Gay Sex Scandal Lands Black Church Under Scrutiny
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, insurance companies can no longer deny your child coverage because of a pre-existing condition. That's history. But will some companies stop covering kids altogether? We'll talk about the future of health care; that begins today.
But we start with the allegations of deception, manipulation and sexual coercion against Bishop Eddie Long. He is the pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia. That's just outside Atlanta.
But more than that, he is one of the most prominent and successful megachurch pastors in the country, and he's taken a strong stance against same-sex marriage and homosexuality - a position that is challenged by the legal complaints against him.
Those legal complaints, filed by three men now in their 20s, accuse Long of using his authority as bishop to lure them into engaging in sexual relationships. Now, Long has served as pastor of New Birth since 1987, drawing tens of thousands of members through his energetic preaching.
Bishop EDDIE LONG (Pastor, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church): God says, I'm going to be glorified. I'd like to start some trouble, put you in a hopeless situation, get a whole lot of folk around you that don't believe you gonna get up. Let them bury you, let them crucify you. And on the third day, let me get you up. I'll be glorified. That's what glory is.
MARTIN: Now, Long's profile was raised even beyond church circles when he presided over the funeral of civil rights activist Coretta Scott King. And as we said, the scandal challenges Long's stern stance against homosexuality.
The suit is filed against him, the church, and the Longfellows Youth Academy. That's a program for young men aged 13 to 18, and several of the complainants attended that program.
Here to talk with us about this is Michael Dash. He's professor of ministry and context, and an expert in congregational studies at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He also taught Bishop Long, and has a close association with him.
Also with us is Jonathan Walton. He's assistant professor of African-American religions at Harvard Divinity School, and he's written extensively about the black church and televangelism. And I welcome you both, and I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Dr. MICHAEL DASH (Ministry and Context, Expert in Congregational Studies, Interdenominational Theological Center): Thank you.
Professor JONATHAN WALTON (African-American Religions, Harvard Divinity School): Great being here.
MARTIN: Now Professor Dash, I just want to emphasize that we are not making any statement here about the truth or falsity of these allegations. That's what the courts are for. And we certainly don't expect you to do that.
But I do have to ask you, based on your long association with Bishop Long, what was your reaction when you heard about this?
Dr. DASH: My immediate reaction was that this is entirely out of the character that I know. Maybe there are areas of his character that I do not know, but the character that I know presents something that's out of his character.
MARTIN: And what are his strengths - if you don't mind my asking - as a preacher, as a minister, as a spiritual leader? What have you seen as his strengths over the years?
Dr. DASH: Well, his ability to attract people by the way in which he presents himself in his preaching, and the things that he's done over the years in terms of responding to needs of persons in the community.
MARTIN: And as we've mentioned, his church membership has exploded over the years. It's been, you know, widely reported. Figures say that some 25,000 people are associated with his church. What do you think accounts for that? And he grew that church, I have to say, from just a couple of hundred members to the very large network of ministries that it is today. What do you think accounts for that?
Dr. DASH: Well, a lot of that, I think, is accountable for the way in which the leader presents himself, the vision he casts, and his capacity to attract followers and elicit commitment from them. And I think that's what Long has done over the years.
As I recall, when he was with me in class, he had about 300 members, and then the membership started to grow, and he established his congregation on Rainbow, and then they moved out - now to Lithonia.
MARTIN: And Professor Walton, will you help us understand Professor Long in the context of - kind of the church scene today, and where he fits into that. I mean, some people have a very deep, you know, relationship and knowledge of churches like Bishop Long's, and some people will have none. So bearing that in mind, just kind of help us understand him as a religious figure today, if you would.
Prof. WALTON: Well, first of all, let me just say I'm proud to be here. Thank you for having me, Michel. I'm a big fan of your show, and I'm also glad to be on here with Dr. Dash. It's great work he's doing down at ITC in congregational studies.
MARTIN: Well, we thank you for that. We both thank you. I'll speak for Professor Dash.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WALTON: Well, I mean, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, under Bishop Long's leadership, in so many ways has become the archetype of the megachurch model in American society.
I mean, the megachurch is typically defined in the literature as congregations with over 2,000 members or more, and it has really grown exponentially over the past few decades, particularly beginning in the 1980s, as Dr. Dash pointed out.
And what we see from New Birth Ministry, a kind of full-service ministry. It's like - they describe it as one-stop shopping. And it's part of this larger, charismatic, evangelical movement that's sweeping the suburbs and exurbs and then particularly across the southern crest -from kind of Maryland area all the way through the South up into Southern California - where you have churches where you can go - child care, recreational activities, singles ministries, married couples ministries, and it's seven day a week.
And so it's really kind of the strip mall meets the institutional church, if you will.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the allegations - and they are that; allegations at this point - of sexual impropriety against Bishop Eddie Long. He is the leader of a very large congregation outside of Atlanta.
