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Bishop Eddie Long Embraces a Friend at New Birth Missionary Baptist ChurchBishop Eddie Long (in white suit) embraces a friend in his first appearance before parishioners at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. (photo: John Amis/Getty Images)

Allegations that Bishop Eddie Long coerced four young men to have unwanted sexual contact have riveted the media. In his first appearance before his congregation of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church east of Atlanta, Bishop Long fell short of a resounding denial of these charges.

Understanding that his “anti-homosexual” theology and activism make these accusations particularly controversial, we invited religion scholar Anthea Butler to help us understand the dynamics at play within the black church and a scholar’s perspective on the news coverage of this story.

Anthea ButlerShe is associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a regular contributor to Religion Dispatches. She is a past guest of this program and has written extensively about the role of women in the Pentecostal movement, especially in the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African-American denomination that is the fifth-largest Christian tradition in the United States. We corresponded with her by email.

Is this story getting the coverage it deserves? Or is the coverage extreme? Would the story receive such prominence if his accusers were young women? Is it getting different coverage because he’s African American?
Yes, the story is receiving the coverage it deserves, not only in America, but globally. He has staked a portion of his ministerial message on homosexuality as “sin” and same sex marriage is wrong in a global context, so it is also fair to question his alleged activities.

If the accusers were women, this case would not receive that much coverage at all, sadly. I don’t think Long is getting different coverage because he is African American. I think the “responses” are different because the African-American community has been so shocked, and more importantly, his physical appearance (buffed out muscular body) is so unlike most pastors we see, Ted Haggard included, that his very physical being is also being critiqued along with the allegations.

You have written that this story presents a challenge to the black church in America to get over their homophobia. You recently wrote:

“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.”

How are attitudes toward homosexuality in the black church distinct from the anti-homosexual theology of other Christian churches in this country?
The attitudes about the black church are distinctive because, even though the party line is anti-homosexual, there are plenty of gay people in black churches. The don’t ask, don’t tell policy of the churches allows for people to be a part of the congregation, welcomed, but consistently exposed to a message of “second class, sinful citizenship” because of their sexual preference. And that is wrong.

The other part that is different is that the black church’s stance is not only biblical, but it’s about social respectability and attempting to rectify disparities — for instance, the high rate of unmarried African-American women. Homosexuality is perceived to be a reason why black women are such a high percentage of those who are unmarried.

Billboard of Eddie Long at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church
A billboard featuring Bishop Eddie Long outside New Birth Missionary Baptist Church on the day he first addressed his members about the allegations. (photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Among the elements that distinguish this story are that the alleged sexual contact was coercive (different moral ground hiring a prostitute, as in the Ted Haggard story) and that it involved young men for whom Long was a very powerful authority figure. You point out that the role of the central, powerful, charismatic pastor in congregational life is dangerous on many levels. And yet isn’t it precisely those qualities that make churches like New Life [megachurch formerly led by Ted Haggard] successful, and draw so many people?
Yes, it is what make these churches successful, but in the case of New Life, the bishop is policing his members, but who polices/disciplines him? Charismatic authority can run amok, but it is in congregations like New Birth — that don’t have an oversight board that can both protect and discipline the pastor — that these types of issues can get out of hand. If there is an oversight board for New Birth, the best way they could protect both Bishop Long and the congregation is to have him sit out a time period until the case is adjudicated. However, since New Birth is Bishop Long, I doubt that will happen.

Many of us are involved personally with religious communities that are organized in strict hierarchies that reserve power to a small number of leaders with few checks and balances. That’s something we see a lot of in secular organizations as well (though without the presumption that the hierarchy is sanctioned by the deity). Arguably, this is a model of human organization that has proven consistently ineffective at best, and criminal at worst. Some people would say that religion itself, faith itself, is the problem. Is there a way in which religion can be part of a solution?
More oversight and a willingness to turn people in to the authorities (police) would be a start. Many communities harbor and move about leaders involved in scandals; the Catholic Church is the model for how churches move around problem clergy rather than taking definitive legal action. I do believe that, as these incidences rise, the privileges religious officials (non-taxable status for example) enjoy in this country right now could be on their way out in the next few years if the public outcry continues.

In the coverage we’ve all seen and in writings on this story, the term “the black church” is ubiquitous. I myself use it for convenience. But is it fair to use this aggregating term to represent African-American Christians? Is it dangerous to cast this as such a broad and monolithic category, like “the Muslim world?”
It’s not exactly “fair” because this moniker means different things to different people. On the other hand, It is ubiquitous, and, although I would say that New Birth is not a traditional black church because of its size, it is because the majority of its population is African American. So to say the black church, the term that W.E.B DuBois used, is a “space” to hold lots of tensions that seem to aggregate around the social purpose of the black church (social justice and community) and the “practice” of the black church (song, prayers, preaching, etc.). It may be dangerous because it doesn’t fully express the myriad of black religious expression in the United States. But, then again, it is a term that, when spoken, is recognizable. In that sense, I don’t think it will fall out of use.


