New leader, new name, new intolerance

Rev. Fred Luter reacts after his election as president of the 167-year-old Southern Baptist Convention.
Rev. Fred Luter reacts after his election as president of the 167-year-old Southern Baptist Convention.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Yesterday, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), America’s largest Protestant denomination, elected their new president unopposed. This is not a typical news lede; heck, for a lot of folks, it barely qualifies as news. But it happens to be news, and not just because the man they elected to lead them is one of color:

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.

You might think that the most surprising and newsworthy part of the above excerpt is the fact that Rev. Fred Luter is African American. Yes, that’s news, a barrier broken, cheered by thousands. It’s a big deal. It’s only been 17 years since the SBC apologized to Luter, me, and other African Americans for literally having come into creation to protect the institution of slavery. All well and good, right? Well, the Southern Baptists weren’t done signifying.

They made another symbolic move today, albeit one that came with considerably more hesitance. Turns out the Southern Baptists are no longer called by that name. They’re now Great Commission Baptists, after the convention voted with a 53% majority to change the brand name so as not to turn off those alienated by the word “Southern”:

“In regions outside of the South, ‘Southern’ may conjure up  a regional stereotype that becomes a hindrance to the Gospel,” Roger S. “Sing” Oldham, a  spokesman for the denomination, told the Los Angeles Times. “Our brothers and sisters in Christ who are of other race and language groups can now identify themselves with something that does not hearken back to a Southern past.” …

The term “Great Commission” refers to Jesus’s command to his apostles to go forth and make disciples of all nations.

Sounds like progress, right? Even progressive, perhaps? Perhaps, at least in terms of branding and symbolism. But the convention also took another vote today, adopting a resolution against marriage equality, among other things. This wasn’t the same as voting on rights in a state election, per se; they just wanted to make it clear that they’re opposed to same-sex marriage and for restrictions on all manner of intimate behavior:

Thousands of delegates at the denomination’s annual meeting in New Orleans on Wednesday were nearly unanimous in their support for the resolution that affirms their belief that marriage is “the exclusive union of one man and one woman” and that “all sexual behavior outside of marriage is sinful.” …

“It is regrettable that homosexual rights activists and those who are promoting the recognition of ‘same-sex marriage’ have misappropriated the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement,” the resolution states.

I’m a Christian, and a member of another denomination that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, or gay clergy. I cast no stones from any glass house here, but what I see in this news is a maintenance of old practices, newly branded for the 21st century. The Southern Great Commission Baptists may not be what they once were, and they may have changed significantly over this past weekend. But what I see in this news today is a denomination that seeks to merely slap a different label on itself, but continue with an old practice.

They’d be wise to heed James 3:18 – “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” I’m unsure how a resolution infringing upon the freedoms and dignity of a selected group of people is in any way peaceful, or righteous.

New leader, new name, new intolerance