Another sex scandal dominates Godbeat

LITHONIA, GA - SEPTEMBER 26: A billboard featuring Bishop Eddie Long welcomes church members as they arrive for services at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church September 26, 2010 in Lithonia, Georgia. Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church gave a sermon to his parishioners concerning recent lawsuits during two Sunday services. Long faces allegations of sexual coersion of male church members when they were teenagers. During the sermon, Long promised to fight the charges and return to lead his congregation next Sunday.  (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

CNN.com published 10 -- count 'em, 10 -- articles or video clips yesterday about Bishop Eddie Long. If you don't know who Long is, then you're like the almost all Americans were one week ago, before the media blitz began with revelations that four young men at Long's Atlanta-area megachurch were filing lawsuits claiming the minister molested them. CNN is based in Atlanta, and one of their religion reporters, then on the Godbeat for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote one of my favorite all-time religion stories when he exposed how Long was getting rich off the charity checkbook. Thus, it's no surprise that CNN has been all over this story.

What's odd is the media storm that has followed.

Despite all the blustering about Long being one of America's most-recognizable pastors, I can assure you that even a room full of Christian reporters would have had a difficult time last week identifying Long (or, being that he is a Baptist, exactly what kind of a bishop he is).

And so I can only attribute the explosion interest to two things: First, it was CNN, the Cable News Network, that broke this story, not a regional newspaper -- we all know no one reads those. The Associated Press has also been all over the story -- one GetReligionista wondered if the AP, motivated by its recent feud with CNN, decided to try to stay ahead of its rival -- and this, in turn, likely convinced the major metros that a very big story was going down and that they better get on top of it.

Second, the MSM loves apparent hypocrisy.

The latter is clear from the context given a lot of the stories, including the money quote in the New York Times' front-page story today. This was the first quote to appear in that article:

"When this comes out, it gives at least the perception of hypocrisy -- it's like red meat to a lion, everyone's pouncing on this story," said the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, a friend of Bishop Long who heads the First Iconium Baptist Church. "This is the issue: how can you be against homosexuality and you are allegedly participating in it? That is the epitome of hypocrisy."

I appreciate, at least, that the chosen quote says "perception of hypocrisy." It hints that maybe the reporter was looking for more analysis than accusation. But this CNN.com story doesn't:

The lawsuits accuse Long of using his power and influence within the 25,000-member church to lure young male church members into sexual relationships. The suits allege that the relationships, which began when the men were in their teens, lasted over many months.

Long took the young men -- all of them teens at the time -- on trips, including to Kenya, according to the suits. Long allegedly paid for their hotel rooms, and gave the young men gifts, including a car, cash and jewelry -- all in exchange for sexual favors such as massaging, masturbation and oral sex.

The accusations were particularly controversial because Long, who is married, has preached passionately against homosexuality over the years.

Obviously, it's that last line that gets me. Controversial is such a poorly chosen word. If Long did what he is accused of doing, there is nothing controversial about it. Diabolical, certainly. But not controversial.

More importantly, though, such acts become no more heinous just because they are seen as hypocritical. And, to be sure, a male pastor having extramarital sex -- period -- is also hypocritical. Even if he's unmarried and the affair is with an adult woman. The sad reality is not that such socially accepted behavior doesn't occur, but that it doesn't spark outrage.

That in no way minimizes the severity of what Long is accused of. Sexual abuse is real, and it so often involves subjugation and manipulation by authority figures. The Catholic Church and Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish community have probably received the most media attention, likely because they are less decentralized than the countless Protestant churches spread across the country.

Further, the reporting on Long has conflated homosexuality with pedophilia. (I haven't seen the age of the accusers reported, but stories have referred to them as "young men" and "former members of a youth group.") Politically active Christian ministers tend to take a side on same-sex marriage, but I've never heard of anyone not named Paul Shanley standing up for child molestation. Speeches like the one in this "South Park" clip just aren't convincing.

As for the appetite for hypocrisy, I understand that if the accusations are true, Long is not who he has claimed to be. But the real question is: Who cares?

Before last week no one, other than the 20,000-plus members of his church, had heard of long. He's not a household name like Rick Warren or Joel Osteen or T.D. Jakes. He's not even Ted Haggard -- at least Long better hope not.

To be sure, I'm not a fan of Bishop Long, who has long been living the ministerial high life, and unapologetically so. I mentioned this in a January post about the dangerous gospel of wealth, but it's worth repeating again. In 2005, John Blake, now at CNN, investigated Long and his charity's tax records and reported for the AJC that between 1997 and 2000 Long had received $3.07 million in salary and benefits, including a $1.4 million mansion and a $350,000 Bentley.

Yeah, that's a lot of bread.

More amazing was Long's response to Blake:

"We're not just a church, we're an international corporation," Long said. "We're not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can't talk and all we're doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around this world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation.

"You've got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that's supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering."

Nice guy. Hard not to take his side. Is it any surprise he had to launch a PR campaign after Blake's story ran?

Still, this is not the biggest bit of religion news going on right now, and I'd rather it wasn't absorbing so much attention.

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