The Fall of Eddie Long
Anthea D. Butler
On September 21, the front of the Washington Post’s Style section
featured Monica Hesse’s profile of faith-and-fitness guru Donna Richardson,
a senior member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition
and wife of the king of morning radio, Tom Joyner. Near the top of the
article was a testimonial from another star in the firmament of American
black celebrity, the megachurch pastor and prosperity gospel preacher Eddie
Donna, we’ve introduced aerobics into our service,” the “muscly bishop” of
the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church outside Atlanta told
Hesse. Sometimes he’d bring her live to his congregation; other times, she
would appear via video feed and Skype. “It woke the people up,” he said.
“The energy of the worship went to another high.”
afternoon, Long’s own career went to a low when CNN broke the story that
would become the biggest domestic religion scandal of 2010. In a civil suit
filed in DeKalb County, two former young male members of New Birth claimed
that Long had coerced them into sexual acts while serving as their mentor at
the church’s LongFellows Youth Academy. Within the week, they were joined by
two other youths making the same allegations.
Long’s huge church, varied ministries, physical fitness regimen, and
relationship with rapper T. I. has made him a
local celebrity. Of note was Long’s work with young men via the Academy, a
summer program designed to teach young men responsibility, moral codes,
financial management, and the importance of masculinity.
Luther King, Jr.’s daughter Bernice is a member of Long’s pastoral staff,
and when Coretta Scott King died in 2006, it was at New Birth, not Martin
and Coretta’s Ebenezer Baptist, that the funeral was held—with President
Bush and former President Clinton in attendance.
Long was no
stranger to controversy. His flamboyant dress, private jet, and cozying up
to President Bush did not make him popular in some segments of the black
church community. He was considered to be someone who had forsaken the
social gospel for the prosperity gospel, despite his philanthropy in and
around the Atlanta area. In 2007, his lavish lifestyle drew the attention of
Sen. Charles Grassley, who that year undertook an examination of the
finances of six of the country’s leading prosperity gospel preachers.
there was Long’s activism on behalf of “traditional family values”—which
was, in the view of more liberal Atlanta clergy, what had earned him a
prominent place at the table of President Bush’s faith-based initiative. In
2004, Long and Bernice King led a 5,000-person march against gay marriage in
downtown Atlanta that they entitled “Reigniting the Legacy.” This helped
make him, in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center, “one of the most
virulently homophobic black leaders in the religiously based anti-gay
Colorado Springs’ megachurch pastor Ted Haggard four years earlier, the
apparent hypocrisy of an anti-gay crusader accused of homosexual activity
proved impossible for the media to resist.
Atlanta-based CNN drove the story nationally, in a variety of formats.
first three days, it ran correspondent Ed Lavendera’s reports in hourly
rotation. Lavendera was joined by reporter John Blake, former religion
writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who had been writing
about Long for over a decade.
course of a live interview of young members of New Birth, correspondent Don
Lemon turned himself into a sidebar by declaring that he had been molested
as a youth. On September 25, opinion writer Roland Martin became one of the
first voices to call on Long to resign his pastorate.
himself discussed the case on “Anderson Cooper 360,” where he got into a
heated argument over biblical views of homosexuality with Troy Sanders, an
openly gay African-American pastor from the Atlanta area. Plaintiffs’ lawyer
B.J. Bernstein turned up to offer savvy on-air advocacy for her clients.
newspaper coverage was led by the Journal Constitution, which
supplied background and posted pdfs of the civil suits as well as tracking
daily developments. The country’s leading papers, including the New York
Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, provided
their own staff-written accounts of the scandal.
grew international legs as well, thanks to Long’s worldwide prominence on
the prosperity gospel circuit.
the Guardian reported on Long’s ties to Matthew Ashimolowo, pastor of
Kingsway International Christian Center in London. Long had spoken several
times at the International Gathering of Champions, a conference Ashimolow
holds annually for prosperity preachers.
