WASHINGTON — There has never been much to admire about the ministry of Eddie Long, who presides over the much-hyped New Birth Missionary Baptist mega-church in Lithonia, Ga. He is a homophobe, a narcissist and a con artist — a man much more devoted to his own wellbeing than that of his congregants or his larger community. He has misused his pulpit in ways large and small, including a self-aggrandizing abuse of the title “bishop,” a rank that doesn’t officially exist among Baptists.
Given Long’s extremely flexible ethics over the years, it’s no surprise that he chose to engage in hush-hush negotiations aimed at settling the sexual misconduct allegations brought against him by four young men. If the civil cases are settled — a settlement is reportedly close — they will likely require non-disclosure agreements by all parties. Long would then continue to insist that he did nothing wrong.
But he has already lost his halo — his fancy-suited, private-jet-flying, bling-wearing persuasiveness that coaxed millions of dollars out of his parishioners over the years so he and his wife could live large. He will no longer be able to draw big crowds to his anti-gay rants without eliciting snickers and snide remarks.
His credibility has been severely strained, and a secret settlement would simply ratchet up the unease that many among his parishioners must already be feeling. Wouldn’t a man of the cloth who has been falsely accused of coercing young men into having sex with him insist on a public trial to clear his name? Didn’t Long say last year that he would “fight and fight vigorously?”
He has been accused of the worst sort of exploitation. Three of the young men say the relationships started when they were teen-agers and members of a church ministry called the “LongFellows Youth Academy.” (Did I mention Long’s narcissism?) His accusers say the minister treated them to overseas trips and/or fancy gifts in exchange for sexual favors.
Church finances have already suffered in the wake of the lawsuits. The church has laid off employees and cut salaries, according to a message posted on a church Web site in March.
Of course, there are many members who insist they don’t believe the accusers. When a popular minister is charged with wrongdoing, he can always count on the unquestioning support of some. But many members will find that the spell has been broken; Long’s aura of invincibility has faded; his air of authority, once so powerful, is greatly diminished.
And that’s a very good thing.
There is now a well-established pattern of closeted gay ministers in conservative circles, men who turned their fears and unease about their sexuality outward, preaching fiery sermons that condemn homosexuality as an “abomination.” Those ministers have thrived for years in churches large and small before their deceits were uncovered. They have served congregations black, white and mixed.
But nowhere have those closeted gays — and their bigoted but straight brethren — done more harm than in the black church, where homophobia drives gays into the closet and fuels covert sexual activity. That, in turn, allows HIV/AIDS to thrive.
Nearly half the Americans living with HIV/AIDS are black, though black Americans account for less than 13 percent of the population. In the face of that staggering epidemic, too many black churches have been complicit, fostering a “down-low” culture by encouraging denial, fear and shame among gay parishioners.
Long has been in the front ranks of the homophobes. In 2004, he led thousands to march in support of a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
It’s unlikely he’d be able to draw such crowds to march under his banner again. And that, too, is a very good thing.
- Cynthia Tucker