Southern Baptists, Racial Reconciliation, and Diversity:
A Response to Aaron Weaver

By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

In a recent post on his “The Big Daddy Weave” blog site, Aaron Weaver questioned the nomination by SEBTS President Danny Akin of Fred Luter to First Vice President of the SBC this year, and the affirmation by SBTS Dean of Theology Russ Moore that Luter should be elected President of the SBC next year at the convention meeting in New Orleans.  Furthermore, Weaver discounted the set of recommendations coming from the SBC Executive Committee to the Phoenix convention to make “the convention’s leadership positions more reflective of the growing ethnic diversity in its churches” as an attempt at what Weaver labeled “Affirmative Action.” Weaver’s apparent rejection of these initiatives in the SBC to engage a broader ethnic/racial diversity in the SBC cause me concern at several levels. Let me respectfully voice several of these concerns, starting with some that are less important and moving toward the more important. My primary purpose is to endorse the candidacy of Fred Luter for significant positions of leadership in the SBC, and to affirm the recommendations about greater racial diversity being brought forward at this year’s SBC convention in Phoenix.

The Elder Brother?

To be clear, Weaver is not questioning these moves because he is opposed to greater racial diversity.  It doesn’t take long perusing his website (the pictures of Jimmy Carter, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Barbara Jordan among his heroes on the banner to the website might be a clue) that Weaver advocates essentially a liberal Democrat agenda.  It does appear clear, however, that his raising the Affirmative Action issue is something of a smokescreen or red herring to bash SBC leadership. Weaver has hosted the website for years, but through these hundreds of posts he does not have a single prior post specifically defending or addressing Affirmative Action.  There are, however, dozens of articles critical of SBC leadership. So let’s just be honest and acknowledge that the issue is not Affirmative Action in the first place, but Weaver using it as a pretense to demean SBC leaders.  At best, Weaver exemplifies the attitude of the elder brother when the prodigal came back home.  If the SBC has been slow to address adequately this issue of greater racial diversity, and Weaver has been further ahead on this issue, at the very least he “has an attitude” about us prodigals coming to ourselves, rather than entering into the joy of the Father for this step of progress.

Affirmative Action?
The major case that Weaver attempts to make is that by “making the convention’s leadership positions more reflective of the growing ethnic diversity in its churches,” the SBC is practicing Affirmative Action, despite the fact that many convention leaders (he cited ERLC President Richard Land) have voiced concerns about the continued practice of Affirmative Action in American society.  However, Weaver uses the word “Affirmative Action” rather ambiguously or disingenuously at points in his article. Weaver cited the Merriam-Webster definition of Affirmative Action, “an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women,” or “a similar effort to promote the rights or progress of other disadvantaged persons.” Weaver also speaks later in his article about Affirmative Action in the SBC regarding “the race/ethnicity of a potential employee.” Since the first three paragraphs of Weaver’s article focused on Fred Luter’s nomination to office, accompanied by a large photograph of Luter, the obvious application of his worries about Affirmative Action relate to Fred Luter’s candidacy for office in the SBC.  However, the President of the SBC is not an employee of the SBC. It is an elective position. Fred Luter would continue his current position as Pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. He would not be an employee, would not be receiving educational opportunities, and is not disadvantaged.  Therefore, none of the criteria related to Weaver’s own chosen definition of Affirmative Action apply to Fred Luter’s candidacy for elective office in the SBC.  Likewise, the recommendations from the Executive Committee about “making the convention’s leadership positions more reflective of the growing ethnic diversity in its churches” may pertain primarily to nominated and elective positions as much or more than full-time employment.

However, one who thinks that Southern Baptists seeking racial reconciliation and greater ethnic/racial representation is a new thing is sadly misinformed. We have been working on this for years.  No less than eleven prior SBC conventions have passed resolutions favoring racial reconciliation and greater inclusiveness of racial/ethnic groups within the SBC. This very set of recommendations from the Executive Committee did not originate within that group itself, but was a response to a motion from the floor at a recent SBC convention. As I’ll note in the next section, ERLC President Richard Land has been working toward this for a couple of decades.

However, we have not initiated these efforts to be doing Affirmative Action, but rather (as the article referred to by Weaver states), to be representative of who Southern Baptists are (i.e., “making the convention’s leadership positions more reflective of the growing ethnic diversity in its churches.” The SBC is dramatically more diverse than it was a few decades ago.  In all, nearly 10,000 of the 45,000 SBC churches (nearly a fourth) are primarily focused on an ethnic or racial group.  We have over 3,000 African American congregations, over 3,000 Hispanic congregations, and over 1,000 Korean congregations, just to list a few. (By the way, despite all their rhetoric, do the statistics show that the CBF as ethnically and racially as diverse as the SBC?).

