Eddie Long Case Should Mark the End of Black Church Homophobia

This post has been updated.

Bishop Eddie Long, megachurch pastor and prosperity purveyor, has now been named in three separate lawsuits alleging sexual coercion of two young men in Atlanta, Georgia. Bishop Long, in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center, “is one of the most virulently homophobic black leaders in the religiously based anti-gay movement.”

Like the formerly-closeted Ken Mehlman, who recently repented for his work to prevent gay marriage, these lawsuits, if substantiated, would suggest that Long’s homophobia began with his own self-loathing.

What is especially disturbing about this story is the manner in which Long is alleged to have lured young men on trips and sexual encounters. Calling the plaintiffs his “spiritual sons,” the lawsuit states that Long used various rituals in a ceremony to “seal” his “sons”—including candles, exchange of jewelry, and discussion of biblical verses that reinforce the spiritual and God-like connection between himself and the young man.

Isn’t this the man who marched with Bernice King alongside five thousand African Americans against gay marriage? As Sarah Posner points out here on RD, this practice of manipulating congregants into sexual relationships stems from “kingdom now” relational theology, mandating close relationships with spiritual leaders or “spiritual parents” in an individual’s life.

Conveniently, Long’s Longfellows Youth Academy was a place where young black men could be “trained to love, live and lead,” with Long and others acting as “spiritual parents.” Though they appear to have been taken down the website had included testimonials such as: “My real journey to Manhood didn’t start until I joined Longfellows.”

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Another testimonial powerpoint outlined how the Ishman masculine journey and Bishop Long’s teachings about the bloodline stated that their “bloodlines should not be destroyed” and that “we have to take care of our bloodline because if we don’t, we are not doing our jobs as men.” With the revelations of sexual activity and the link of one of the plaintiffs to the academy, the academy is being sued, along with New Birth church as a corporation.

However, that’s only part of the story. Sex scandals happen everyday in church because leaders and members of strict churches can’t uphold the high standards of living they promote, aspire to, and harangue people over. The endless carousel of revelations about the Catholic Church worldwide is exhibit A of that broken message. In that sense, there is nothing new here.

The real story however, is that this case explodes the cover of the black church’s internal don’t ask, don’t tell policy which has had a profound effect on the community and its followers. It’s very interesting that the Long scandal broke almost immediately after black pastors led by Bishop Harry Jackson came together with the Family Research Council to oppose the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Act. Many black pastors have staked their entire ministries on the “family” and the obsession with mainstream gender norms that encourage heterosexual marriage, abstinence, and patriarchal norms. It is an all-encompassing message that is obsessed with the suppression of sexuality in black churches, mega-churches and storefronts alike.

The core issue however is “respectability.” The obsession with mainline and black prosperity churches to show well groomed African Americans as prosperous, good, heterosexual Christians has gutted the social justice message of urban black churches. President Obama has even bought into the message of “talking down to the folks” with messages about delinquent fathers and feeding kids Popeye’s for breakfast. Meanwhile, the activities of black church leaders in sexual scandals, including Jeremiah Wright, websites that track sexual abuse, and blogs concerning “policing” black church sexuality suggest that the don’t ask don’t tell policy about sexuality in any form in the black church is alive and well.

The Homophobia and sexophobia of black church leaders can be found in their literature, preaching, and revivalism. Intrepid preachers and evangelists use sexuality in titles of books and preaching to get followers to buy their extended respectability sermons, packaged as sensual tomes like The Lady The Lover and her Lord, Foreplay: Sexual Healing for Spiritual Wholeness, or No More Sheets. Then emotional meetings are arranged so that everyone can “confess” and feel clean while the ‘leader” can be shown to be above reproach.

The master at this is Donnie McClurkin, whose tearful testimonies about being molested and sleeping with men culminated at the past Church of God in Christ (COGIC) convocation with him wailing about people “turning out” the children. Perhaps he forgot where he was turned out first. The church.

So the Eddie Long crisis is not just a crisis for himself, the accusers, Long’s family and the church; it’s a clarion call to African-American churches to cease and desist with the homophobia and finally start to deal with the fact that its not the folks in the pews who need to be disciplined, it’s the corrupt, bankrupt leadership of many, though not all, churches. The endless round of pastor’s anniversaries, offerings, and the fawning “my pastor is God and can do no wrong” theology of black churches needs to stop.

The absolute fealty to leadership and the “man” of god, enforced with scriptures like “don’t touch God’s anointed” have left so many victims in their wake that it’s a wonder people bother to even go to church anymore. When you factor in the money people have put into ministries that pimp them out and put them down, that’s an abusive relationship predicated on loving God and paying to be close to “God’s representative.” If the Catholic church can’t get a pass on its sexual and pedophilia scandals, why should mega-church pastors?

This frenzied focus on sexuality has stunted the understandings about what sex is and is not within the black church tradition. The older generation of repressed members criticize rappers for promoting bitches, hoes, and a bling lifestyle even as pastors’ bling lifestyles of prosperity, on-the-low sexuality, and repression reinforce rappers’ messages with biblical patriarchy, minimally suppressed misogyny, and fake respectability—all under the guise of spiritual authority.

Finally, my friend Benjamin Anastas, who wrote a prescient article about Atlanta and prosperity for Harper’s magazine perhaps has the best observation so far about the scandal: “whatever happens with Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar will probably get some of his members.” Sigh. As much as I would like to think otherwise, Ben, you’re probably right.

UPDATE, 9/23/10: Long has cancelled both his radio appearance on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, as well as a scheduled news conference. His lawyer, Craig Gillen, indicated that it was at Long’s legal team’s direction that the appearances were pulled today. Was it spurred by filing of a third lawsuit filed yesterday, and pictures of Long posing in front of a Jacuzzi tub with his trademark muscle shirts? Long promises to address this “railroading” and “dog and pony show” at New Birth on Sunday. Stay tuned.

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.