By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The largest U.S. Protestant denomination chose its first black president on Tuesday, an historic election for the predominately white religious group as it seeks to better reflect the diversity of the country and its membership.
Fred Luter, a New Orleans pastor and civic leader, ran unopposed for the top post in the 167-year-old Southern Baptist Convention, which counts a growing number of minorities among its 16 million members.
His election to a one-year term was met by thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the 7,000 Southern Baptists attending the convention's annual meeting in New Orleans.
Luter, 55, was born and raised in the city, which is also home to the church he rebuilt into the denomination's largest congregation in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina devastated it in 2005.
The pastor said he hoped his election would spur more appointments for people of color to leadership positions in the convention.
"If we stop appointing African-Americans or Asians or Hispanics to leadership roles in this convention after my term is over, then we've failed," he told reporters. "I want this election to make a difference in the life of this convention."
The choice of Luter as the Christian denomination's leader is seen as an important statement about its efforts to distance itself from its racist past. The convention was founded in 1845 after Southern Baptists split from the First Baptist Church in America in the pre-Civil War days over slave ownership.
Luter was part of the convention committee that in June 1995 issued a resolution that apologized to African-Americans for condoning slavery and racism and pledged to work toward racial reconciliation.
Of the 45,700 congregations that comprise the Southern Baptist Convention, 3,500 are African-American churches.
"It's been said that the Southern Baptists are very old and very white," said Tim Burnham, who is white and the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lindale in Georgia.
"This is a big step that says we want to reach out to the African-American community and the Hispanic community, and we don't need to be just a white people's organization."
The election came just weeks after church officials said race relations within the convention had suffered due to racially charged remarks made by the group's longtime ethics chief.
Richard Land, president of the convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, was reprimanded on June 1 for accusing black leaders of trying to use the February killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin by a white and Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida for political gain.
DEBATE OVER NAME ALTERNATIVE
In contrast to the strong support shown for Luter on Tuesday, there was disagreement over a proposal to adopt the descriptor "Great Commission Baptists" as an informal alternative for churches seeking a moniker less affiliated with the South and its racially divided history.
Leaders of ethnic Southern Baptist churches and congregations outside the South have said it would be helpful to have a different way of describing themselves, but some critics called the new descriptor unnecessary.
A ballot vote on the recommendation was conducted after the result of a vote by a show of hands was deemed inconclusive. The ballots were still being counted on Tuesday evening, and results were expected on Wednesday.
The convention has experienced a decline in overall membership, with the total number of members down in 2011 for the fifth straight year.
"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," said Luter, who expressed surprise that the proposed descriptor prompted such debate.
Luter, raised by his church-going mother in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, is widely respected for his passionate preaching style and commitment to his home town after losing both his church and house to Katrina.
During his nearly 26 years as pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, the congregation grew from 50 members to nearly 8,000 before the storm. Members scattered afterward, but the church reopened in 2008 and now has almost 5,000 members.
Luter has already been the first African-American in various leadership positions within the convention, including its first vice president during the past year. His new role will initially last just one year but can be extended for a second.
"I'm excited, not just because he's an African-American person taking the position, but because it means we as a convention are all coming together and we're all going to sit at the table," said James Hawkins II, an African-American adjunct instructor at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
(Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Todd Eastham, Christopher Wilson and Cynthia Johnston)