As longtime journalists covering religion in America, we haven’t seen this many Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) headlines in decades! The Washington Post—and many other newspapers—just published a report on the expected election of the Rev. Fred Luter jr. to head the 16-million-member denomination. The Post’s headline is: “Southern Baptists set to elect 1st black president for convention with roots in slavery.”
Is this just window dressing? Is this the cynical elevation of an African-American front man way too late in the march toward diversity? Our answer to that question: No, not this time! The SBC, now chastened by an erosion in membership over the past decade, finally is getting serious about shedding its pro-slavery and anti-diversity heritage. The other headlines racing across the nation’s newspapers focus on the downfall of the once-powerful Richard Land—known for many years as the SBC’s political muscle. As the LA Times headline puts it: “Southern Baptist host loses radio show over Trayvon Martin remarks.”
As the SBC convention looms in New Orleans on June 19-20, we invited the nation’s most influential young SBC voice—Jonathan Merritt, an author and the son of a former SBC president—to analyze what he sees unfolding.
By Jonathan Merritt
The Southern Baptist Convention is famous for making headlines, but this one we can all be proud of. Next week, they will elect their first African-American president in the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, LA.
The significance of this event cannot be overstated given the Southern Baptist Convention’s history. The denomination—currently America’s largest Protestant denomination—was founded over the issue of slavery. The first Southern Baptist churches split from northern Baptists in 1845 due to their desire to appoint slaveholders as missionaries.
Less than twenty years later, the issue of slavery was all but settled in America but Southern Baptists continued to struggle with matters of race. Preachers in the denomination vocally opposed the civil rights movement and supported Jim Crow laws. In 1956, Texas pastor W.A. Criswell, still considered a paragon among contemporary Southern Baptists, argued before a joint session of the South Carolina legislature that de-segregation was un-Christian.
The denomination, however, has tried to reverse course in recent years beginning with their 1989 “Resolution on Racism.” The statement asserted, “Southern Baptists have not always clearly stood for racial justice and equality.” This year at their annual gathering, a top-level task force will recommend an alternate name, “Great Commission Baptists” in part because of the racial baggage their historic name holds.
Despite such progress, the SBC has continued to suffer setbacks. A few years ago, the publishing arm of the SBC released Vacation Bible School curriculum largely thought to be racist toward Asians. Titled “Far-out Far East Rickshaw Rally,” the resources drew heavily on Asian stereotypes. The materials included chopsticks, karate uniforms, takeout boxes and images of rickshaws, a recognized symbol of injustice. Despite passionate outcries from Asian-American Christians, the curriculum was distributed to an estimated 20,000 American churches.
On March 31 of this year, Richard Land, the Southern Baptist Convention’s political spokesperson incited controversy with comments regarding the Trayvon Martin case. On his radio show, he called African-American leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton “race mongers” and “racial ambulance chasers” who are politicizing Trayvon’s murder. He added that seeing young black men as threatening is “understandable” since they are “statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man.”
In April, a Southern Baptist seminary professor, Nathan Finn, tweeted, “I know 3 SBC pastors in the same southern state who’ve resigned pastorates in the past 5 years because of racist membership policies.” He added that he had spoken with an SBC pastor whose former church wouldn’t allow African-Americans to become members as late as 2009.
But maybe, just maybe, Southern Baptists are ready to move forward. Many SBC leaders were outraged by Land’s comments, prompting a contrite 5-page apology, an official reprimand, and the forced termination of his radio program. The leader could arguably have gotten by without so much as a hand-slap a decade ago, but not today. Not now.
Despite our occasional setbacks, the sense among Southern Baptists is that a new day is dawning and Fred Luter just might help lead us into the horizon. A black man from a predominately black church in a mostly black neighborhood who understands the black American experience will soon fill the highest elected post in SBC life. The potential impact across the denomination is vast.
And yet, we must temper our glee. Because we know that curricula and comments and membership policies are merely symptoms of a deeper problem, and one that cannot be solved swiftly. It will take more than ballots to solve the race problem that often seems to lurk just below the surface.
We need heart change. We need transformation. We need renewal. But those things must begin somewhere, and for Southern Baptists, the election of an African-American president is as good a starting point as any.
Read more about Jonathan Merritt’s important work …
Jonathan is active as a leader in his own SBC church in Georgia. He also is popular as an author and regular commentator both on network television and a wide range of print and web publications, including USA Today, the Washington Post and The Atlantic. He cares deeply about the vitality of Christian congregations—and is eager to help usher in a new appreciation of diversity in our communities.
Read our recent ReadTheSirit interview with Jonathan Merritt about his work—and his new book: “A Faith of Our Own, Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.”
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.