Regarding African Americans in SBC life , for example, there are now over 4,000 churches in the SBC that are primarily African American (almost 10 percent of the churches in the SBC), and many others attend racially mixed congregations. Over a million church members in the SBC have African heritage. At least 19 African Americans have been elected President of their state Baptist conventions, two have served as Executive Director of a state Baptist Convention, and others have served as Director of Missions for several associations.  African Americans have served as Vice President of several convention entities and of the SBC itself. Likewise, not only are about 1,000 Korean churches in the SBC, but the largest SBC church in the Maryland/Delaware Baptist convention is Korean. These diverse groups contribute to the Cooperative Program, and so not having representatives on boards would be “taxation without representation.”  That would not be just.

However, that this most recent SBC initiative was not Affirmative Action is obvious from the fact that the Executive Committee affirmed past processes in which “the concept of ‘quotas’ was resisted, choosing instead to support the selection of Southern Baptists ‘who are well qualified, without regard to any of the unalterable personal characteristics which God has bestowed upon them.’” Note that in the following recommendations being presented to the SBC, none require Affirmative Action quotas:

— entities annually submit a descriptive report of participation of ethnic churches and church leaders in the life and ministry of each entity.

— the SBC President’s Notebook given to each newly elected president encourage him to “give special attention to appointing individuals who represent the diversity within the convention, and particularly ethnic diversity” among his appointees to various committees.

— the SBC president report the total number of appointees that represent the ethnic diversity when names for committees are released to Baptist Press.

— the SBC President’s Notebook encourage the president to encourage the selection of annual meeting program personalities that represent the ethnic diversity within the convention.

— the Committee on Order of Business consider the ethnic identity of program personalities for annual meetings.

— the Committee on Nominations form be amended to provide a place where a nominee may indicate his or her ethnic identity.

— the Committee on Nominations include in its annual report the number of individuals among its nominees that represent the ethnic diversity within SBC life.

— entities give due consideration to the recruitment and employment of qualified individuals who reflect well the ethnic diversity within SBC life.

— the Executive Committee, through its various publications and news outlets, continue to provide news coverage of interest to individuals of all ethnic interests and to highlight what God is accomplishing through Baptists of “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”

— the Executive Committee receive a report from EC staff each year during its February meeting concerning the participation of ethnic churches and ethnic church leaders in SBC life.

I know that all the seminaries have been trying to nurture students who are African American, Korean, Hispanic, and other minority groups to complete PhDs so they can be elected to our faculties, and to design programs to provide theological education for every ethnicity. At NOBTS we have focused programs for the African-American church, Hispanics, French Haitians, Koreans, and several others in international settings. I can also say that two of our Anglo faculty members experienced forced terminations in churches in the South primarily because they took a stand for the inclusion of African Americans in the life of the church. Since I have been Provost at NOBTS, we have elected our first three African-American faculty members, two Hispanic faculty members, two Korean faculty members, and several others who were born in other countries.  This pattern is true at all the other SBC seminaries as well.  Indeed, we all need and desire many more minority faculty members who have achieved the credentialing to serve in this way. If you think we would consider faculty members who do not have adequate credentials, you are sadly mistaken. We aren’t doing this for Affirmative Action reasons. We are doing it so our seminary faculties reflect the racial diversity of our churches, and to secure their help in training the next generation of leaders. They teach us much about being sensitive to different traditions, and the way we say things, and our presuppositions. We need them more than they need us.

Land on Racial Reconciliation

Fourth, I believe that Weaver (perhaps unintentionally) misrepresented Dr. Richard Land’s position (and those of other SBC leaders) about race relations in an important way. The quote that was lifted from an interview of Land interview by a Nashville newspaper omitted some important material about the WHY of his concern about Affirmative Action, that answer quoted in full here:

“I believe affirmative action has run its course in American society and that it is now counterproductive to that which it seeks to achieve. Affirmative action exacerbates racism and prejudice when people (whites) are discriminated against in promotion and admission practices because of the past racial sins of their fathers and grandfathers — sins for which they are not responsible. When people are discriminated against because they are white, it exacerbates racial tensions. The controversy over the recent New Hampshire firefighters case (Ricci v. DeStefano) illustrates this point vividly.
Second, affirmative action largely neutralizes the most effective weapons against prejudice, which is performance and excellence. When African-Americans and other minorities are promoted or admitted to prestigious schools in the wake of affirmative action, it is all too often assumed they are admitted or promoted under different and lower standards than the majority-white community. They may, and often do, have the best test scores or the best performance reviews, but in the wake of affirmative action, it is too often assumed that race was a contributing factor to their promotion or admission. This vitiates performance and excellence as weapons against prejudice. As Chief Justice John Roberts so succinctly and eloquently stated last year in a Supreme Court case, ‘The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.’ If the goal is a truly, post-racial, multi-racial society, then we have to at some point, as a society, declare that discrimination is always wrong.”
(Readers can see the full interview here).

