What Attracts Hypocrites to Religious Leadership?

October 15, 2010  |  

The jury is still out on Bishop Eddie Long, who is facing charges of sexual coercion from four men. And as time passes for the religious leader, accusations continue to mount. Besides the sensational value of the scandal, the Eddie Long issue has put some of the most serious questions about organized religion on the table. If Long is proven guilty, he will represent the latest religious leader to symbolize hypocrisy in the church; while he vehemently condemned homosexuality as a leader for the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, he was involving himself in sexual wrongdoing with young men. To better make sense of this relationship between the Church, homosexuality and hypocrisy, we turned to Dr. Richard N. Pitt, associate professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University and an expert on the sociology of religion.

TAP: As we all know, if the charges against Bishop Long are accurate, then that would officially make him a hypocrite. What is it about organized religion that attracts people who are trying to hide a part of themselves in private and ridicule that part in public?

R.P: There are doctors who smoke, judges who drive over the speed limit, liberal politicians who don’t pay their taxes, and preachers who lie.  Every institution has people who find it difficult to live up to the ideals they profess.  Organized religion attracts people for the same reasons any social association might: to build social relationships, to gain leadership opportunities, etc.  What prompts the cries of “hypocrisy” when it comes to religion is the church’s role [or] responsibility to teach us the society’s moral values.

Those moral values don’t originate behind pulpits; they’re demanded by the society who sits in the pews. W.E.B. DuBois once wrote that “The Black congregation doesn’t follow the moral precepts of the preachers, but rather the preach follows the standard of his flock, and only exceptional men dare seek to change this.” Religious leaders always have three options when it comes to the topic of homosexuality: support, scorn, or silence.

While Long couldn’t be expected to celebrate the gay/lesbian members of his church community, why didn’t he choose silence rather than scorn?  Because his constituents ,which includes congregants and, apparently, politicians as well, demanded he weigh in.  Long’s own alleged hypocrisy aside, he was not leading marches and calling gays and lesbians “spiritual abortions” in a vacuum.  He was as likely to get the same cheers by charging others of homosexual behavior as he got standing on Sunday defending himself from such charges.  The homoantagonism -not sure its “homophobia,” really- he exhibits is as much a reflection of what his congregation demands of him as any belief he truly holds.

It appears that homosexuality and “metrosexuality” in the African-American community is tolerated to an extent. I say that based on the amount of acceptance there is for the  obvious-yet-closeted African-American superstars. Why is there such a specific intolerance from some in the African-American community and church community for choosing to live as an openly gay person?

R.P: The Black Church probably isn’t very different in that regard.  What we’re dealing with is the “problem” of abstract homosexuality.  Until forced to confront the reality of someone’s sexual behavior and not just suspicions about that behavior or even the reality of an “orientation/preference,” many people—Black and White alike—simply choose not to see what might be blatantly obvious.  Actual homosexuals are invisible in black churches, replaced, in other people’s minds, by “effeminate” men and “butch” women.  While congregants might consider male effeminacy objectionable, it isn’t a sin.  On what grounds, for example, might a man who wears tight muscle shirts and has a coterie of young men following him be “sat down” as living a gay lifestyle.

Nothing in that description would be grounds for such a penalty.  There are heterosexual fem/metrosexual men and homosexual masculine and even butch men.  Homosexuality is, obviously, not about effeminacy or masculinity; it’s about the desire for and capacity to engage in romantic relationships with someone who share your gender.  Unless people are expressing that, in singles meetings, in couples ministries, etc., most of the gay men and lesbian women in churches are invisible . . . unintentionally.  As long as churches remain full of closeted men and women—whether seeking “deliverance” or not—few churches will have to deal with the issue you pose.  The question is, in most church settings, how would one openly declare that they’re gay and nonrepentantly so?  Until that happens in large numbers, many churches will maintain their sacred version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” assuming that they only have effeminate male parishioners, but no gay ones.

How do those churches, that condemn homosexuality, reconcile the principles of the Bible to formulate an antagonistic message about homosexuality?

R.P: Easily.  There are five or so places in the Bible that seem to address homosexuality directly and, in all five cases, it seems to condemn it.  Certainly a more progressive theology might be able to explain away the harshness of those scriptures, but in the absence of an affirming case study of homosexuality in the Bible, the more conservative theology that reigns in any of the mainstream Black denominations can only find homoantagonism in the scriptures.

Yes, Jesus never spoke negatively against homosexuality, but he also never spoke positively of it as he did with heterosexual marriage in Matthew 19.  That said, it isn’t lost on me that thousands of parishioners at Long’s church probably find gay men and women reprehensible (I Timothy 1) at the suggestion of a divorced and remarried “bishop” (I Timothy 3) in a church with numerous female leaders (I Timothy 2).  There are literally thousands of prescriptions and proscriptions for ideal behavior listed in the Bible and many are ignored, qualified, and contextualized.

After all, the ten commandments say nothing about homosexual behavior, but uses four verses (more than 100 words) explaining the importance of Saturday as the day to have “church.”  Our claims to religious fundamentalism are proven false by our behaviors all of the time.  The fact is that the Black church has changed pretty dramatically in some areas that just 50 years ago were seen as “fundamental Christian truths.”  The Long controversy may be igniting the conversation that will prompt change in this area as well.  I doubt it, but it may.


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