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18 Comments

I am afraid that this attention will confuse pedophillia and sexual abuse with homosexuality. They are distinctly different, regardless of the gender of the victims.

Your point is a good one — one that's been discussed among our staff here at Being. In my opinion, it's the responsible use of power that's an extremely important point, which Anthea alludes to with simple governance. But there's a human decency component that's in question with Bishop Long and other religious leaders, non?

I do not understand this comment: I do believe that, as these incidences rise, the privileges religious officials (non-taxable status for example) enjoy in this country right now could be on their way out in the next few years if the public outcry continues.

As a American Baptist pastor in NY, I do not personally hold a non-taxable status. I would hate to have people think this is the case. I pay all appropriate taxes tro the federal,state and local governments,

Hi Sandra: I don't mean individuals, I mean CHURCHES. And once this happens those Tax benefits clergy do enjoy may go away as well. So yes, it could affect you as well. Let's see what happens.

Now that we've heard from a long-time critic of conservative black churches that oppose homosexuality, can we assume that an interview with a supporter of their position is in the works? Or are we supposed to believe that Ms. Butler is speaking as an objective scholar, that the religious stance that God opposes homosexuality has been objectively determined by scholarship to be wrong, and she's just speaking on the basis of objective facts? If that's the position of Being (the show), it should be made explicit, since it's a controversial view that would be determining content. If it isn't the position of the show, then the issue of fairness and balance should be obvious.

It's not unusual for journalists trying to promote their own views, consciously or not, to find experts who will say what they want to say, and to not bother with experts who will say the opposite. That seems to have happened recently at Being (the show) with regard to embryonic stem cell research. Is that what happened here too? Can Ms. Moos see that she has plainly privileged the liberal views she holds while suppressing the conservative views she opposes? And not only in regard to homosexuality but also hierarchies and other issues? Isn't that a problem? Among other things, won't it tend to exclude from the community of the show conservatives whose views are suppressed while giving liberals whose views are privileged a false sense of security about their views?

On hierarchies, it's worth notice that Being (the show) is itself a hierarchy, one with significant power that assumes a certain leadership mantle (perhaps even a prophetic one). While there may be some self-awareness about it, and efforts to include listeners in the power structure, the hierarchy still remains firmly in place, with few checks and balances (beyond strictly voluntary ones). I hope this doesn't mean Being is arguably ineffective at best and criminal at worst. Perhaps I've misunderstood Moos's view.

It seems that Ms. Bulter is speaking to the duplicity that we see in almost every releigious institution that oposses Homosexuality.Those that have hierarchies well as you note theres a heirarchy in almost every organization ,you just have to look to find them. We can all perhaps agree that absolute power corrupts absolutely.Even a person with deep devoution and a calling to serve their community can fall prey to this.To have a structure in place to protect and support the community and its leaders seems ,simply sensible. Your opinions of Gods stance on homosexuality may not be those of Ms Butler's. However again would you not agree that Rev. Longs possible actions do not represent the actions God would approve of? As someone you would probably consider a liberal please be assured that whether or not Being airs a more conservative veiw I have no false sense of security. I have a great sense of little or no security. A sense that is only further fueled by stories such as this.

Lughnasaluna, to me you seem unduly confident that there is duplicity of the kind alleged here in almost every religious institution that opposes homosexuality. I'm pretty sure that isn't true, but one could get that impression from some liberal sources, even if they don't intend that result. That's the kind of false security about liberal views I had in mind, not security that God exists or the like.

Obviously no one should do what Long is accused of. Just to avoid possible confusion, I'm not conservative or a believer myself, and see nothing wrong with homosexuality.

Sanpete, I'd encourage you to search our archives for a variety of voices who speak to these many issues that might speak to this fairness and balance. We welcome your suggestions and ideas for other voices that you'd like us to speak with about the alleged accusations about Bishop Long. It would behoove you to know that while we are trying to bring viewpoints to the fore on this news event, we are also producing a show with a conservative Christian Evangelical leader for next week. Although Richard Mouw views homosexuality as a sin as called out in the Bible, he also calls for gentleness and civility in his interview with Krista. This program functions as a project, as an operating whole that should be measured by our total efforts rather than in pieces.

