When delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) gather for their annual meeting in New Orleans next month, many expect a watershed moment: the election of the first black president in the denomination's history.
Some expect an additional dynamic among the delegates called "messengers" in the denomination: serious discussions of a race-related controversy that has gripped the SBC since April. It's a discussion that flows from a race-related controversy that has gripped the entire nation-the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Fred Luter-longtime pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans-already serves as vice president of SBC. Many expect the African-American minister to win the denomination's top spot overwhelmingly when the group meets June 19-20 in his hometown.
Luter's election would be a significant milestone for the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Southern Baptists formed the denomination in 1854, partly to defend the practice of slavery. (The SBC apologized for its racist history in a 1995 resolution.)
But controversy could overshadow Luter's historic bid: Richard Land-president of the denomination's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission-issued a lengthy public apology on May 9 for comments he made about the Trayvon Martin shooting during a March 31 broadcast of his radio program.
During the program, Land discussed the teenager's death. George Zimmerman-a community watch member in Sanford, Fla.-pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, saying that Martin attacked him before he shot the unarmed youth at close range on Feb. 26. Police arrested Zimmerman nearly two weeks after the shooting. The delay elicited widespread demonstrations and an outcry from activists and community members who charged police with racism.
Land accused black political leaders-including President Barack Obama-of using the shooting death to "gin up the black vote." (Obama had called for a full investigation of Martin's shooting when a reporter asked for his comment.) Land also stated that a black man is "statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man."
After a handful of SBC pastors criticized his remarks, Land issued a brief apology on April 16. By early May, he met with a handful of SBC leaders-including Luter and other black ministers-to discuss his comments. After a five-hour meeting, Land issued an extensive apology on May 9.
"I came to understand in sharper relief how damaging my words were," Land wrote.
Land's remarks included an apology for "insensitivity" to Martin's family, and for impugning the president's motives in expressing concern over the case: "It was un-Christian and unwise for me to have done so." Land said he sent a letter to Obama, asking for his forgiveness.
Luter had already extended forgiveness. After Land's first apology, the pastor said, "His comments were a concern for many of us. … I accept his apology and will look forward to working with him and others within this convention to tear down the walls of racism in our great country."
For now, Land has another set of worries, After the March 31 radio broadcast, a blogger and doctoral candidate at Baylor University in Texas charged Land with plagiarizing part of the program. Aaron Weaver pointed out that some of Land's comments repeated verbatim an editorial in The Washington Times.
Land admitted that he quoted parts of the editorial without giving clear credit to the author. "On occasion I have failed to provide appropriate verbal attributions on my radio broadcast," he wrote on his website. "I regret if anyone feels they were deceived or misled. That was not my intent nor has it ever been." (He pointed out that he provides links on his website to the material he uses during broadcasts.)
The executive committee of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission announced it would conduct an investigation of the plagiarism charges, with a report due by June 1.