INDIANAPOLIS The conservative Southern Baptist Convention elected an American Indian as its president on Tuesday in a sign the historically white denomination is starting to diversify.
Dr. Johnny Hunt, 55, a pastor based in Georgia and member of the Lumbee tribe, is believed to be the first Native American president of the largest U.S. Protestant denomination, although SBC officials could not immediately confirm that.
"The Southern Baptists have made a real effort to evangelize among Native Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic groups, so it is interesting to note that someone from one of their target groups has been elected president," said University of Akron political scientist John Green.
The Lumbee tribe is recognized as an American Indian tribe by North Carolina but denied full recognition by the federal government.
Hunt played down his native connections at his first news conference after being elected.
Asked what he felt were the biggest challenges facing the American Indian community, he replied: "I've been gone from there a long time. I've been hanging more with the Anglos, so to speak to it would be an uneducated guess."
Hunt said the SBC should remain committed to its opposition to abortion and gay rights but should minister to the gay community "and love them ... but at the same time teach them what the scripture teaches and help them."
That view offends many in the gay community who say there is nothing sinful about their orientation or lifestyle.
Evangelicals regard same-sex relations as sinful because of various biblical passages, but many pastors have stressed the notion of "loving the sinner and not the sin."
They tend to take a more strident tone on issues like gay marriage or adoption rights for same-sex couples, which they see as a threat to the traditional family.
Hunt said it was time for a change at the SBC but he was short on specifics.
He replaces outgoing President Frank Page, a South Carolina-based pastor who has sought to broaden the SBC's social agenda with calls for action on climate change.
Hunt said while he could see "no absolute proof" of global warming, he felt "every Christian ought to be gravely concerned about keeping the environment as clean as possible."
The 16 million-strong SBC is a key part of the Republican Party's conservative Christian base, giving its president instant access to corridors of power in Washington.
The SBC was founded in 1845 as part of a sectional split with northern Baptists over the issue of slavery, which was then an entrenched part of the U.S. South and its largely agricultural economy.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)