, the cultural and political divides that have kept apart traditional white and black Baptists are likely to prove less lasting than the gospel that has historically bound and still binds them.

Ingrid Norton is a writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Dissent, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Next American City, and other publications.