TAMPA, Fla. (BP) – Fred Luter and Barack Obama share historical distinctions as African Americans’ first Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and U.S. presidents, respectively, but on the political-moral issue of gay marriage they are on opposite sides – a disagreement driven by Luter’s commitment to the Bible.
“I believe that nothing, nothing can be politically right if it’s biblically wrong,” Luter said in an interview with Florida Baptist Witness.
“The Word of God says marriage is between one man and one woman,” Luter said, adding that “no president, no governor, no mayor, no politician, no individual can change that fact.”
In light of the Bible’s teaching on marriage, Luter said he is “totally against” Obama’s support of gay marriage.
Luter sat down for a 30-minute interview with the Witness July 10 while in Tampa to preach at two Florida Baptist churches. In addition to Obama’s gay marriage position, Luter talked about a congratulatory phone call from President Obama, the state of race relations in the Southern Baptist Convention, his goals as SBC president, Calvinism and the recent death of his mother.
Photo by James A. Smith Sr./Florida Baptist Witness
Fred Luter preaches at New Life Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla., in one of his first speaking engagements since being elected as Southern Baptist Convention president during the SBC annual meeting June 19 in New Orleans.
The Tampa events were Luter’s first engagements since being elected SBC president in June, although the events were scheduled even before he decided to be a candidate for the presidency.
While Luter disagrees with Obama on gay marriage, he was quick to note that it’s not the first time he has disagreed with a president, and he remains committed to pray for the president and his family.
Following Obama’s May announcement of his “evolved” views in favor of gay marriage, Luter said many members of his predominantly African American congregation, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, asked for his reaction.
“I told my congregation I support our president. I pray for him, but on this same-sex marriage deal, I’m totally against it,” he said. “When I said that on that Sunday morning, not everybody, to be honest with you, but the majority of our members stood up and applauded because they’ve known me to be a man of the Book.”
When others became aware of Luter’s comments to the congregation, he received emails of appreciation “because not everybody’s taking a stand on that,” he said.
“That’s one of the things I have to deal with – people feel that because I’m African American I’ve got to agree with everything that the president says because he’s African American,” Luter said. “My mind is made up and set on this issue, and it doesn’t make me uncomfortable” to disagree with his fellow African American president, he said.
Luter said he is willing to be a spokesman for Southern Baptists on the issues of the day with the news media, adding, “I think you cannot avoid it in this position.”
President Obama called Luter two days after his election as SBC president – a call he at first suspected was a prank. He said Obama was gracious and the call “made my day.”
Luter said Obama asked him, “How does it feel to be the most popular president in America?” Luter said the president greeted his wife, Elizabeth, saying, “Hello, First Lady Luter. Make sure this doesn’t go to his head. OK?”
During the five-minute telephone conversation, Luter said Obama expressed a desire to meet him, although no plans were made.
Obama’s call caused Luter to conclude his election “must be a big deal. I mean I didn’t win an NBA championship. I didn’t win the Super Bowl. I didn’t win the World Series.”
The fact that he was elected the first African American SBC president on June 19 – Juneteenth, the day many African Americans celebrate the end of slavery in America – was important “symbolism,” Luter said, noting the SBC’s founding in connection with the defense of slavery.
“I really believe that it was God-ordained and that it was very significant, not necessarily to the masses, but it was significant to a lot of folk in the African American community,” Luter said of his election on Juneteenth.
As for race relations in the SBC, Luter said his election means Southern Baptists “can turn the page. We can turn that chapter.”
Luter said he became emotional at the time of his election because of the response of the messengers – “just to see 8,000 folks stand up in unison and applaud – and nobody else ran.”
He added that his election shows that “this is not your grandfather’s convention anymore. … Fred Luter is Exhibit A that says that this convention is open to everyone.”
Noting he has a relatively short time as president – two years, assuming his reelection next year – Luter said he has given himself three months to talk with various SBC leaders, seek counsel and pray about a “vision” or “platform” for his presidency.
“I don’t have a position of power, but I do have a position of influence,” he said.
“God has given me the gift of building bridges throughout the years,” Luter said, adding that he would like to “take the energy” resulting from his election and use it to find a way for the SBC to “get together.”
Given the SBC’s diversity, Luter said he would like to “get us all on the same page as far as making the main thing the main thing – and that is evangelism and discipleship and winning lost folk to Christ and doing all we can as a convention.”
Luter compared dealing with the diversity in the SBC to the diversity in the local church.
“I tell people, ‘Listen, the church is not here to help you with your agenda. You’re here to help the church to carry out God’s agenda.’ And it’s the same thing in the convention,” he said.
“If we would let go of our egos, if we would let go of our own agendas and let’s come together – despite all of the diversity – let’s come together and do what’s best for the Kingdom of heaven, I really think that this convention can really continue to make an impact,” he said.
Asked about the debate about Calvinism that has become prominent in the Southern Baptist Convention in recent months, Luter said he is “still trying to wrap my mind around this thing,” noting that he is frequently asked about it.
Although he is studying the issue, admitting, “I don’t have a handle on it yet,” Luter expressed concern about the debate.
“One of the things I can say with surety, I have no doubt the enemy is behind it all. … I just believe that this may be an issue as … in the past that the enemy has tried to divide brothers, divide churches, divide friends to keep our mind off the main thing,” he said.
Luter said he was grateful for the many expressions of support he received following his mother’s death – just one week after his election.
“I was riding this high, then my mom died. Of course, that was a low,” Luter said. “But to see the response from people across the country … it’s been overwhelming.”
He was especially thankful that Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, came to New Orleans for his mother’s memorial service. It was a “great, great testimony that Frank would come down to be a part of that,” he said.
Although Luter’s mother, Viola Blayton Brooks, 82, had been ill for about 10 months, her death was unexpected, he said.
“The greatest thing of all was that she was able to see her son make history,” Luter said, noting that she was very proud of him, both because of his pastoral successes and his SBC honor.
The day after he was elected SBC president, Luter said he visited her at her New Orleans home. Upon his arrival, she would typically greet him with the declaration, “Look at my pastor!”
“This time when I walked in her door … she said, ‘Look at my president! Look at my president!’ And she gave me a big old hug.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention.)