The Southern Baptist Convention split from the rest of the Baptists in 1845 over slavery, and 100 years later, it was still promoting segregation. But the church apologized for its racism in 1995, and, these days, despite having long been an important player in Republican politics, it seems like it's getting almost liberal. At its annual conference Tuesday, SBC elected its Fred Luter, Jr., (pictured) as first vice president of the Convention, the highest position a black person has ever held in the organization. And on Friday, Politico's Jennifer Epstein reports that the SBC is calling for a "path to legal status" for the millions of illegal immigrants in the country.
What's going on? As The New York Times' Erik Eckholm reports, the church is responding to demographic realities.
With 16 million members, the Convention is the country's largest Protestant denomination, but the numbers are dwindling. Its traditional constituency is aging, and recruitment has not kept pace with the country’s demography. Church leaders say that as the population becomes more diverse, they must act more aggressively to draw in minority churches and followers.
Black, Hispanic, and Asian congregations now make up 19 percent of the SBC's churches. But there are still few minorities in leadership positions. The church insists that it's not practicing affirmative action--no quotas--but "Leadership has to emerge naturally, but we bear a moral responsibility to encourage development of multiethnic leaders," R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Eckholm.
In passing a pro-immigration resolution similar to one President Obama's proposed, the church said, "[A]ny form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ," Epstein reports. Rev. Paul Jimenez, who chairs the SBC's resolutions committee, told the Associated Press' Travis Loller: "I think Southern Baptists understand it's just not politically viable to send an estimated 12 to 15 million undocumented immigrants back where they came from." It's hard not to see "politically" as a key term in that sentence. But Jimenez added, "It's not humane either."