On the other
side of the globe, the New Zealand Herald devoted several articles to
Brian Tamaki, a megachurch pastor in Auckland who considers Long his
“spiritual father.” It was on a visit to Tamaki’s church that Long allegedly
had sex with one of the youths, according to the court filings.
By the end
of the first week’s coverage, Long’s vaunted reputation for media savvy was
in tatters. After hastily arranging a news conference and an appearance on
the Tom Joyner Morning Show for September 23, he abruptly cancelled both and
deployed his lawyer to inform Joyner’s audience that the “false charges”
were an attack not only on him personally but also on New Birth and its
Joyner, urban radio hosts Steve Harvey and Michael Blaisden were devoting
most of their air time to the prosperity gospeler with tarnished bling and a
putative wig. #eddielong was a “trending topic” in the twittersphere;
related topics included #bishopeddielongringtones and #eddielonghairpiece.
announced that he would address the charges in a sermon the following
Sunday, September 26. News trucks duly converged on the church complex,
broadcasting the service live on local television, CNN, and MSNBC.
spent the sermon, “The Reality of a Painful Situation,” discussing in
general terms how a Christian could make it through such a reality. His most
direct reference to his own painful situation—what made the nightly
news—was: “I am not a perfect man, but this thing I’m gon’ fight.” To that
he added nothing at the post-service press conference, which lasted less
than two minutes.
following week, Fox News Atlanta managed to catch up with one of the youths,
Jamal Parris, who gave the charges an affecting personal perspective.
get the sound of his voice out of my head,” said Parris. “I cannot forget
the smell of his cologne. And I cannot forget the way that he made me cry
many nights when I drove in his car on the way home, not able to take enough
showers to wipe the smell of him off of my body.”
In the black
media subculture, suspicions about Long’s sexuality had been percolating for
some time. In 2006, radio host Reuben Armstrong published an exposé of black
preachers entitled Snakes in the Pulpit, in which he claimed to have
received information from two youth pastors about Long’s homosexual
began to surface on Internet gossip sites showing Long in front of a mirror
clad in tight UnderArmour athletic wear, and posing suggestively with
several young men in his downtown Atlanta office.
Long went viral, including a montage from the Southern Poverty Law Center of
his preaching against homosexuality, his “Fresh Sperm” teaching, and a clip
of him dancing and preaching a message called “Cross it up.”
Long filled up black Christian blogs—most notably Gay Christian Movement
Watch, a site designed to track sexual abuse and to speak out against
homosexuality in black churches. The site featured several scathing attacks
critique outdid Atlanta comedienne Cadillac Kimberly’s “Dick Sucking Eddie
Long, you wrong,” an obscenity-laced diatribe that as of this writing had
garnered 1.1 million views on YouTube. Speaking to viewers in tight
close-up, Kimberly denounced Long as a false prophet and the members of his
congregation as fools in need of spiritual discernment.
less entertainingly, former Texas congressman Craig Washington, writing in
the online daily The Root.com, declared, “This story of this sullied bishop
serves overdue notice to Christians across the nation who have bought and
sold snake oil presented as holy water.”
contrasted starkly with that of Long’s friend T.D. Jakes, the most prominent
of the country’s African-American megachurch pastors, who after the scandal
broke sermonized that some things should just “be under the blood”—that is,
should not be exposed.
Gospel Today put Long on the cover of its November/December issue,
with a softball article that provoked readers’ outrage and a staunch defense
from publisher Teresa Hairston: “Whether Bishop Long is guilty or not;
whether the young men are guilty or not, the BODY OF CHRIST must handle this
situation according to the Word of God. The mainstream press has painted a
hideous picture; some have even called for Bishop Long’s resignation!
They’re not even members!”
pointed out by commenters on the Black Voices website, Long himself was a
member of Gospel Today’s advisory board.
