By Rashad Grove
Revolutionary intellectual and feminist scholar Angela Davis once said, “Diversity means absolutely nothing if those who are “diverse” do nothing except to cause the machinery of the current system to run exactly the same way or even more effectively.” In lieu of the recent historical nomination of the Rev. Fred Luter as the first African-American president of the largest protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, this analysis has the potential to play out in our current religious sphere. While the SBC sees this event as coming full circle from the theological underpinnings of its racist historicity and discriminatory religiosity, others characterize this as a desperate attempt to court Black evangelicals, to colorize its extremely white membership, and to utilize Fred Luter as simply a pawn in the their game of “denominational ventriloquism.” Michael Eric Dyson captures the essence of this perspective. He says, “The problem with most theology is that there can be a black mouth moving but white ideological beliefs speaking.” The materialization of Fred Luter’s leadership of the SBC and the effectual results of his term remains to be seen but the polarization of his assent into the sacred and hallowed orbit that is the SBC is already in perpetual motion.
For a concise understanding of where the SBC is in this particular moment, it is imperative for an elucidation of where the SBC has come from. In 1845, members at a regional convention being held in Augusta, Georgia created the SBC, following a split from northern Baptists over the issue of slavery and appropriate roles for slaveholders in the church. Those who were opposed to the enslavers of African-Americans as missionaries created the Northern Baptist Convention which would later on become the American Baptist Churches USA. After the American Civil War, another split occurred: most black Baptists in the South separated from white churches to set up independent congregations, regional associations, and state and national conventions, such as the National Baptist Convention, the largest second largest Black Baptist denomination. Rod Mccullom says in his article The Southern Baptists' 1st Black President is More of the Same? “The denomination only officially denounced racism and apologized for "the role that slavery played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention” ... in 1995. One hundred and 50 years after its founding—and after promoting segregation for much of its existence. It comes as no surprise the group has pulled a "Michael Steele” —electing a Black man to lead their overwhelmingly White and social conservative denomination.” Out of this contextualization a proactive question emerges. Is Rev.Fred Luter the SBC’s “Great Black Hope”?
The omnipresent reality is that we should only expect whatever we inspect. When considering Fred Luter’s presidency of the SBC, it’s safe to promote the assumption that a new radicality will not be on the agenda of the SBC under Luter’s tenure. Luter has climbed up the “rough side of the mountain” in the life of the SBC and he is theologically and sociologically conservative to the core of his existence. As president of the SBC he wouldn’t set guidelines for individual churches (Baptist polity is Congregational in its ecclesiastical government) but he will be the face of the positional stances of the SBC in theological praxis and sociological engagement. The leadership he will provide will ultimately hang its hat on the Baptist Faith and Message which is the doctrinal motif that SBC established. So if you see pigment of Fred Luter and believe that he will depart from the presuppositions of the SBC, you are casually expecting without critically inspecting.
According to the Baptist Faith and Message, strict adherence to biblical fundamentalism, inerrancy, and infallibility, the prohibition of women as ordained clergy, and the affirmation of the sacrament of marriage as solely between a man and women will be the pillars that will inform, influence, and impact the leadership proclivities and the sociological matrix of Fred Luter. By all accounts Fred Luter seems to be a good man. It’s almost oxymoronic but sometimes good just isn’t good enough. I am always challenged and haunted by the colloquialism that, “Injustice prevails when good men do nothing about it.” Only the benefit of time will give us a genuine account of Fred Luter and this historic occasion