"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.
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.
"You're not going to convince black Christians to be more open to accepting homosexuality; it's always going to be 'don't ask, don't tell,'" says Shayne Lee, a Tulane University sociologist and author in 2009 of "Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace." "Even when it's visible, like the rumors about choir directors, the view is, 'Hey, you're not going to come out, we'll accept you. We'll pretend that you're hetero and you love women, and we're not going to confront you.'"
"In the particular case of black Christian leaders, exiting the closet is absurdly akin to entering an inescapable dungeon," Mr. Lee, who is black, added in a commentary on CNN on Monday.
Unlike other gay groups, black gays are more likely to stay in their traditional churches over joining a more gay-friendly congregation, reinforcing a pattern of "self-loathing," Bond, the former NAACP chair, said Saturday.
"The unspoken agreement is that gay men get to act as Seraphim, so long as they are willing to shout in agreement as they are being flagellated from the pulpit. It’s an indignity some gay men subject themselves to each and every Sunday. Why should they have to live this way?" Joshua Alston, a self-described member of Atlanta's black gay community, writes in Newsweek.
To many of his supporters, claims that Long quoted scripture to entice the four men into sexual acts is simply part of a longer-term campaign to falsely "out" Long in retaliation for his strident views against homosexuality. In 2005, Long was included on an internet "outing" campaign where bloggers pointed out the alleged hypocrisy of major black church figures condemning gays for their lifestyles.
In 2007, Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., president of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, a conservative black Christian group, defended traditional religious views of many black congregants, telling The New York Times: “I see the growing gay movement in the black community and our culture as almost evangelistic in nature, with what’s on television, with their legal agenda, all those things that have made homosexuality more acceptable.”
Others are optimistic that the Long case will force black congregations to look more deeply into Biblical and historical perceptions of both gay and straight sex.
Ms. Douglas says the fear of sexuality in the black church harks to historic white oppression of blacks, where the black church came to internalize – and try to correct – white society's view of blacks as hypersexual.
"When you couple the historical narrative with a religious piece, this evangelical Protestant piece that things of the body are bad, you get this reticence to deal honestly and frankly with matters of sexuality," Douglas says. "Until the black church can more honestly deal with these matters of sexuality, we're going to continue to see these kind of issues erupt."