One of the four young men accusing Bishop Eddie Long of abusing his pulpit power to force them into sex has now gone on Atlanta’s airwaves to condemn the charismatic megachurch pastor as a “predator” and a “monster.”
Bishop Long, who denies the charges but admitted from his pulpit Sunday that he is “not a perfect man,” has decried the case on television as “spiritual warfare.”
But even as the heated exchanges multiply in the Atlanta media – in what some observers say could be an attempt to jockey for position ahead of an out-of-court settlement – a more immediate question is looming for Mr. Long: Can his ministry, and his 25,000 member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, survive the increasingly explicit accounts of Long’s alleged misdeeds?
Some who study the black church will be watching to see how his flock reacts when Long passes the plate at Sunday service.
"There's a lot of theater here, it's a live chess match," says Tulane sociologist Shayne Lee, author of "Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace." "The plaintiffs want to keep the blood flowing, and Bishop Long is trying to figure out how to stop the bleeding. But the longer this goes on in the media, the more [church] members are going to demand cogent responses to the claims instead of vague denials."
Long became emblematic of an anti-homosexual strain of the black church after he marched in gay-friendly Atlanta against gay marriage in 2004. Part of his ministry is dedicated to "delivering men" from same-sex inclinations. At the same time, the lawsuits allege that some in the church community were aware of Long's alleged same-sex trysts.
On Sunday, most New Birth parishioners loudly and excitedly voiced support for Long. But for some, Long's rebuttal from the pulpit fell short of assuring parishioners that he's telling the truth.
The media statements by plaintiff Jamal Parris on Tuesday put more pressure on Long's defense team to stave off a backlash. "This man manipulated us from childhood," Parris told Atlanta's WAGA-TV. "This was our father and we loved him."
Parris added: "That man cannot look me in my eye and tell me we did not live this pain, how you can sit in front of the church. … You are not a man, you are a monster."
Legal experts say sexual coercion would be difficult to prove in court, but putting the plaintiffs on the stand to tell their stories could be disastrous for Long's reputation. Church spokesmen have suggested that the lawsuits amount to a shakedown, engineered by a high-powered celebrity attorney, B.J. Bernstein, and bitter former parishioners.
More broadly, the case is expected to force a largely homophobic black church community to confront, like other major churches have, attitudes toward sexuality and homosexuality.
"It's going to rock everything at the church, and people will really start to question these ministers," Anthea Butler, a religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Washington Post.
New Birth’s future, meanwhile, hangs more on what the defendants will reveal about the nature of their encounters with the bishop, and Long's ability to deny the charges convincingly. Indeed, New Birth's parishioners now hold the sole key to the church's survival, says Mr. Lee.
To save the church, the church leadership may agree to settle the cases quickly. But if they instead turn away from the charismatic man whom they spiritually follow, New Birth could face an uncertain future.
"Atlanta is a very competitive spiritual marketplace with other megachurches that could poach members," says Mr. Lee. New Birth "needs to generate large sums of money every week, which means they need to have excited members paying tithes. If that goes down, the church infrastructure can't sustain itself."