More than 7,000 Southern Baptists leaped to their feet, cheered and shouted “Hallelujah” when the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. was elected Tuesday as the first black president of the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention.
But Luter told Christianity Today that he is trying to keep expectations about his presidency low. "I don't think it will change drastically but I do think there will be a change, where African-Americans who really never considered being part of the SBC will now look at it," he said.
In that same story written before Luter's election, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary dean Russell Moore said Luter's ascendency to the top is a signal from SBC leadership that demographics need to change.
"This denomination was once described by a commentator as 'as white as a tractor pull,’ ” he said. "If that's the case, the denomination will not, and should not, survive."
He said the change to a more diverse church must be dramatic.
"This can't simply be a white denomination with some black and Latino churches," Moore said. "It must be a vibrant, multi-ethnic network of reconciled and reconciling churches."
Some members said they were shocked and never thought they’d live to see such an African-American president of the faith, according to RNS. Others have said that Luter deserved to be elected not because he is black but because of his commitment to the denomination, preaching skills and success in rebuilding his church into one of the largest in Louisiana.
Luter's 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 denomination based in Nashville, Tenn., was formed before the Civil War in a split with northern Baptists over slavery and had the reputation over much of the last century of 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.
Still, as Molly Worthen wrote in the New York Times this week, “there is a more fundamental question that lurks behind this historic moment. Is a 'black evangelical' a contradiction in terms?"
"If conservative evangelicals are serious about making common political cause with black Protestants, they must revise their expectation that a free market and a population that obeys their particular reading of scripture will correct the injustices ingrained in American society," she wrote. "They must rethink their approach to America’s history and its modern-day problems."