South Baptist Denomination Choose First Black President

Photo by Gerald Herbert, AP
(June 19, 2012) NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The largest U.S. Protestant denomination chose its first black president on Tuesday, an historic election for the predominately white religious group as it seeks to better reflect the diversity of the country and its membership.
Fred Luter, a New Orleans pastor and civic leader, ran unopposed for the top post in the 167-year-old Southern Baptist Convention, which counts a growing number of minorities among its 16 million members.
His election to a one-year term was met by thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the 7,000 Southern Baptists attending the convention's annual meeting in New Orleans.
Luter, 55, was born and raised in the city, which is also home to the church he rebuilt into the denomination's largest congregation in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina devastated it in 2005.
The pastor said he hoped his election would spur more appointments for people of color to leadership positions in the convention.
"If we stop appointing African-Americans or Asians or Hispanics to leadership roles in thisconvention after my term is over, then we've failed," he told reporters. "I want this election to make a difference in the life of this convention."
The choice of Luter as the Christian denomination's leader is seen as an important statement about its efforts to distance itself from its racist past. The convention was founded in 1845 after Southern Baptists split from the First Baptist Church in America in the pre-Civil War days over slave ownership.
Luter was part of the convention committee that in June 1995 issued a resolution that apologized to African-Americans for condoning slavery and racism and pledged to work toward racial reconciliation.
Of the 45,700 congregations that comprise the Southern Baptist Convention, 3,500 are African-American churches.
"It's been said that the Southern Baptists are very old and very white," said Tim Burnham, who is white and the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lindale in Georgia.
"This is a big step that says we want to reach out to the African-American community and the Hispanic community, and we don't need to be just a white people's organization."
The election came just weeks after church officials said race relations within the convention had suffered due to racially charged remarks made by the group's longtime ethics chief.
Richard Land, president of the convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, was reprimanded on June 1 for accusing black leaders of trying to use the February killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin by a white and Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida for political gain.
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