Irony fuels a good story, at least in terms of culling interest in order to draw in the unsuspecting reader or viewer. When the irony strains the bounds of good measure or even sanity, however, one can be left staring at the absurd, with no hero in sight. I suppose that given the quotidian pretensions of the “religious” (i.e., pretentiousness regarding an assumed, unhindered access to revelation via objective—and neutral, by the way—interpretation), one can expect more than a trove full of irony in religious institutions. Unfortunately, even the absurd, which is to say, sick, can also be found there, in the most unlikely of places.
A rather obvious example of the absurd in religion is the pedophile priest who preaches family values while extolling celibacy as a virtue. No divine decree can theologically justify raping kids, so the immorality (and criminality) has nothing to fall back on except sickness. Of course, a pedophile can be either heterosexual or homosexual, so I don’t mean to relegate the latter as a sickness. Replace “preaching for celibacy” with “preaching against homosexuality” and specify the pedophilia as being of the gay variety, and we have the alleged case of Bishop Eddie L. Long, an evangelical protestant minister. Here, the absurd takes the form: Thee protest too much, for the demon specified lies within. In this case of alleged misdeeds, the demon is on several levels: preying on the least of mine (in religious terms) and pedophilia (in sexual, moral and psychological terms).
According to the New York Times, “(a)t the height of his power, Bishop Eddie L. Long would pack tens of thousands of people into his megachurch in the suburbs of Atlanta. With his well-cut suits, passion for Bentleys, and dynamic, accessible style of preaching, he quickly climbed the list of [America’s] most powerful religious leaders. He built his ministry, which stretches to Kenya and other countries, on a strong message of conservative Christianity that included promises of prosperity and attacks on homosexuality.” By powerful can also be understood, popular. According to Timothy McDonald, a Baptist minister in Atlanta, Long could pack in 8,000 on a weekend. That’s reaching a lot of people. With great power comes great responsibility, at least according to Voltaire, and yet the inevitable temptation is also in the mix. I will briefly address that of greed, before moving on to the main thrust of this essay—on lust.
In promising prosperity, Long preached that God rewards those having true belief with earthly treasure. Lest this seem to be mixing the sacred with the profane, one need only recall Jesus’ saying about the rich man getting in to heaven being like a camel getting through the eye of a needle (i.e., it isn’t going to happen). Long’s greed may have been extant in his use of church members as means (rather than as ends in themselves) for his own enrichment. According to the New York Times, “ten former members who attended church investment seminars [were] suing him [in 2011], claiming he [had] coerced them into investment deals that cost them their retirement savings. He [had] recently reached a settlement in a lawsuit over a $2 million bank loan, much of which went unpaid after a real estate deal that went bad.” It is not surprising that the insipid mix of the sacred and profane in the label “church investment seminars” alone would function as a gateway from greed and the related misordered concupiscence—putting a lower good above a higher one. If Long used his “seminars” to cull additional dollars in order to “play in the big league,” then he would have evinced the operative assumption of the “camel-needle” anti-wealth stance: that holding wealth is tantamount to being motivated by greed. From this perspective, the pro-wealth paradigm is inherently compromised. To the extent that it is the dominant economic paradigm in Christianity, the ability of churches (and their functionaries) to restrain greed is necessarily compromised.
Turning from greed to lust brings in the added element of hypocrisy with respect to Bishop Long. Even as he was preaching against homosexuality, the charismatic bishop settled in May 2011 with five young men who accused him of sexual coercion. According to the New York Times, the “young men claimed that the pastor offered gifts, trips, and emotional and spiritual guidance that eventually led to sexual relations. One of the young men, Maurice Robinson, said in court records that his relationship with Bishop Long began when he was 15 and that on a trip to New Zealand the two engaged in sexual acts.” A conservative Biblical hermeneutic going “down under” with a boy would have to know that the mix of hypocrisy, pedophilia, and homosexuality would be far beyond the sin of homosexuality alone, and yet Long’s alleged involvement with five boys suggests a long-standing practice. To understate the obvious, there is a huge red (not rainbow) flag waving wildly over the psychology that must undergird the sustained hypocrisy, pedophilia, and self-hatred. While it is only natural to sympathize with such suffering, that of the boys should not be slighted. Incredibly, Long’s flock did not fly away en masse amid the revelations. I want to make the less obvious point that a red flag also applies to those members of his church who stayed. Even after Long announced in December 2011 that he was temporarily stepping away from the pulpit to try to save his marriage, some members were glad the bishop’s absence would be temporary.
Frank Cook, a contract administrator who has been a member for 20 years, is not going anywhere. “It’s all about restoring, forgiving and loving,” he said in an interview on Sunday. “We love Bishop Long and we’re going to keep coming.” Even though attendance at Long’s church had dropped to 4,000 from about 8,000 at one point in 2011, according to McDonald, Long remained a powerful force. “Even on his bad days, if he gets 4,000 or 5,000, he’s still larger than 94 or 95 percent of most churches.” At the very least, 4,000 people willing to keep coming is enabling. Far more nefarious is the psychology that looks the other way, effectively relegating abuse even when it is the rape of a boy.
To grasp the severity of the personality disorder that refuses to reject child-rapists, even and especially under religious auspices, it is necessary to have a better picture of the abuser. In the case of Sandusky, a football coach at Penn State, a grand jury report made public days after Long announced his temporary leave indicated that one of the alleged victims “testified that on at least one occasion he screamed for help, knowing that Sandusky’s wife was upstairs, but no one ever came to help him.” Besides picturing the nature of a man who continues forcing himself into a kid unabated even though the boy is screaming presumably in pain and to for help, we can liken the enabling wife upstairs to the people who continued to attend Bishop Long’s services and even empathize with the rapist. “He needs to be with his family,” said Marilyn Arnold, a business manager. “It’s hard on his family. When he comes back, we’ll be here.” Lest this be taken as evincing the virtue of loyalty, one need only think of that of Sandusky’s wife amid a kid’s screams from the basement. I contend that the same twisted psychology applies to church members and clerics who enable child-rapists in the pulpit. The apparent virtue of attending church should not obfuscate this similarity.
Of course, it must also be pointed out that not every member of Long’s megachurch stayed after the rape charges were made against the pastor. Valencia Miller, a property manager in Lithonia, said she left the church after the young men who accused the bishop of sexual impropriety came forward. “A lot of us left. I mean, a lot,” she said in an interview in early December 2011. “The church needs a cleansing,” she said. “I’m real disappointed. He was a man we all looked up to.” That he should be the person to do the cleansing is like having the rapist council the rape victim from prison, or having the politicians who refused to have derivative securities regulated (e.g., Larry Summers) write the financial regulation reform after the crisis of 2008. In Long’s church, part of the cleansing should have included confronting the church members who did not leave. To be cleansed, in other words, the megachurch would no longer exist. Sadly, the members remaining were like Sandusky’s wife—hardly of a psychology healthy enough to cleanse anything, least of all themselves.
Kim Severson and Robbie Brown, “Charismatic Church Leader, Dogged by Scandal, to Stop Preaching for Now, The New York Times, Dec 5, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/05/us/eddie-long-beleaguered-church-leader-to-stop-preaching.html
Chris Greenberg, “Dottie Sandusky Issues Statement Supporting Husband, Jerry, Over Child Abuse Allegations,” The Huffington Post, December 8, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/08/dottie-sandusky-issues-statement-penn-state-scandal-jerry_n_1137595.html