Eddie Long has much at stake in clearing his name of sex abuse charges, not the least a substantial amount of money and that ostentatious lifestyle — home, cars, jewelry and custom made outfits. In a story on his current troubles, it was reported that in 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published tax records showing that from 1997 to 2000 Bishop Long had accepted $3 million in salary, housing, a car and other perks from a charity he controlled. This was from just one of his multiple enterprises. He likely also draws as generous salary from his 25,000-member megachurch.
In the most immediate sense, Eddie Long’s saga brings to mind the 2006 downfall of Ted Haggard, leader of another blockbuster megachurch, this one in Colorado. It isn’t only that each regularly inveighed against homosexuality from their pulpits — Long also conducting seminars promising to “cure” homosexuals — both were accused of engaging in sex with, in Haggard’s case a male prostitute, and in Long’s with what were then four boys. Upon the advice of counsel, he won’t deny the allegations, but told congregants that he will fight. Our system is built on a presumption of innocence and we should leave judgment of the specific allegations to the legal process. That said, Long’s situation is an opportunity to consider anew the megachurch phenomenon.
Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute has written extensively about it and is well worth a look, but just consider this. Haggard’s and Long’s churches bear very similar names — New Life and New Birth — and that shouldn’t be surprising. Theirs and all the megachurches around the country have much in common. All share nearly identical narratives, a kind of religious Horatio Alger story of humble beginnings with a handful of followers that over time become behemoths with thousands of members. Robert Schuller’s Garden Grove California church, now housed in Philip Johnson’s imposing Crystal Cathedral, stared in a drive-in theater parking lot; Joel Osteen’s huge Lakewood Church (the largest) began in an abandoned feed store and now occupies the $75 Million renovated stadium in Houston, once home to the Rockets. While some have connections with larger denominations, many are freestanding evangelical ministries, all led by a charismatic leader (often accompanied by his wife as co-pastor), some holding self proclaimed ecclesiastical titles like bishop. These are often family businesses — Osteen’s father founded Lakewood, Schuller’s daughter now leads Garden Grove.
Given the notorious fall of Haggard, and before him Jim Bakker, one is tempted to liken these ministers to Sinclair Lewis’s fictional Elmer Gantry, played so compellingly by Burt Lancaster in the classic movie translation. But I think the more apt and timely figure to consider is the greed-driven Gordon Gekko, currently taking a curtain call in the just released sequel to Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street. Long and many of his counterparts preside not only over large congregations, but also in over vast empires that include charities (some clearly doing good works), commercial businesses and substantial real estate holdings. They have become, and are unashamedly, personally wealthy. Many, like Bakker in his day, are televangelists whose syndicated programs combining sermonic fire and brimstone with unabashed entertainment reach far beyond their own communities. This provides them with great leverage and a built-in audience for, among others, books that in Osteen’s case have brought in millions. In more the Gekko than the Gantry tradition, these ministries would better be described as religious enterprises, more akin to business conglomerates than what we think of as churches. In fact, while Long and his counterparts would vehemently deny any such notion, it may fairly be said that the church effectively serves more as a cover for their activities than its essence.
Eddie Long protests that the media is responsible for his current problems, just as the Vatican has done in their defense of now well-documented sexual abuse by clergy. In both cases, the protestations have as much to do with protecting their enterprise as in protecting their personal (or church’s) integrity. The Roman church has vast real estate and other holdings and its hierarchy maintains (in contrast to the average parish priest) lifestyles that, while perhaps paling in comparison to the megachurch leaders, can be quite lavish. They’re called Princes of the Church for good reason. In Gekko theology, the stakes are extraordinarily high when anyone dares question the moral compass of either the leaders or the institution. As recent events across multiple faiths have shown, hypocrisy abounds.
The members of New Birth who so heartily applauded their leader during his Sunday remarks may consider Long’s alleged wrong doing and practices internal matters. The Catholic Church certainly has made that point over and over again. But, especially with regard to megachurches who have sought over the last years to exercise substantial influence on the political landscape, I think their doings should concern us all. They are our business. Remember how Pastor Rick Warren sought to influence the 2008 Presidential election. These mega pastors have substantial power and clearly evoke fear among our elected officials. They play an often-critical role in what legislation is passed. The pastor accused of having sex with boys lobbies against same-sex marriage and of course is opposed to gays in the military.
The New York Times reported last week that religious congregations were suffering a major decline in contributions. As expected, part of the shortfall can be attributed to our deep recession. Many members who have lost jobs or whose homes are in foreclosure simply can’t afford their dues or weekly contributions. But the decline, it reported, may also be attributable to the growing number of Americans who have left religion behind. Some no longer believe in God or in what religion teaches. A good number are just turned off by the religion they see around them or read about in the press. Eddie Long, not only what he might have done but his enterprising activities and what they token, throws coal on that fire of alienation.