In two explosive lawsuits filed yesterday in DeKalb County, Georgia, two members of televangelist Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, charge that as teenagers and participants in the church-sponsored Longfellows Church Academy, Long coerced them into sexual relationships with him.
Long, the leader of the 25,000-member church and a prominent figure in both televangelism and politics, and in particular in anti-gay activism and “reparative therapy” for gays and lesbians, denied the allegations through a spokesperson.
I reported on Long, his preaching, and political activism in my book, God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. He was among a small group of black ministers invited to meet with George W. Bush to help promote the faith-based initiative, and received a $1 million grant under the initiative. (Watch Long preach about how the word of God is like sperm, via the Wittenburg Door.)
Long is also one of the “Grassley Six” televangelists whose alleged use of church funds for their own personal enrichment are being probed by the Senate Finance Committee. After initially decrying the inquiry as “an attack on our religious freedom and privacy rights,” Long agreed to cooperate.
The allegations in the lawsuits, brought by Anthony Flagg, now 21, and Maurice Murray Robinson, now 20, may suggest more areas of inquiry for the Committee. They allege that Long, while sexually pursuing them, put them on the church payroll, and used church funds to buy them gifts and take them on lavish trips. Long used his position of spiritual authority to coerce the young men into sexual relationships with him, they charge, relationships that Long insisted were sanctioned by God.
The notion of “spiritual” fathers and sons, and of obedience to one in spiritual authority, is a common theme in Long’s career trajectory.
The plaintiffs claim that Longfellows “purports to train young men to love, live and lead as they proceed on their ‘masculine journey.’” They alleged that Long “utilized his spiritual authority as Bishop” to “coerce certain young male members” of the congregation “into engaging in sexual acts and relationships for his own personal sexual gratification.”
These men were known as his “Spiritual Sons.” During services, Robinson’s complaint alleges, “Long uses pastoral sessions to discuss Biblical verses that indicate to his ‘sons’ that the Spiritual Son should follow his master.” Long, Robinson alleges, used “Holy Scripture to discuss and justify the intimate relationship between himself” and the young man. Flagg alleges that Long encouraged him to participate in a “Covenant Ceremony” with him.
As I reported in God’s Profits, Long considered Earl Paulk his “spiritual father.” Paulk, the megachurch pastor once named one of the “thousand points of light” by former President George H.W. Bush, was accused by female congregants, including his own granddaughter, of forcing them into sexual relationships with them. He was later charged with perjury — for claiming under oath that he only had sex with one woman aside from his wife — when paternity tests revealed his nephew was actually his son (i.e., he also had had sex with his sister-in-law). Paulk died in 2009.
Denise Weaver, who had belonged to Paulk’s church from 1986 through 2005, described Paulk to me as a “great orator” and “master at manipulating people.” He preached “kingdom now” theology, which was built on relationships, a concept that Weaver said Long adopted from Paulk. Weaver said the message of love and unity in those relationships was what drew her into Paulk’s multi-racial Atlanta megachurch, but that mirage unraveled in the 1990s, when six women in the church accused him of sexual abuse. As I wrote in God’s Profits, they accused him:
of manipulating them into sex based on his theory of a “kingdom relationship:” sex with the bishop (and in some cases members of his family or other pastors) was what God wanted for his kingdom. . . . Paulk refused to admit any impropriety. Through the 1980s and 1990s and into the first years of the twenty-first century, Paulk continued to be exalted as a spiritual leader, as evidenced by visits by [T.D.] Jakes, [Carlton] Pearson, [Mark] Hanby, and others, and by offering spiritual guidance to Long, who went on to launch his own church, New Birth Missionary Baptist. “There is a network of these guys that support each other, look out for each other, now something is wrong with each other to some extent, and they cover for each other,” said Johnny Enlow, who was a member of Paulk’s church form 1987 until 1992, and even became part of the church leadership. Enlow wouldn’t name names, but he said, “They threaten, through spiritual tones, people who would tell on them. And it’s part of the overall effect, the effectiveness of them. Staying in power, and keeping people quiet, and keeping their own members believing them.”
Both Enlow and Weaver told me they didn’t believe the allegations against Paulk when they first surfaced; the hold of his “spiritual authority” was so intense they believed him when he denied them. Weaver described how she was “manipulated:”
You can’t even see it a lot while you’re there. It almost takes you to come out to really see what was really happening, to see how you’re really being used and abused and not just the sexual abuse; it was abuse all through there. . . . I really thought these people loved me, I really did! And now I know they didn’t care anything about me.
There’s more detail in God’s Profits, including my coverage of a Trinity Broadcasting Network “Praise-A-Thon,” with Long pleading for money for the already-wealthy Crouch family. (Paul Crouch, the patriarch of TBN, has himself been accused of sexual misconduct with a male employee.)
I’m hearing that Long’s followers don’t believe the allegations. But if the Senate Finance Committee continues to probe the use of church funds, no doubt some piece of the story will emerge from there, as well as from Robinson’s and Flagg’s lawsuits.