The historically white Southern Baptist Convention has elected the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. of New Orleans to national office amid widespread speculation that he is poised to become the denomination’s first African-American president when Baptists reconvene next summer in New Orleans. View full size Ross D. Franklin, The Associated PressPastor Fred Luter of New Orleans speaks to the crowd at the Southern Baptist Convention prior to to being elected as the first African-American vice president of the organization on Tuesday. Representatives of 16 million Southern Baptists on Tuesday overwhelmingly elected Luter first vice president at their annual meeting in Phoenix. Luter is pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in the state with nearly 5,000 members. “Many of us are thinking this is the first step toward him being elected president next year,” when the office becomes vacant, said Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., who nominated Luter for the vice presidency. “I haven’t talked to a person who hasn’t affirmed that, including the present president, Bryant Wright, the past president, Frank Page” and others, Akin said. “There’s tremendous interest and excitement about that.” Luter’s election comes at a moment that the nation’s largest Protestant denomination confronts evidence that it has plateaued in numbers — even declined slightly. Moreover, some leaders of the predominantly white, socially conservative church say they are concerned that their ranks, and especially their governing structures, do not look like the nation as a whole.