And we're speaking with Michael Dash and Jonathan Walton. They're both professors who've studied this, the black church, closely. And Professor Dash has also taught Bishop Long.
You know, one of the things that I think distinguishes New Birth - it has such a strong focus on men, particularly kind of reviving, if we could call it that, a masculine model of Christianity. And you can see where he could become a father figure to many people.
In fact, maybe people would seek him out for the purpose of becoming a father figure. So I do wonder - Professor Dash, maybe you can help us with this. Where does this kind of focus on masculinity come from? Is that a new thing in the church, to put a special focus on the - kind of the formation of men? Is this something that Bishop Long is particularly known for?
Dr. DASH: I think it's a response to an understanding of what's happening in the African-American culture, and the loss of men in terms of relationships and families, and that kind of thing.
And I think what Long is trying to do, then, is to try to recover that by establishing a ministry that enables our black men to rediscover themselves, to find themselves within the context of families, to present themselves as strong persons who are capable of doing what they need to do within our communities and within our families.
MARTIN: But you could see where this could become, this could create a certain responsibility for a certain access to young men and how, and in that sense, it certainly creates some - there are some, I think, similarities to the Catholic Church scandals - which we all know so much about now - where men, you know, priests are now known to have behaved completely inappropriately with young men - with children, in some cases.
And I just wonder, what are the protections, the teachings that are put into the protections that are put into place to keep people from abusing that position of authority? Professor Dash?
Dr. DASH: I think the initial protection is one's understanding of oneself in relation to others, and one's understanding of one's own sexuality, one's moral integrity, and those kinds of things.
There was some research done last year - or two years ago - that formed the emphasis of our work in the classroom last academic year on sex in the seminary. And the report suggested that we need to be concerned about these kinds of things - that personal faith, emotional maturity, moral integrity and public witness need to go together, and that our knowledge about human sexuality - including sexual behaviors, sexual response, sexual orientation, gender identity and personal relationships as well as theological reflection on the integration of sexuality and spirituality - will help us.
And I think, then, the challenge for us who teach in seminaries, and who train religious professionals, is to bear this in mind - that in their relationships not only with all persons in the congregation but with special genders, they need to be mindful of that, and mindful of the fact that they bear responsibility to make a coincidence between what they claim to be and how they act.
MARTIN: Now, Professor Walton, obviously the whole question of sexual impropriety by clergy is not a new issue, sadly. It's become a global issue. But I do wonder, in drawing on your deep knowledge of the black church, whether this has been a fermenting issue in the African-American church.
Prof. WALTON: Well, I think it's been a fermenting issue in the church writ large because I think it's a problem of masculinity, in many ways. I absolutely agree with Dr. Dash when he was saying that this - Eddie Long's ministry is constructed on particular relations in the post-civil-rights era.
But this kind of tradition of muscular Christianity is a much larger evangelical phenomenon that dates back to the late 19th century. I mean, we think of the Young Men's Christian Association, the YMCA. I mean, that's kind of in response to this birth of a muscular Christianity that is responding to what was perceived to be the effeminization of the faith, right.
So therefore, in response to that, you had male clergy that reframed Christianity, where it's not about passivity, but it's about virility. It's not about meekness, but it's about power and authority.
And it's this tradition that extends back to the famed revivalist Billy Sunday of the beginning of the 20th century - the former baseball player, right, and the way that he was able to inspire the masses, particularly men, that Bishop Long has built his ministry upon.
MARTIN: Okay, I'm sorry, we only have about a minute left. So Professor Walton, I want to give you the last word. I gave Professor Dash the first word. So do you think that the story resonates beyond the four walls of that church and if so, why?
Prof. WALTON: Well, I think it should because when we talk about this kind of impropriety, the point I was making about a crisis of masculinity - where you have this sort of muscular Christianity or hyper-masculine male-space culture, right, that's based upon a normative standards of what it means to be a, quote-unquote, real man, righ - then what happens to same-sex attraction, same-sex-loving couples? What happens to African-American men, or men of any persuasion, who have this sort of attraction?
It tends to be pushed underground or in closets. And whenever that happens, we know that ends up being - leading to negative symptomatic behavior, such as this form of abuse. Again, not suggesting Eddie Long did this, but this is the pattern that we've seen in other places.
MARTIN: Well, as we said, it's an ongoing story. And we will follow it close, and we hope we can draw upon both of your expertise as it goes forward. And we thank you both so much for speaking with us.
I was just speaking with Jonathan Walton. He's a social ethicist and assistant professor at Harvard Divinity School, and he studied the black church and televangelism. He joined us from Cambridge - Cambridge, Massachusetts. Also with us, Michael Dash, professor of ministry and context at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He taught Bishop Long. He's also an expert in congregational studies. Gentlemen, I thank you both for speaking with us.
Dr. DASH: Thank you.
Prof. WALTON: Thank you very much, Michel.