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ROBINSON: The irony of Bishop Long

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson

One of the small ironies of the Bishop Eddie Long scandal is the preacher’s self-pitying complaint, in a Sunday sermon vetted by his lawyers, that he feels “like David against Goliath.”

Really? Let’s see, on one side we have one of the most prominent and influential clerics in the country, the pastor of a suburban Atlanta megachurch that claims 25,000 members. On the other, we have four young men who claim in lawsuits that Long abused his clerical authority to lure and coerce them into having sex with him. Unlike the bishop, as far as I know, none of the accusers is driven around in a Bentley. Or is constantly attended by a retinue of aides and bodyguards. Or cultivates and maintains first-name relationships with famous politicians, athletes and entertainers.

I’m pretty sure the preacher has that whole David-Goliath thing backward.

A much bigger irony, of course, is that Long has been a vehement crusader against same-sex marriage — and against homosexuality in general. And the biggest irony of all is that his very public travails may force the African-American church to finally confront its long history of homophobic hypocrisy.

Starting in 1987 with just 300 members, Long built the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church into one of the nation’s two or three biggest and most important black congregations. The 240-acre church complex is located in DeKalb County, one of the wealthiest majority-black jurisdictions in the country. The church is popular among Atlanta’s black celebrities, and its success has made Long a celebrity, too.

In 2004, Long led a march to Martin Luther King Jr.’s gravesite in support of a Georgia constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Two years later, when it was decided that Coretta Scott King’s funeral would be held at New Birth — the Kings’ daughter Bernice is one of the ministers there — veteran civil rights activist Julian Bond was outraged. “I knew her attitude toward gay and lesbian rights,” he said of Coretta King. “I just couldn’t imagine that she’d want to be in that church with a minister who was a raving homophobe.”

The black church in America has long mixed political activism with a deep social conservatism. But while polls show that the nation has become much more understanding and tolerant of homosexuality, the black church has been painfully slow to change. I wrote a column several years ago suggesting that black preachers come down from the pulpit and get to know their parishioners — and I still think that would be a good start.

“This is probably the most difficult time in my entire life,” Long said in his sermon Sunday. “There have been allegations and attacks made on me. I have never in my life portrayed myself as a perfect man. But I am not the man that’s being portrayed on television. That’s not me. That is not me.”

Then who is Eddie Long? The upstanding father of four who came to the pulpit hand-in-hand with his wife and denounced — but did not deny — the allegations against him? Or the manipulative sexual con artist who, according to his four accusers, does not remotely practice what he preaches?

The four men, in their civil lawsuits, tell remarkably similar stories. They say that Long took a special interest in some of the young men who attended his church in Atlanta and a satellite church in Charlotte, N.C. They say he took them separately on trips to such destinations as Kenya, South Africa and New Zealand when they were teenagers — but above the age of consent in Georgia, which is 16.

The men say that Long bought them lavish gifts, including cars and jewelry, and led them gradually into sexual activity, citing biblical passages as justification. One of the men says that Long performed a religious “covenant” ceremony with him that sounds strikingly like an exchange of marriage vows.

I’m guessing that maybe Long has some questions of identity to grapple with. He might choose to seek and confront the answers, or he might not. But meanwhile, African-American preachers and worshipers across the nation are watching — and, one hopes, learning.

“That is not me,” Long said. But what if it is?

Nothing he learns about himself can negate all the good works he has done in his ministry — all the people whose lives he has changed with a message of faith and hope. Maybe he could forgive himself. Then maybe he could forgive all the gays and lesbians he so coldly condemns.

Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. E-mail him at eugenerobinson@washpost.com.