The Southern Baptist Convention has long dealt with the issue of race, but now the majority of pastors of the America's largest Protestant denomination say they are ready to have an African-American as their leader.
Amid anticipation that the Rev. Fred Luter from Louisiana will be elected as SBC's first-ever African-American president next month, a survey shows that 86 percent of pastors say the likely historic shift in the leadership would be good for the convention.
"Southern Baptists have come a long way," Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, said Friday, announcing the results of the poll his group conducted this past spring. The poll asked pastors for their level of agreement or disagreement with the statement: "Without regard to any individual, I think it would be a good thing to have an African-American as president of the Southern Baptist Convention."
Of the nearly 1,000 SBC pastors who responded, 61 percent agree it would be positive, 10 percent disagree, and 29 percent don't have an opinion. Of those who had an opinion, 50 percent strongly agree and 36 percent somewhat agree.
"In the last 20 years, the percentage of non-Anglo SBC churches has grown from five percent to 20 percent, and now seven percent of Southern Baptist churches are identified as primarily African-American," Stetzer noted. "But, we are still a predominantly Anglo denomination, so it is particularly encouraging to see the openness and enthusiasm for an African-American SBC president."
Stetzer said the high number of those not expressing an opinion, and some of those with a negative answer, might indicate that many pastors believe race should play no part in the selection of leadership of the Nashville-based SBC, which has over 16 million members as of 2010.
He clarified that the survey question was asked to gain perspective on pastors' views of this anticipated historic vote, but was not focused specifically on Pastor Luter of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, La. "We wanted to know about race's role in denominational leadership," he said. "What we didn't want was a referendum or pre-convention vote of confidence of any individual's skills or electability. That's why we asked the question the way we did."
Luter, who became the first ever African-American vice president of the denomination last June, has had a long and turbulent road to rise in the ranks.
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, his church was destroyed and he lost its entire 7,000-member congregation, most of whom fled the city, according to The Tennessean. Three years later, however, the church reopened its doors after help from the entire neighborhood, and now draws 5,000 people for church services.
Luter had a near-fatal motorcycle accident when he was 21, and he says the incident guided him in the right direction toward God.
The pastor knows the importance of his likely election as the first African-American leader of the convention. "There's no way we can get around it. Here's a convention that started on slavery. Years later you have an African-American one step away from the presidency. I can't deny that," Luter reflected in June when he became vice president.
The SBC became a separate denomination in 1845 in Georgia, following a regional split with northern Baptists over the issues of slavery. And after the American Civil War, most black Baptists in the South separated from white churches and set up their own congregations.