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NEW ORLEANS 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 thousands of Southern Baptists attending the convention's annual meeting in New Orleans.
Luter 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 election came just weeks after church officials said race relations within the convention, the founding of which has ties to slavery, 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.
Luter, 55, already has been the first African-American in various leadership positions within the convention, including its first vice president during the past year.
Church leaders said Luter's election made an important statement about the denomination's 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.
"That's when I think the wheels started turning" for the convention to become more inclusive, Luter told Reuters before his election. "They've been turning slow, but they've been turning."
The more than 7,000 Baptists attending the New Orleans meeting will vote on Tuesday on 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.
Of the 45,700 congregations that comprise the Southern Baptist Convention, 3,500 are African-American churches. Leaders of African-American and other ethnic Southern Baptist churches have said it would be helpful to have a different way of describing themselves.
The convention has experienced a decline in overall membership, with the total number of members down in 2011 for the fifth straight year.
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 hometown 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 almost 8,000 before the storm. Members scattered afterward, but the church reopened in 2008 and now has almost 5,000 members.
(Writing by Colleen Jenkins.; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Christopher Wilson)
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