Spring 2011, Vol. 13, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Month of the Condom

Political Islamophobia

Our Christian Nation

Sharia Isn't OK

The Religion Gap Abides

Not a Witch but a What?

The Fall of Eddie Long

No Goyim Need Apply

The Golb Affair

Praying for Christopher Hitchens



The Fall of Eddie Long
by 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 Long.

“Through 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.”

That 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.

In Atlanta, 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.

Martin 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.

And then 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 movement.”

As with 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.

For the 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.

In the 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.

Ted Haggard 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.

The 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.

The story grew international legs as well, thanks to Long’s worldwide prominence on the prosperity gospel circuit.

In England, 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 25,000 members.

Along with 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.

Long then 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.

But Long 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.

The following week, Fox News Atlanta managed to catch up with one of the youths, Jamal Parris, who gave the charges an affecting personal perspective.

“I cannot 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 activity.

Now photos 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.

Videos of 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.”

Posts on 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 on Long.

But no 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.

Similarly if less entertainingly, former Texas congressman Craig Washington, writing in the online daily The, 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.”

Such views 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.

The magazine 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!”

As was pointed out by commenters on the Black Voices website, Long himself was a member of Gospel Today’s advisory board.

By contrast, 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.”

As with 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 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?”

Likewise, in 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.”

The 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.

In late 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.

In October, 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 complaining.

On 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.

The 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. 

Later in 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.”

On February 11, the Journal Constitution’s Sheila Poole reported that Long and his accusers were “expected to settle the matter” later in the month.

Meanwhile, 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.

In February, 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.

Has the 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 channels.


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