T.I. and other hip-hop luminaries who had been a prominent part of some
worship services at New Birth kept their mouths shut. Not that Hip Hop
Nation let Long off the hook entirely. Raz B of B2k accused him of being a
pedophile in a YouTube video. And Killer Mike aka Mike Bigga, who had
earlier called him out for his excessive wealth in “That’s Life II,” stated,
“If you turn out to be a homosexual after persecuting your own, then you
deserve to be crucified for that.”
other religious scandals in American culture, commentators did not take long
to point to larger meanings.
As early as
September 23, author Earl Olfari Hutchinson took to his Huffington Post.com
blog to ask, “Did Long’s long, open and relentless crusade against
homosexuals tag he and many other anti-gay prominent black church leaders as
narrow, bigoted, and hypocritical in championing the very discrimination
that King and the civil rights movement waged a titanic battle against?”
his September 27 Slate column, Christopher Hitchens accused Long of sullying
the memory of the civil rights movement with his prosperity gospel,
homophobia, and the “degradation of the King family.”
longstanding issue the scandal hooked into was homosexuality in the
African-American community. In his September 23 Newsweek article,
“The Black Church, Homophobia, and Pastor Eddie Long,” Joshua Alston noted
that even in a city with a large gay African-American population, black gays
and lesbians had a tough path to acceptance.
October, Oprah Winfrey devoted three shows to male sexual abuse, the first
featuring filmmaker Tyler Perry, an Atlanta resident, who talked about how
he had been verbally, physically, and sexually abused as a boy. It is more
than probable, as media studies professor Keonte Coleman wrote on his blog
Diversity & TV News, that this attention was triggered by the Long scandal.
My own view,
posted on Religion Dispatches September 23, was that the case “should mark
the end of Black Church homophobia.” Sadly, it did not. The opportunity for
a broader discussion was lost, and the momentum of the story about
homosexuality and the black church faded rather quickly.
As for Long
himself, while the media attention wound down, the news was not good.
two more lawsuits came his way. The first, filed by State Bank and Trust
alleged that he and two partners had defaulted on a loan to buy a gym in
Jonesboro, Georgia, and owed the bank nearly $2 million. Then a former
employee sued New Birth, charging that a member of the pastoral staff had
shown her a picture of a penis and that she had been demoted for
Halloween, Reuben Armstrong joined with a Pentecostal minister from South
Carolina, Bishop H. Prophet Walker, to hold a rally at the state capitol in
Atlanta to call for Long’s resignation. The rally, according to the
Journal Constitution, featured 70 members of Walker’s church, many of
them women clad in white long dresses, veils, and sandals. Speakers included
anti-gay rights activists and Tea Party members.
following day, Long filed his response to the lawsuits. In it, he admitted
having a mentor-mentee relationship with the plaintiffs that had involved
taking them on trips, giving them gifts, and hugging. But he denied that
there had been any sexual contact.
November, both sides agreed to mediation even as a trial date was set for
July 11. That Long had decided he was not, after all, gon’ fight, struck
many as an admission of guilt. It was, blogged Morris O’Kelly on Huffington
Post December 6, “an end-run around the universally accepted moral and
ethical responsibilities of any ecumenical leader.”
11, the Journal Constitution’s Sheila Poole reported that Long and
his accusers were “expected to settle the matter” later in the month.
Long continued to pastor New Birth, though he increasingly invited guest
preachers to take the pulpit. After his brother, a minister in Florida, died
in early December, he thanked the congregation for its support.
the church became embroiled in another scandal, this time involving members
who invested in sweepstakes gambling machines through a businessman vetted
by Long. Long made a YouTube video to ask the businessman to pay back the
investors, but thus far none of the money has been returned, nor have the
gambling machines appeared in any venues.
church lost members? No one will say. On March 2, the Journal
Constitution’s Sheila Poole reported that New Birth had laid off two
full-time employees and cut all salaries by 10 percent. Anecdotal evidence
from members and New Birth watchers also suggests that the attendance has
declined at services.
It is hard,
given these recent troubles, to imagine Eddie Long’s career ever reaching
another high. Most likely, his fate will be to resemble such other disgraced
religious figures as Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted Haggard—faded
televangelists relegated to the late-night time slots on down-market cable