African-American voters are President Obama's most steadfast supporters. Many of them are also the most steadfast opponents of marriage equality. So when President Obama finally made public his support for same-sex marriage, one group wondering how it might take advantage of African-American voters' opposition to marriage equality was white Southern Baptists, a huge denomination within the Christian right. For over two decades, white Southern Baptists have been trying to make inroads into the African-American community, particularly the urban black community, to not only increase their dwindling membership but promulgate an aggressive anti-gay agenda.
This past Tuesday, June 19, with just a few months until the November election, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) elected Rev. Fred Luter as president. This may pave the way to their goal of promoting an anti-gay message. Rev. Luter, a native of New Orleans, ran unopposed and was unanimously elected. He is the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Luter's ascendency to the highest office of the nation's largest Protestant denomination (and the world's largest Baptist denomination) raises some questions: Is his post just honorific tokenism? Will he have any real power over a predominately white denomination?
Minorities make up a new worshipping contingent in a shrinking membership body, and it is this group that the SBC is wooing. And ministers of color are now the at the forefront of evangelizing for the denomination. "We cannot expect to reach this do-rag, tattooed, iPod generation with an eight-track ministry. We have to somehow change how we do things," Luter told reporters, expressing shock and utter surprise that his proposed descriptor could be viewed as offensive.
At present, approximately 20 percent of SBC members are people of color. About 7 percent are African-American, 6 percent are Latino, 3 percent are Asian, and 4 percent belong to other minority groups. African-American Southern Baptist congregations have grown 85 percent, from 1,907 in 1998 to 3,534 in 2010.
The paltry number of people of color in the SBC is rooted in its once-unabashedly-racist history. Notoriously known to have filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, Southern Baptists historically have been vociferous defenders of anti-miscegenation laws, Jim-Crow edicts, and lynch-mob justice. The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 in defense of slavery but offered a formal apology in 1995. "We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest," the Southern Baptist resolution on racial reconciliation stated, acknowledging that some congregations still excluded African Americans but promising to "commit ourselves to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry."
Sadly, Luter was unaware of the SBC's dark history. He may also be unaware of how the Southern Baptist Convention, as a huge denomination within the anti-gay Christian right, may have actively recruited him during this election period to reach African-American voters and exploit black homophobia to unseat Obama.
Since 1995, when the SBC held its conference on racial reconciliation in Dallas and generously donated $750,000 to rebuild Southern black churches that had been burned recently, the once-nonexistent relationship between the SBC and black churches has been wedded in an unholy matrimony. The first sign of that that I saw here in Boston was back in 1998, when an editor called me to solicit my opinion on an African-American minister named Rev. Jackson, who had joined with Ralph Reed's Christian right movement to funnel $5 to $10 million to black churches to help them rejuvenate urban African-American communities nationwide; it was called the Samaritan Project.
While the cultures of many faith communities and denominations that were once helplessly homophobic are changing, a preponderance of these black churches will not change, and I'm sad to say they probably won't in my lifetime. It is this homophobic faith tradition that Obama, in his first presidential bid for the White House, unabashedly wooed and won votes from. And although many African-American clerics came out in support of Obama's new stance on same-sex marriage, many decried it.
With right-wing organizations like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) courting black churches for their plan to drive a wedge between LGBT voters and African-American voters during the 2012 elections, the question is whether Luter fall into their hands, either as the SBC's titular head or simply as a misguidedly anti-gay Christian. Either way, Luter would wield enormous influence in pushing a right-wing agenda.
While we don't know what Luter will do in his post, there is enough data to predict with certainty how African Americans will vote in this 2012 election, as it was predicted in 2008, irrespective of the president's views on marriage equality or right-wing anti-gay agendas.