Who will be the face of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)?
Will it be Fred Luter, the New Orleans pastor expected to be elected this June as the first African American president in the convention's 167-year history?
Or will it be Richard Land, the denomination's longtime Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) president disciplined by his board today—including the cancellation of his radio show—over racially charged comments about the Trayvon Martin case?
While insiders characterize Luter's anticipated election as a watershed moment for a denomination started by slave owners, some observers outside the SBC voice skepticism about the true potential impact on race relations.
"The real issue is whether denominational leaders, of whom Land is perhaps the most public right now … have any intent on sharing real denominational leadership with Luter or other non-whites outside the traditional networks of denominational power," said Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
Leonard noted that the SBC president serves a one-year term traditionally followed by a second one-year term—for a maximum of two years.
"Whether that is long enough to give voice to 'leadership of color' in the denomination is uncertain but doubtful," Leonard said, describing the post as largely ceremonial.
David Goatley, a black Baptist scholar-pastor who heads the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention in Washington, D.C., said the SBC seems willing to embrace an African American supportive of the denomination's current "theological, political, and social direction."
"That implies a certain kind of progress in the organization," said Goatley, who earned a master of divinity degree and a Ph.D. at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky. "There was a time when no African American … could have ascended to this position."
However, Goatley predicted that Land's statements would continue to carry more weight than those of Luter.
"No president with one or two years … can hope to have substantial influence in comparison to an agency leader who has served for decades … and nurtured a public persona that identifies him as a—or the—principal spokesperson for the organization," said Goatley, a national board member for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
But in the view of Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Alabama, such statements wrongly ignore "a great sweep of history."
"For a denomination to have been conceived in the womb of slavery … and now to elect its first African American president has to be seen in a much wider arc of history from 1845 to the present," said George, a Southern Baptist who describes Land as a friend. "That far outweighs any present flopping controversy over what Richard Land said or didn't say."
Land, who has headed the ERLC since 1988, issued two public apologies and sent a personal letter to President Obama seeking forgiveness after charging Democrats and civil rights leaders with exploiting the killing of Martin, an unarmed Florida teen.
In a statement released by Baptist Press, the SBC's news service, Luter said he accepted Land's apology.
"Our convention has made a lot of progress in the area of racial reconciliation, and we want to continue this effort," Luter said. "Dr. Land's letter of apology will hopefully keep us on track. I accept his apology and will look forward to working with him and others within this convention to tear down the walls of racism in our great country."