When I first heard about the Eddie Long scandal, my immediate reaction was something along the lines of: “Sheesh, another one?” Although the case has not yet been settled, it certainly looks like what we have on our hands is the same tired story. What does it say about our cultural and religious climate that this narrative, in which the closeted minister of excellent repute outs himself in scandal, has reached the status of cliché?
For those who haven’t heard about the story, several weeks ago four boys came forward individually, each claiming that Bishop Eddie Long of the Georgia megachurch New Birth Missionary Baptist had used his position as their spiritual leader in several attempts to coerce them into engaging in sexual relations with him. While Long has not flatly denied the accusations, he has said the he is “not the man being portrayed on the television.” According to the boys, his advances began when they were 17 and 18; Georgia’s age of consent is 16.
For one thing, these sorts of scandals have incredibly undermined the authority of religious institutions to make judgments on homosexuality. As a gay man, I cannot help but derive some schadenfreude from the sordid spectacle of hypocrisy, disappointment and disillusionment. In a particularly disparaging twist, the clergymen who are exposed as gay are often the ones who most vehemently condemn homosexuality.
Let’s consider the case of Bishop Eddie Long. Long’s ministry runs an ex-gay type counseling program in an apparently sincere attempt to turn gay people straight. He is extremely vocal in his promotion of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Long is also reported to have advocated the death penalty for gay people in a sermon in the mid-1990s, although it would appear he has since toned down the level of his condemnation. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Long is “one of the most virulently homophobic black leaders in the religiously based anti-gay movement.”
So why do these credentials seem so perfectly suited for a minister about to be revealed in a gay sex abuse scandal? Why does this read like a fairly standard résumé?
The root cause is the fundamental homophobia of most religions. There is something insidious about an institution that instills such deep self-hatred in its most vulnerable members from such an early age. All of us LGBT folk brought up in the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu etc. tradition have probably struggled with self-loathing at some point and might even deal with the remnants of those feelings long after apparently coming to terms with our sexual orientation or gender identity.
For some, the only way to deal with the self-hatred and, ultimately, the fear of divine rejection and the pits of hell is to pretend that it was all just a fleeting curiosity, or that with enough prayer or self-abuse, one can actually change a fact of one’s own existence. (It is sad that some manage to convince themselves and others that it is possible to “turn straight.” A word to the wise: in general, if one experiences desire for male-on-male sex, one is not heterosexual.) For Eddie Long (and Ted Haggard and any number of others) the self-hatred was so deeply inculcated that they chose this path with ruinous results. One can imagine how the constant tug of unfulfilled desire and unexplored feelings coupled with the effort it takes to self-monitor one’s every action and maintain a facade of normalcy drives some to take desperate and risky measures.
It is easy to call these clergymen cowards and hypocrites; I’m sure many of them are. But ultimately, the fact that they are all more willing to deny their identity, live with self-loathing and guilt, struggle with depression, practice deception, and destroy their chances of happiness than to reveal who they really are says more about the sorry state of affairs in American religion and society than it does about these individuals.
Michael Veldman is a member of the Class of 2014.