NEW ORLEANS - The Southern Baptist Convention voted Tuesday to elect its first African-American president in a major step toward reconciling the 167-year-old denomination’s troubled racial past and appealing to a more diverse group of believers.
The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. was unopposed in being elected by thousands of enthusiastic delegates Tuesday at the annual meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in his hometown of New Orleans.
Pastor David Crosby of First Baptist New Orleans nominated Luter, calling him a “fire-breathing, miracle-working pastor’’ who “would likely be a candidate for sainthood if he were Catholic.’’
Crosby recalled how Luter built the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church from a tiny congregation to a megachurch of nearly 8,000 before the buildings were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Members of Luter’s mostly black church came to worship at Crosby’s mostly white church, and the pastors worked together for two years as Luter rebuilt Franklin Avenue. Today, with a Sunday attendance of 5,000, Luter’s church is once again the largest Southern Baptist church for attendance in the state.
“Fred Luter is the only megachurch pastor I know who had to do it twice,’’ Crosby said.
Crosby said the Convention needs Luter at the head of the table as it increasingly focuses on diversifying its membership.
“Many leaders are convinced this nomination is happening now by the provenance of God,’’ he said.
Delegates clapped and cheered when Luter’s election was announced by the Southern Baptist Convention’s current president, Bryant Wright, who told those gathered for the convention that they were “privileged to be here for this historic occasion.’’
Luter wiped tears from his eyes as he accepted the position. Two female ushers from the Franklin Avenue congregation embraced, swaying and weeping with joy.
A minister from Luter’s church, Darren Martin, said the Southern Baptists’ past support of slavery and segregation is well known, but Luter’s election was “a true sign . . . that change from within has really come. . . . Christ is at the center of the SBC.’’
The historic election comes as membership and baptisms are on the decline and the denomination, based in Nashville, is trying to expand its appeal beyond its traditional white Southern base.
In a news conference after the vote, Luter said he does not think his election is a token gesture.
“If we stop appointing African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics to leadership positions after this, we’ve failed,’’ he said. “. . . I promise you I’m going to do all that I can to make sure this is not just a one-and-done deal.’’
Also on Tuesday, delegates were voting on whether to adopt an optional alternative name, Great Commission Baptists.
“Great Commission’’ refers to Matthew 28:16-20, in which Jesus instructs his disciples at Galilee to go forth and make disciples of all nations.
Fearing that the Southern Baptist name carried negative associations for many outsiders, Wright had formed a study committee last year to consider a change. While the committee deemed a full and official name change to be too difficult and expensive, it suggested the alternative name as an option.
But the alternative name faces strong opposition, including from some members who are proud of the denomination’s association with conservative theology and politics.
The notion of changing the Southern Baptist name is not new: It was first proposed in 1903 and has been unsuccessfully brought up more than a dozen times since. Even if the compromise alternative is approved, it is unlikely to put the issue to rest.
While the history of the Southern Baptist Convention is uniquely tied to race, it is not alone in being a denomination defined by it. Almost all American churches serve one ethnic group. Even churches with a large number of immigrants often have separate English and non-English services.
Many Christian churches in the United States have been trying to diversify and some have made solid progress. For Southern Baptists, 20 percent of churches in 2010 were predominantly nonwhite, up from only 5 percent in 1990. But the denomination is still playing catch-up.
“The nation itself has become less white and the South especially has become dramatically changed, not simply because of the African-American, but because of the Latino presence,’’ said Bill Leonard, a specialist in Baptist history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
Leonard said that if the Southern Baptists are “going to remain in their view numerically viable, they have to expand their constituency, and they’ve almost waited too long for it.’’