Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia has been accused of using a mentoring program to lure gifted young male congregants into sexual relationships. Long, an adherent of the “prosperity gospel”, told his congregation this past Sunday that, although he has never advertised himself as “a perfect man”, he intends to fight the allegations in court.
Significantly, the bishop never claimed to be innocent.
Long has gained a reputation as a body-building man’s man who opposes same-sex marriage and counsels men to get in touch with their “inner warrior” so they can assert dominance in the family.
But “the prosperity doctrine” has always been Eddie Long’s primary message. You have probably heard “prosperity-lite” preachers like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes on television. They emphasize spiritual boldness and a positive, entrepreneurial attitude to life. Prosperity-lite (my term) preachers teach that God created us for victory and greatness, but we thwart the divine purpose by thinking small and expecting little from life. Nothing wrong with that, so far as it goes.
But Eddie Long preaches a more robust version of the prosperity gospel. Simply put: God gives to get and so must we. God gave his Son and was rewarded by a rich harvest of human souls. Preachers like Pastor Eddie make passing reference to the standard evangelical salvation message, but the central focus is always monetary. If people are willing to invest their wealth in kingdom enterprises (like making their rich pastor even richer), God will send them magic money from heaven.
Clearly, there is a big downside to this kind of thinking. If you are broke you need more faith; i.e. you need to put even more twenties in the offering plate, even if you have to dip into the mortgage money.
I wish I was making this up, but I’m not.
You may object that Jesus, the Apostle Paul and most of the biblical prophets were poor folk living hand-to-mouth. Not so, say preachers like Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, John Hagee, Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn. Their Jesus was a plutocrat lounging in the lap of luxury. They have trouble finding biblical authority for this view, but a poor Jesus is inherently problematic for prosperity preachers.
Eddie Long and his ilk are rolling in the dough. Since they practice what they preach, prosperity is inevitable and should inspire hope in the hearts of those who haven’t quite got the hang of “seed faith”. Just look at the bling and the Bentley and you’ll see what you’re missing.
The recent allegations of sexual misconduct and the abuse of pastoral authority are particularly embarrassing for a black preacher who has played a leading role in the Christian right’s anti-gay movement. Long’s supporters accuse the media of attacking the integrity of the black church, but that’s not what’s happening. Long’s theology was invented by ambitious white evangelicals and most of the men and women cashing in on the prosperity message are white.
Moreover, sexual abuse among the clergy, although commonly associated with the Roman Catholic communion, is as ubiquitous as it is iniquitous.
What is the primary issue here? Does the Eddie Long story raise questions about “prosperity preachers”, megachurches in general, or the sorry state of American religion?
It is often noted that, contrary to developments in other developed nations, religion is flourishing the United States. Why is this?
The separation of church and state is an essential ingredient in the American religious recipe. Lacking an established religion, Americans are free to experiment. We are religious entrepreneurs who know how to shape a spiritual message to the needs and tastes of a particular demographic.
The prosperity doctrine is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Preachers looking for ways to put butts in the seats know that most people have little interest in ministering to “the least and the lost”; they are concerned about paying the bills, keeping their jobs, finding and keeping a mate, and trying to inject some order into chaotic domestic relationships. If you want to fill a church, these concerns must be the primary focus.
American religion shapes and reflects the prevailing social consensus. If the culture is driven by greed and fear, preachers must find ways to bless consumerism while identifying and castigating the enemy. Churches grow to the extent they reflect this tendency. During the progressive era stretching from Roosevelt’s New Deal to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, mainline Protestant churches grew like topsy. In an age of trickle-down economics, mass incarceration and a steadily expanding gap between the rich and the poor, churches affiliated with the Religious Right have been in the ascendency.
Eddie Long tries to have it both ways; cultivating relationships with civil rights icons like Correta Scott King while aligning himself with the policies of the Bush administration.
Here’s the problem: the religion of Jesus has no natural constituency. You can’t fill a church talking about compassion for the poor and the upside-down ethics and economics of the Kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t leave his followers a viable model for church growth. Jesus is scratchin’ where we ain’t itchin’.
But what if there is a God? And what if this God has plans and dreams out of sync with the rhythms of American consumerism and the national security state? And what if Jesus is right about the least and the lost? In that case, we’re in big trouble and our religion, for all its vigor, is part of the problem.
There is something pathetic about an anti-gay crusader manipulating young men into sexual encounters. But I suspect the civil suits recently filed against the Baptist Bishop are symptomatic of a much deeper problem. Eddie Long probably doesn’t realize that he has inverted the teaching of Jesus, exchanging foul for fair and fair for foul. He simply figured that a religious formula that worked for others would work for him.
He was right. In the hands of a charismatic preacher, the prosperity gospel is a proven money machine. It doesn’t work for everyone. The preacher is the product. If you sound loud, proud and confident, walk with a sanctified swagger and look like the American dream, you too can be a prosperity preacher. Unfortunately, it’s all a marketing gimmick. God doesn’t send us magic money from heaven.
Prosperity preachers like Eddie Long are simply the most egregious example of a general spiritual collapse.
Conservative churches grow because their preachers are free to reinforce the political, economic and moral beliefs of their congregants. Conservative pastors and conservative politicians use essentially the same talking points. capitalist democracy is good; socialist totalitarianism is bad. Greed is good because it fuels entrepreneurial passion and creates jobs. Only a change of attitude can help the poor; social programs feed dependency. The criminal classes will only shape up if bad decisions lead to swift and brutal consequences. There are only two legitimate roles for government: national security and the criminal justice system.
Conservative preachers can inject these themes into their preaching with little fear of repercussion. In general, hints and code words suffice.
Mainline clergy don’t have it so easy. Methodists, for example, reflect the American mainstream. A typical Methodist pastor will have as many Republicans in the pews as Democrats. The culture war is always lurking just beneath the surface of congregational life. Talk tough and the blue people will be up in arms; get too soft and the red folk start to fuss.
This explains the “gospel of nice” emanating from most mainline Protestant pulpits. We are called to be kind, to forgive, to maintain a positive attitude, to think about others as much as ourselves. Money is rarely mentioned except during “pledge month”. There can be no serious discussion of sexual issues. Politics is off-limits and economic issues must be assiduously avoided. The criminal justice system, so far as mainline preaching is anything to go by, does not exist.
Mainline preaching isn’t designed to put butts in the seats; the goal is institutional survival. This being the case, it is hardly surprising that, in a recent survey, agnostics and atheists knew more about religion than did Christians of any description.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus proclaimed, “because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the Jubilee day of the Lord” (when all the slaves go free). Can such a message be institutionalized? Can American preachers grow rich speaking this way? Can they even survive?
These are the real questions raised by the Eddie Long controversy. The big deal isn’t that a successful pastor may be disgraced; it’s that American pastors must twist themselves into ethical, intellectual and emotional knots if they hope to be truly successful. The closer our religion gets to reality, the harder it becomes to institutionalize. The more successful our religion becomes, the further it strays from the spirit of Jesus.
What is the antidote for this toxic situation we have created for ourselves?
The first step is to tell the truth. Christians should have the guts to look at life from a Jesus perspective. This isn’t as easy as it sounds–the Romans didn’t crucify the man for nothing. For 2000 years, the Christian Church has been trying to domesticate a intrinsically subversive message. The process didn’t start with the Emperor Constantine; it began the moment preachers started trying to put butts in the seats. Jesus died on a Roman cross. Paul died in a Roman prison. This isn’t supposed to easy, folks.
Christians aren’t supposed to be normal. We aren’t even supposed to be successful. We are supposed to be faithful unto death. Try building a church on that foundation.