History was made this past week at the Southern Baptist Convention when they elected their first Black president. The SBC was founded in 1845 after southern members split from northern Baptists over the southerners’ defense of slavery, segregation and White supremacy. Of course, the SBC had a long history during Jim Crow as well, and it took until the early ’90s for an apology to come forth from the SBC when it came to the issue of slavery.
Today, the SBC is the largest Baptist denomination in the world with more than 16 million members in 45,000 churches throughout the U.S. This week, after 167 years, in a historic move, Fred Luter, from New Orleans, was elected as its first African-American president.
MR. MARTIN: Welcome to “Washington Watch.”
This has been a huge week for two, historic firsts for African-Americans. First, is the first Black attorney general, Eric Holder. He could become the first attorney general in American history to be held in contempt of Congress. We’ll discuss more of that in our roundtable.
But first, history was made this week at the Southern Baptist Convention when they elected their first Black president. Now, I’m sure the SBC founders are rolling in their graves, because in Augusta, Georgia, in 1845, the SBC was founded after southern members split from northern Baptists over the southerners’ defense of slavery, segregation and White supremacy. Of course, the SBC had a long history during Jim Crow as well, and it took until the early ’90s for an apology to come forth from the SBC when it came to the issue of slavery.
Today, the SBC is the largest Baptist denomination in the world with more than 16 million members in 45,000 churches throughout the U.S. This week, after 167 years, in a histor- — historic move, Fred Luter, from New Orleans, was elected as its first African-American president. He joins us right now.
Sir, welcome to “Washington Watch.”
REV. FRED LUTER, JR.: Thank you, Roland. It’s an honor, man, to be with you and with your audience.
MR. MARTIN: Now, what does it really mean for the SBC, for its churches, for its members for you to become the first African-American president; and how do you plan on leading the SBC over the next two years.
REV. LUTER: I think it means to the SBC that this is not the same Southern Baptist Convention that was started years ago as a result of slavery. This convention, in all the years that I’ve been a part of [it] – and I’ve been a part of it for 25 years – I’ve seen through the years, Roland, where they have sys- — on a daily basis, on a weekly basis, on a yearly basis, even at the conventions – they have really planned and tried to say that, “This is not the same, old convention. We want to let it be known that our convention is open for everybody.” As you mentioned, back in 1995, there was an apology made before the full convention to all the African-Americans in the convention. “Hey, we’re sorry about our past. Can’t do anything about our past, but we apologize for how it was started. But we want to have a new start. We can’t do anything about our past, but we can do a lot about our future.”
So, I think what it’s saying to the SBC and to all people who are part of the SBC – particularly African-Americans – that, “You are welcome at the table, and you are welcome” – “and to show you that you’re welcome, not only do we want to include you in every aspect of the” – “our convention, but we overwhelmingly voted for Fred Luter to be the first African-American president of this convention.”
I was unopposed, which is unheard of, Roland, when there’s an opportunity for a president to be elected.
MR. MARTIN: Um-hum.
REV. LUTER: And for all of those messengers to literally stand on their feet in unison – Whites, Black[s], Asians, Hispanics – and say they – they affirm me, it says that this is not their grandfather’s convention anymore.
MR. MARTIN: Now, of course, the SBC is often considered to be a – a bastion of conservative pastors, and we’ve seen the SBC get involved –
REV. LUTER: Yes.
MR. MARTIN: — in different political issues. Earlier this year, we saw Richard Land –
REV. LUTER: Yes.
MR. MARTIN: — one of the top SBC officials, make some comments with regard to the Trayvon Martin case. He had to apologize for that. Several Black pastors took him to task for those particular comments.
And so do you – will –
REV. LUTER: Yes.
MR. MARTIN: — the SBC become even more vocal when it comes to social justice issues? And, of course, we’ve heard folks talk about gay marriage and LGBT stuff and talk about other sort[s] of issues when – when it comes to policy, but what about social justice? Because when you look at African-Americans; when you look at Dr. King, SCLC, Black pastors, that’s really what – the – you know, the bread and butter for Black pastors like yourself.
REV. LUTER: Yeah. I think we have to because, again, this – this convention is no longer just an Anglo convention. It’s made up of other ethnic groups, and because of that and the groups that are in here, a lot of us are interested in the social issues that are facing our country, and I think we have to address those as they come. And so I think you’ll be seeing more from this convention dealing with the social issues that are facing not only our nation, not only our country, but every state and – that our convention is a part of. So, that, yes, we will be dealing more with those social issues.
MR. MARTIN: There’s also been discussion about the SBC changing its name because, frankly, it’s not just a southern organization. Your thoughts on that.
REV. LUTER: That’s right. Yes, even at this convention, there was a – a vote that those of – churches in areas other than the South – we have a lot of churches, Roland, all across the country, as far as west as California, up in New York and the Washington, D.C. area – [unintelligible] – and a lot of them feel that the name “Southern Baptist” hinder[s] a lot of their work.
So, what the convention decided to do this year was that – to add a descriptor, that if you wanted to use “Great Commission Baptist Church,” you can do that. You’re still a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, but this is just another descriptor that you can use, so it would not hinder you from doing ministry in places that you live at other than the South.
So, I think it was a good move. It was a difficult thing to do, because there’re so many people in the convention, particularly some of the older members of our convention, who just love that name. And – and so it was a win-win situation, because we – we’re not getting rid of the name. We’re just adding a descriptor for those younger pastors and churches outside of the South. So, I think it was a win-win situation for everybody.
MR. MARTIN: Do you believe – also, one of the critical issues we’ve seen addressed in the SBC has dealt with women pastors, and there was a huge uproar at the convention several years ago when it came to women being in the pulpit. Do you believe that women should be affirmed in the SBC as being preachers, as being pastors? And would that make the SBC even more welcoming?
REV. LUTER: Well, I think one of the things that people to understand is that the Southern Baptist Convention cannot make churches do anything. There are a number of southern Baptist churches across the country that have women ministers and women pastors.
MR. MARTIN: Well, Pastor Luter, we certainly appreciate and welcome your election as head of the SBC; and I’m quite sure we’ll be chatting with you a lot more over the next couple of week. And there’s no doubt I will be seeing you in New Orleans at the Essence Music Festival doing the line dance to Aretha Franklin, ’cause, see, some pastors can still get their groove on.
REV. LUTER: Hey, man, bring my ascot when you come. I’ll wear it.
MR. MARTIN: I will take care of that. Bank on it.
Pastor Luter, thanks a lot.
REV. LUTER: All right, Roland. Thank you, sir. God bless.