- - Sunday, November 23, 2014


At least some of the faithful of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta had to feign a sense of surprise when sexual abuse accusations against Bishop Eddie Long first surfaced in 2011. But even those parishioners were shocked when details of the church’s secret settlement with over a dozen young men allegedly victimized by Mr. Long leaked, resulting in a reported payout of over $25 million.

To add to the tawdry affair, Mr. Long apparently sought damages against several of the broken young victims who, despite the confidentiality terms of the settlement, told their stories publicly.

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Today Mr. Long continues to tend to the flock at New Birth, the congregation healed of its wounds apparently. And as recently as April 2014 he could be spotted around town in Atlanta sitting patiently at a local salon while waiting for a young man in his company to receive a manicure.

Some parishioners were too embarrassed and tried to abandon the congregation, seeking refuge in the similarly sized megachurch in Atlanta headed by pastor Creflo Dollar. But Mr. Dollar would have none of it, banishing New Birth’s fleeing worshippers from his congregation. “He had a wreck,” Mr. Dollar proclaimed, “but he had insurance and if you from that church and you trying to join here, I don’t want to join here. You need to go and join where you supposed to be.”

Another prominent megachurch pastor, T.D. Jakes, was also curiously quick to forgive Mr. Long. “His sins will be washed in the blood,” was all Mr. Jakes could muster in the form of disapproval.

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To anyone but the misled, this is a travesty. By keeping Mr. Long in the pulpit, the church has expressed its tacit approval of this behavior. Long gone are the days of Jim and Tammy Bakker, when a moral scandal could derail a pastor’s career. Now the flock is supposed to forgive the shepherd for harming its members and welcome him back with open arms.

But the problem extends beyond Mr. Long and the handful of other televangelists who’ve been caught with their pants down. The $25 million settlement which left him still at the helm with no public apology or admission of wrongdoing says it all.

These megachurches are now a business, and letting the mere moral transgressions of a pastor get in the way of the money machine is the new heresy. They are essentially corporations spurred on by the same growth imperative that drives corporate America — which is not growth in terms of the spread of the teachings of Christ.

But it is not the megachurch phenomenon itself that caused this moral decay, rather it is the fatal admixture of the megachurch phenomenon and a spurious ministerial fraud called prosperity theology. These churches — New Bethel, World Changers International and other megachurches — are preaching the gospel of prosperity and have unfortunately led the flock down the wrong path. For many poor people, and many blacks and recent Hispanic immigrants, the gospel of prosperity has told them God wants them to be rich, and that material wealth is a sign of the blessing of God in their lives.

The theology is largely self-serving as it quickly translates into the pastor himself becoming wealthy. And these gaudy displays of conspicuous consumption — Rolls Royce limousines, private jets, mansions; all for the exclusive use of the pastor and his family — are somehow portrayed as proof of God’s having blessed the church community. The churches themselves are money mills, using their status as tax-exempt organizations to get into various side businesses — community development, senior housing, schools and the list goes on.

While conducting research for a book on black televangelists in 2004, John Walton, professor of religious studies at University of California kept hearing these odd testimonies during the service: “I was renting, and now God let me have a home” or “I was afraid of the loan officer, but God directed him to ignore my bad credit.” Of course everyone knows what happened three years later. Those same people lost their homes, their savings and most of their self-esteem amid the biggest home foreclosure crisis in American history.

I am not suggesting that these poor people were in any way to blame for causing the foreclosure crisis. But what seems clear is that in some cases unscrupulous bank officers and corrupt religious leaders joined forces to promote bad mortgages on the least suspecting, all the while using the gospel of prosperity to mask their fraudulent deeds.

Lost in all of this is the moral message of the church. While focusing on attaining wealth, the message ignores the value of temperance, hard work, and development of character through suffering. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money.” It is the height of irony to have to say this; but it is time the church made a choice as to which master it really wants to serve.

Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American CurrentSee Online Magazine.

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