As to your insinuations in the final paragraph, you should speak more plainly and more directly if you are to make accusations like this, and then support your views. We are willing to take your critiques seriously, but you should honor your suggestions with fact rather than opinion.
Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Mr. Gilliss, I'm not a radio or web producer, and I can't make any specific suggestion about appropriate interviewees, but I'd think there are quite a few conservative black pastors and scholars who could speak eloquently for themselves and shed a more sympathetic light on how conservative black churches see these matters. (I think that's something that should have been arranged before this interview was published so both could be presented together.)

Taking Being (the program) as a whole, as you suggest, you have often had liberal guests, some so liberal in regard to spirituality as to even go beyond anything that could be classified as religious faith in any conventional sense (a fact reflected in the name change). Conservative guests are on less often, and if there has ever been one as conservative as many of the other guests are liberal, I've missed it. In my experience, you haven't gotten much more conservative than Mouw, who is rather moderate for an Evangelical. A number of the conservatives you've had on have been moderates critical of other conservatives (e.g. John Danforth and Jim Wallis). Your center of gravity as a program is well to the liberal side of the spectrum.

This shouldn't be a surprise. Is there anyone who controls content for Being who is conservative, even as conservative as Mouw? Not having conservatives involved in the power structure of the show makes it more difficult to properly understand and represent their views and experiences on the show.

I'm sorry if I was too vague about something. I'll be glad to speak more plainly if you'll indicate what you feel I was too vague about. I'm not aware of making any insinuation of accusation apart from implying some need for Ms. Moos to clarify her concerns about hierarchy, which she did. (The words "arguably ineffective at best and criminal at worst," which may be what you refer to, were her words, not mine.)

Sanpete has, as he allows, misunderstood my view. My question about hierarchies was not meant as a blanket condemnation, but more of a weary observation, that churches, like secular organizations, fail to provide moral back up for leaders whose human frailty is tested by the license and power of their position. My workplace, for example, is hierarchical, and in fact, I am a leader in that hierarchy. My position indeed gives me privilege. That realization doesn't make me less concerned that generally speaking human beings (self included) don't perform well morally when their personal power is unchecked by the people and the structures around them. To the contrary.

I turned to Anthea Butler for this interview because I thought her insight on the black church was insightful. It should be noted that our program next week does in fact offer an esteemed and wise voice, that of Richard Mouw, whose views on homosexuality fall on the "conservative" side.

KM

Ms. Moos, thanks for explaining your comments about hierarchy.

If Mouw is going to defend the conservative black churches from the charges made against them here, including homophobia, that will be helpful. I doubt he would feel able to speak on their behalf on most of those points. I have no objection to interviewing Ms. Butler for her insights. The problem is that she was the only one interviewed.

The issue of hierarchy is an interesting one, though. When this story came out, I wondered how it was that Long was a bishop since he seemed to be running a church with a congregational church polity -- that is, the congregation calls the minister to be its leader; there is no external hierarchy of bishops, arch-bishops, etc. appointing clergy to a congregation. So how could he be a bishop? Who anointed him?

I am a UU & our church is based on congregational polity, but this model is common among some very conservative churches, including many pentecostal & Baptist churches.

There is (or can be) a church board that oversees the ministers' actions, & that can fire/hire a minister but taking action against a minister is very perilous for a congregation (due to rifts/factionalism) & done rarely. I suspect, in practice, boards more commonly seek to drive away a minister rather than fire him/er outright.

It might be interesting to do a story on how congregations tend to handle those problems. On the one hand, people go to church for spiritual reasons, but on the other hand, it's a largely volunteer organization with governance needs so a kind of politicking can set in. How do congregations cope?

As for the tax-free status for churches, I would suspect there would be reform rather than an outright end of the status. Up until about 20 years ago, you could write away for ordination in what was basically the church of the tax loophole, declare your income the church's income, & declare your home the church (ala C Street). For most part, the IRS toughened the rules to keep people from doing that & I believe even C Street's tax exempt status is under scrutiny. What would be a welcome reform to some number of us would be for ministers/churches whose income exceeded a certain amount (when that income was not re-invested into charitable/church works) be taxed. However, there are powerful people with access to media & lobbyists (think "the Fellowship/Family" that owns C Street, the Grahams, or the Robertson empire) who would oppose this. But don't you think reform is more probable than an outright doing away of tax exempt status? That status is well engrained into our culture.

What age(s) were these "young" boys. Quite often pedophilia is covered by a homosexual charge, tainting the entire GLBT community with one more untrue perception. A 12 year age different in victim and perpetrator is pedophilia no matter the sex of either party.

Oops, I should have said a 12 year difference with one being a minor.

