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.