Luter vs. Land

As Southern Baptists prepare to install their first black president, observers disagree on how much clout Fred Luter will have in a denomination closely identified with high-profile figures such as the newly reprimanded Richard Land.
Luter vs. Land
Image: Photo of Luter/AP; Land/Getty
Luter vs. Land

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 ...

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