Weaver probably disagrees with Dr. Land on many issues, but I don’t believe that is the case on the race issue. In the interview noted above, Land mentions his fight for racial equality and justice as a college student, and it was among the first issues he confronted when he came to the ERLC. His parents confronted a racist Sunday School teacher in his church in Houston as a boy. As he tells in the link, as a college student he was stopped by policemen in the racially charged 1960s while bringing some of his African American friends home to Houston from Princeton.

When he came to the ERLC, one of the first things he did was to sponsor a listening session in which Anglos listened to key African American pastors to hear their hearts. The 1995 “Resolution on Racial Reconciliation apologizing for the SBC’s racism arose out of this meeting, penned and pushed by Dr. Land.  He also formed a Racial Reconciliation Task Force (on which I served) to give further attention to this issue. Land led a pilgrimage to key civil rights sites in Atlanta and Birmingham after this convention. Dr. Land has been criticized and received threats at times because of his stance, but he has not wavered. I have had Dr. Land in my classes a couple of dozen times through the years at SWBTS and NOBTS, and without exception he has made a strong case for Baptists addressing racism. Indeed, his concern about Affirmative Action is simply and specifically that it would further racism, as he illustrates was the actual result of Affirmative Action in the New Hampshire fire fighter case. So, I don’t think Dr. Land’s views on racial equity and racial reconciliation were accurately depicted by Weaver.

Fred Luter for SBC President.

Fifth, and most importantly, Fred Luter deserves to be elected President of the SBC because he is one of the best preachers and leaders in the SBC, not because of Affirmative Action. First of all, he would be elected, not hired (the same would be true of other ethnic minority representatives elected to boards of various agencies). Affirmative Action carries the connotation of receiving a job or scholarship despite not meeting the normal standards and credentials for the job, or even over more qualified Anglos. This is not the case with Fred Luter, and it is not the case with any other minority person I know of in Southern Baptist life. Fred Luter is Pastor of the largest Southern Baptist Church in New Orleans and one of the largest churches in the Louisiana Baptist Convention, with nearly 4,000 people in attendance each week (only three or four churches in New Orleans have more than 400 in church on Sunday). He started that church with a handful of people, and with God’s help has built a great church. Katrina destroyed their church building and scattered their congregation, but now the church has rebuilt and has almost reached their pre-Katrina numbers. He has preached at virtually every Pastor’s Conference and Evangelism Conference in the country. He’s a regular favorite here in chapel at New Orleans Seminary. He has accomplished what few ministers have in the SBC. Electing him would not be Affirmative Action. It would be recognizing a great Baptist pastor and leader.  Fred Luter has demonstrated that he has the leadership and vision to serve as President of the SBC.

By the way, although I am not a shaker or mover in Southern Baptist life, I am an early endorser of Fred Luter as President of the SBC.  Two years ago, in my “Editorial Introduction” to the Fall 2009 issue of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (an issue which featured one of Brother Fred’s sermons), I expressed the hope that someday “he will be elected President of the SBC. (And there is no time better than when the SBC meets in New Orleans in 2012).”  I have endorsed Luter’s candidacy to many individuals, and I have encouraged Brother Fred in our personal conversations to allow his name to be presented as a candidate for the SBC Presidency.

Every minority member that I know of any SBC board is likewise well-deserving. We have two African Americans on our NOBTS Trustee Board. One is a very successful man who serves in a position of significance (and is a member of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church), and the other was a Vice President for Business Affairs at Howard University. To be very frank, I find the notion offensive that it would take unqualified ethnic persons to find positions of leadership for minorities in the SBC. Hopefully, Weaver was not suggesting that.

A Plea to Join Hands

Weaver is no fan of the SBC, and that’s fine. But hopefully he will not allow his personal agenda to overshadow some very positive developments toward racial reconciliation in the SBC.  This issue is important enough that we should rise above the fray and be of one mind, regardless of whether we are CBF or SBC. I hope we will all try to be more inclusive with regard to ethnicity and race so that Sunday morning is no longer the most racially segregated day in America. Let’s work together toward that goal.

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Much of this material was originally posted as a response to Weaver’s article on his blog, but at the encouragement of other SBC Today editorial board members, it has been reformatted for this purpose.