One thing that worries me a bit is that all of these posts are written with the assumption that Long is guilty as charged. While I confess to suspecting he is, I still would hope we could open our minds to the idea that he might not be. I roll my eyes at people who put anti-gay stands front & center in their theology or evangelizing. I am deeply skeptical that the "prosperity gospel" Long & others preach has any relationship to anything approximating Christianity. Nonetheless, I do remember that 4 accusations & a non-denial denial are not proof against Long.

Also, it seems as though the national news media has been remiss in mostly acting as if Long is guilty yet not doing the leg work to either substantiate or refute provable parts of the claims. It may be hard to prove directly whether he pushed the boys to have sex with him, but the boys are making specific allegations about where they were (hotels, cities, etc.) & money that was spent & dates these transactions took place -- surely that kind of thing is checkable? Here in Michigan we recently had a case where a teacher was accused of molesting two boys. The man's reputation has been trashed, but upon investigation, it turned out that the room they claimed the attack took place in was not empty (as they claimed) during the time they claimed the attack took place. It seems a kind of evil not to care enough about the facts to get what's checkable checked before we get too far ahead of ourselves in acting as though we know that people are genuinely guilty of that of which they are accused.

I noticed that Ms. Tippett's pitch for this interview at the end of the latest installment of Being (the show) frames it as reframing the Long story. This seems to be the way the staff here understand what they're doing when in actuality they're simply giving the liberal view of things. As with the supposed reframing of the embryonic stem cell controversy, there's nothing particularly new in the views expressed here. They're standard, even orthodox liberal views.

If Being wants to really reframe things, the staff needs to question the view they apparently have that in presenting stuff they find interesting or attractive without regard to the liberal/conservative distinction they're thereby transcending that distinction. What liberals find interesting or attractive is usually just liberal stuff. Even the conservative Mouw who's up next week for a repeat appearance, and so is apparently an attractive guest, is appealing because for an Evangelical he has pretty liberal attitudes. What of the great mass of Evangelicals who aren't so attractive to liberals?

It might be useful for the staff to imagine the pitfalls that would face a group of conservatives who got together to present a show on faith. (Being conservatives, they wouldn't shy away from calling it faith.) Of course, the fact that only conservatives were involved would present an immediate red flag. For some reason, that flag isn't noticed, or at least isn't heeded, when a bunch of liberals get together to do the same.

But putting aside that obvious problem that really ought to be remedied, and by more than a token effort, what methods could the hypothetical conservative staff use to try to properly present the world of faith, a large part of which they don't understand very well, disagree with or are even hostile to? Might they have trouble seeing their own biases and their effects? How do they get past that? It would take something much deeper than having an occasional liberal on. Surely relying heavily on what they find interesting and attractive would *not* work.

In a workplace always buzzing about "the Church", it has been totally silent (possisbly speaking quietly behind closed doors) on the issue of Bishop Long. Of course, not being Black puts me outside the circle of influence here. Eddie Long represents the epitomy of self - proclaimed Bishop of a congregation of his own making. The pastor in an autonomous Black church is very powerful. New Birth is commonly known as Bishop Long's church. His abuse of that power has not gone unnoticed. Sending buff photos of himself to young me goes way beyond being fit for God. Its all about Eddie.
There is no heirarchy ... he is the final decision. There must be an heir or heiress apparent for him to remotely consider stepping down in any form or fashion. Would that be Rev. Bernice King? I would think even Rev. King would be a tentative choice, being a woman.
Its going to the Bishop against the world, and "his" church will back up to keep from backing down ... right or wrong.

Confirmation! Another Religious Scholar with religious degrees and for whatever reason. She some how have more direct contact with God. It's not a degree. It's a true relationship with God. Why all this black church, homosexualty, newbirth, and bishop eddie long. Satan is unified...christians are always fighting each other. Baptist, Penacostal, catholic, etc. Their is One God, One Jesus, and One Holy Ghost. CHRISTIANS LET'S GO TO WARFARE ON WHAT'S DESTROYING THE UNITY OF FAMILIES, CHILDREN DROPP OUT OF SCHOOL AT AN ALARMING RATE, TEEN GIRLS AND BOYS CONFUSED ABOUT THIER PLACE BECAUSE NO ONE IS GUIDING. PEOPLE WANT ANSWERS! AND IT'S NOT NEWBIRTH OR BISHOP EDDIE LONG.... I SPEAK FOR REAL CHRISTIANS....GOD HASN'T STOPPED BEING GOD...HE DOESN'T NEED ANY HELP. He created all of us to help one another. BUT, STILL WE SIT BACK AND TRY AND TEAR ONE ANOTHER DOWN. WHY CAN'T WE STAND AS 1!