ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
One of the most influential church leaders in the country is fighting charges of sexual misconduct. Bishop Eddie Long heads a megachurch in Atlanta. In the last week, four young men have filed suit against him. They accuse Long of using his power to coerce them into sexual relationships. Long responded to those charges yesterday during his Sunday sermon.
NPR's Kathy Lohr has this report.
KATHY LOHR: Long made a calculated decision in how he spoke to his congregation over the weekend - not giving a lot of details, but promising to fight the allegations.
Bishop EDDIE LONG (Pastor, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church): This is difficult, difficult for everybody. This is probably the most difficult time in my entire life.
LOHR: Long was speaking to thousands at his New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Most in the congregation overwhelmingly embraced the pastor, who founded and has led this church for more than 20 years.
Bishop LONG: I am not a perfect man. But this thing, I'm going to fight.
(Soundbite of applause)
LOHR: Long is not just a church leader. Hes a leader in Atlanta's African-American community and a political force. He preaches a prosperity gospel, that God rewards the faithful with wealth and good health. And he, himself, lives a flamboyant lifestyle. His ministry has reportedly paid him more than $3 million in salary in a single year. He drives luxury cars, and travels in private jets.
Mr. JOSEF SORETT (Professor of Religion and African-American Studies, Columbia University): Eddie Long is part of a select group of perhaps the most popular and prominent pastors of megachurches - arguably in the world, certainly in the United States.
LOHR: Josef Sorett is a professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University. Cases of infidelity are not new in black or white churches. But Sorett says this case focuses on an issue that black churches - and all of society - are wrestling with: same-sex relationships.
Mr. SORETT: Within African-American culture, there is not a robust conversation around homosexuality. As well as within evangelical communities, there is such a kind of rigid proscription against same-sex relationships that it makes for a very tough road ahead for Bishop Long.
LOHR: At a press conference, Long said he was surprised his church was getting so much attention. But this is a pastor who has sought and garnered attention for years.
He refused to cooperate with a U.S. Senate investigation in 2007, into his use of church funds. His church hosted the funeral of Coretta Scott King. And King's youngest daughter, Bernice King, is a member. Sorett says Long has positioned himself as an heir to Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. SORETT: And so he set himself as this very important figure in American Christianity. And with that, right, comes a great degree of public scrutiny.
LOHR: Since Long heads own church, dealing with the fallout of the accusations may be different for him than for other religious leaders. Anthea Butler is a religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ms. ANTHEA BUTLER (Religion Professor, University of Pennsylvania): This is somebody who stands alone. In other words, that's his church empire. He doesn't have a denomination to answer to; he doesn't have anybody to answer to. And so there's no mechanism, in a sense, for him to be accountable to anybody. So he has to face these charges alone.
LOHR: While Long's congregation largely supports him, Butler says other major prosperity gospel pastors, including T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar, have been silent on the issue. Butler attended one of yesterday's services, and says Long's sermon was clearly focused on rallying the troops.
Ms. BUTLER: It was to keep the group together, to keep the church together -because you cannot fight something like this if you have people peeling off and leaving, okay. Plus you don't have finances to fight it. So if the product is Bishop Eddie Long, you've got to keep the product in place.
LOHR: Long portrayed himself as David battling Goliath, as he faces a large, suspicious public that may not know him. But that may also be the case for the four young men who filed the lawsuits. They are up against Long's wealthy, powerful empire.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
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