Maybe it’s just an ugly scam.
Maybe it’s a well-coordinated, fairly sophisticated conspiracy among several young men to shake down Bishop Eddie Long, a successful, revered leader who has built New Birth Missionary Baptist Church into a powerhouse of Christian service.
Sad as that would be, it would certainly be the better outcome. Because if the opposite proves true and the allegations against Long are valid, the tragedy deepens.
Lawsuits filed this week by three young men who entered Long’s orbit as mere boys allege truly troubling predatory behavior on the part not just of Long but of those close to him. In short, they claim that Long prostituted the faith he preached and the resources of the church he led in order to satisfy his sexual urges with those who had almost no defense against him.
The allegations include claims that Long, an outspoken critic of gay rights and gay marriage, participated in “covenant ceremonies” in which he and young male parishioners exchanged vows of commitment.
Through his attorney, the bishop strenuously denies all such charges. However, radio interviews and a news conference scheduled for Thursday were canceled, and Long apparently will not address the issue until Sunday, before his New Birth congregation.
In the meantime, Long’s attorney has described the lawsuits as an attack not just on the pastor but on New Birth and its 25,000-member congregation. Church members no doubt feel that way as well, and most have rallied to defend their leader.
If the charges prove false, New Birth is indeed a victim of injustice almost as great as that perpetrated against Long. But if the charges are correct, then New Birth served as an accomplice, witting or unwitting, in a gross betrayal of faith.
Under the circumstances, it’s possible that the truth about the alleged seductions can be established one way or the other relatively quickly. The lawsuits include multiple details of travel and gifts that can be verified or discredited. They cite witnesses who will be legally obligated to testify honestly in court to what they saw or risk charges of perjury. Photos of Long taken by the bishop in his bathroom mirror and allegedly e-mailed to the young men have already been leaked, and other material might be forthcoming.
If the truth is not established fairly soon, however, church elders should launch an independent probe of the allegations. That would be difficult for an institution such as New Birth, which bears Long’s strong and charismatic imprint. But people should never be afraid to seek the truth, especially in a situation like this.
As we all know — as Long himself has no doubt preached — none of us is immune to temptation. We also know that it is human instinct to look up to leaders, both secular and religious, in the belief that they are less vulnerable to the weaknesses that dog all of us.
The danger is that by elevating leaders in our eyes, we elevate them in their own eyes as well. To satisfy our own need to believe in someone better and stronger than we are, we turn mortals into demi-gods and then marvel when they start to act accordingly. Even on the truly humble and well-intentioned, unquestioned faith and confidence can over time have a corrosive effect.
As a young pastor in the ’60s, the late Earl Paulk had been one of the few Atlanta-area white clergy to support Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his civil rights struggle. His leadership skills helped build Chapel Hill Harvester Church into an institution with national influence, politically and spiritually.
Then came his fall. Beginning in the ’90s, Paulk was hit by repeated charges of sexual coercion much like those now facing Long, devastating a congregation that believed in him.
Heros often fail us, but betrayal by a religious leader is probably felt more intensely than any other. Yeah, Mel Gibson turned out to be a jerk, but really, who cares? Yes, President Clinton tarnished his office and legacy, but most people didn’t feel that betrayal personally. With a religious leader the betrayal is intimate, in some ways as deeply felt as betrayal by a spouse or parent.
But just a year ago, speaking at Paulk’s funeral, Long himself took the opportunity to remind mourners that even leaders are not granted perfection.
“We did not, in case you didn’t know, fall down out of heaven,” Long said. “We were taken from among men so we could minister to men.”