A heartfelt mazal tov to the Southern Baptists
By Rabbi Ben Kamin
SALT LAKE CITY—It was Martin Luther King who described 11 A.M. on Sunday as “the most segregated hour of the week.” No faith community is free of hypocrisy or even cruelty, but the Southern Baptist Convention was founded upon the premise of white supremacy. Black folks were not only banned from the pews but were officially regarded as subhuman and deserving of their slave status.
It’s hard to imagine what God was thinking, looking down from heaven upon an ivory white congregation, while its members sang hymns of Christian mercy and universal tolerance.
Now, finally, more than 170 years after the Civil War, a black man has been exuberantly elected president of the Baptist conference founded in 1845 by ardent defenders of Negro bondage. Rev. Fred Luter has taken office; here is the theological equivalent of the ascension of America’s first black commander-in-chief.
“This was a genuine, authentic move by this convention that says our doors are open, and the only way they can see that is not just putting up an African-American president, but seeing other ethnic groups in other areas of this convention,” declared Rev. Luter in New Orleans. “Time will tell, and I’ll be a cheerleader promoting that.” [Washington Post]
There were factors other than benevolence in this development, though Fred Luter, an ebullient, skilled, and hard-working pastor, earned the post. But the 16-million member organization, a bastion of the old Southern oligarchy, has suffered a decline in enrollment, funds, and image. The actual number of baptisms performed has fallen precipitously. Not unlike the Catholic Church, the Convention has recognized that part of its future lays in reaching out to ethnic minorities. (It should be noted that the Church, whatever its characteristics, has never operated with a covenant that was openly racist or exclusivist.)
Dr. Richard Land, a white spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, credited the election of Luter to divine will. “It was the direct intervention of God,” he announced in a television interview. One has to salute this broad pronouncement, given the fact that the Southern Baptists have long been calcified in their assertion that God wanted to keep black people out of their churches.
The Southern Baptist Convention remained all-white till 1965—two years after Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” preachment. Now, in 2012, it is 10% black and 22% “ethnic.” To his credit, Dr. Land claimed that the Convention had wrongly embraced the traditional Southern way of life, which was fundamentally apartheid, from the cotton fields to the church buildings to the bus stations to the city halls. “It was sin,” he said, evidently sincere and cognizant of this real breakthrough.
One prays that Rev. Luter inspires this old organization to move from thoughts of divine intervention to the real-life intercession of human hearts in the work of God on this earth.
Rabbi Kamin is a freelance writer based in San Diego. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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