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Bishop Eddie Long: Will case force open talk in black church about sexuality?

Bishop Eddie Long says he will fight gay sex accusations. But black theologians say the bigger issue for black churches is whether they can have a frank discussion about sexuality at all.

By Staff writer / September 27, 2010

Bishop Eddie Long prepares to speak on Sept. 26, at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church near Atlanta, Georgia.

John Amis/AP



"I am not a perfect man," Atlanta pastor Bishop Eddie Long told his New Birth Missionary Baptist Church flock Sunday, after saying he would fight like David against Goliath the civil claims that he used his pulpit power to coerce four young male parishioners into having sex.

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The charges are uncomfortable for Mr. Long and his sprawling, internationally-known megachurch in Lithonia, Ga., which he built from 300 to 25,000 members with a unique brand of "muscular spirituality."

But more critically, black theologians say, the megachurch leader's decision both to deny the charges and claim fallibility in the eyes of God is part of a pervasive "don't ask, don't tell" reflex in the black church, where outwardly stated condemnations inhibit frank discussions about sexuality of any sort.

It's a situation that leads many blacks, by force of culture, religion and tradition, to live double lives: one in the church, and one at home.

"The true tragedy is the black church and its persistent inability to deal openly and frankly with matters of sexuality before [a scandal] where what comes to the surface is that which is underneath," says Kelly Brown Douglas, author of "Sexuality and the Black Church," which was published in 1999. "We have to ask ourselves, what are the structures, the systems, that create these kinds of inhibitions that prevent people from being able to express who they are openly and feel comfortable about it in the black community?"

The case isn't just of interest because of Long's alleged hypocrisy, with a large and influential church empire hanging in the balance, but because it's taking place in Atlanta, home to a number of conservative black megachurches as well as the largest population of gay blacks in the US.

That battle came to a head in 2006, when some prominent black leaders, including Julian Bond, then chairman of the NAACP, refused to attend the funeral of Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow, at New Birth, given the church's anti-homosexual stance. Ms. King was an outspoken defender of gay rights.

Mr. Bond, who previously served in both houses of the Georgia legislature, told the Georgia Voice gay newspaper on Saturday that he hoped that the allegations against Long would force many blacks to honestly confront their attitudes toward homosexuality.

"It's sad to say, but if the charges against Bishop Long are true, it's going to be a victory for gay rights in black America. A sad victory," Bond said.

On the other hand, the full-throated support of Long given by the New Birth congregation on Sunday hinted that the case will more likely polarize the black community – at least in the short-term.