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Accusations of sexual abuse threaten evangelical empire

by Brad A. Greenberg

September 26, 2010 | 9:21 am

Well, the dominating religion story of the day is, without much debate, the sex scandal threatening to topple a Georgia’s pastor Christian empire. The man in the middle is Bishop Eddie Long, whom I’ve written about before in the gospel of wealth context. Long leads New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and its multimillion-dollar network of charities and businesses. He’s also become a bit of a political player in recent years.

That’s all in jeopardy now, as The New York Time’s reports:

Four former members of a youth group he runs have accused him of repeatedly coercing them into homosexual sex acts, and of abusing his considerable moral authority over them while plying them with cash, new cars, lodging and lavish trips.

Bishop Long has denied the accusations in a letter sent to a local radio station and has promised to address them from the pulpit on Sunday. He declined, through his lawyer, to comment for this article.

The accusations are all the more explosive because Bishop Long styles himself a social conservative, rails against homosexuality and calls for a ban on same-sex marriage. His church even holds seminars promising to “cure” homosexuals.

“When this comes out, it gives at least the perception of hypocrisy — it’s like red meat to a lion, everyone’s pouncing on this story,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, a friend of Bishop Long who heads the First Iconium Baptist Church. “This is the issue: how can you be against homosexuality and you are allegedly participating in it? That is the epitome of hypocrisy.”

It’s definitely been a bad week for Long, with these lawsuits being filed throughout. Long preempted any message from the pulpit with a press conference this morning, maybe realizing this story isn’t just going to be a one-off. Via ABC News:

“On the advice of counsel, I am not going to address the allegations and the attacks. I want this to be dealt with in the court of justice not the court of public opinion. I am going to fight. Fight very vigorously. Things New Birth has stood for ... we will continue to do,” Long said in a press conference this morning, referring to the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Earlier at a sermon, after he thanked his supporters and acknowledging his responsibility to his family, Long addressed the controversy.

“There have been allegations and attacks made on me. I have never in my life portrayed myself as a perfect man. But I am not the man that’s being portrayed on the television. That’s not me.”

“I am not gonna try this case in the media, it will be tried in the court of justice,” he said.

“I want you to know one other thing I feel like David against Goliath, but I got 5 rocks and I haven’t thrown one yet.”

ABC News then does what the NYT does, which is quickly cast this in the context of Long’s public statements against homosexuality. I get that, if the accusations are true, that would make Long a hypocrite—of sorts. But let’s stay sober here and remember one thing: There is a big difference between homosexuality and pedophilia.

But back to Long’s comment. It reminds me a lot of what Ted Haggard said as his world was being undone. And we all know how that turned out.

I’m always amused when embattled public figures, who have for years profited and benefited from media attention, clam up and remind wayward reporters that the explosive allegations about which they are asking questions will be answered in a court of law, not the court of public opinion.

Anyway, the NYT article mentions one of my all time favorite stories from the Godbeat. It was a massive investigation of Long’s living fat on the charitable checkbook, published by his hometown paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I’ve mentioned the article a few times, in this post on the gospel of easy money and in this post about a New York pastor with a $600,000 annual paycheck. Here’s my favorite quote captured by the AJC’s former religion reporter John Blake:

“We’re not just a church, we’re an international corporation,” Long said. “We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk and all we’re doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation.

“You’ve got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that’s supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering.”

That comment appeared after Blake pointed out that between 1997 and 2000 Long had received $3.07 million in salary and benefits, including a $1.4 million mansion and a $350,000 Bentley. Yes, a Bentley.

Blake is now at CNN, which is, of course, running with the Long story. The media outlet’s Belief Blog has been a great source of updates on the lawsuits and developments in the scandal. It was there, not in straight news stories, that I’ve been able to find some more details about the specific accusations. Check them out.

Again, it bears repeating that at this point all we have are accusations. Serious enough for the accusers to bring suit, but Long should not be presumed anything but innocent. Even if you, like me, completely disagree with his interpretation of the gospel and his perspective on the lack of a spectrum between pauper and prince. But, regardless, it’s difficult to imagine his evangelical empire not taking a major hit.

And that’s going to make it a lot more difficult to make Ten ... Million ... Dollars!

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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