Roughly 20 years ago, Cornel West — in his best-selling book Race Matters — argued that "it is virtually impossible to talk candidly about race without talking about sex." So it remains today: When we chatter about sex, race is always already on the table.
At the center of the Bishop Eddie Long story is a civil suit against a preacher alleged to have violated the sacred trust between pastor and congregation. Long stands accused of coercing sexual favors from several young male mentees — this after currying favor with them by using perks from his multimillion-dollar spiritual empire, which has more than 25,000 members.
The exposure of Long's alleged same-sex erotic activities has occasioned an act of collective catharsis in a shifting sexual landscape. Sadly, if not surprisingly, we seem more concerned with sex acts than actual sins. That the alleged victims are young men rather than young women should not matter — abuse is abuse, end of story. But it does, especially in this moment, in this country.
Our concern with Long's sexual orientation obscures the larger issue of the relationship between gender and power, which is only magnified by religion. Our society takes for granted the exchange of sex acts, both coerced and seduced, between young women and older men — from athletes to CEOs to clergy. Rather than deal with the issue of unchecked authority, we prefer to focus on who's touching whose … well, you get the picture.
The core of our attraction and repulsion to this affair — what turned the event from pastoral scandal into public spectacle — is about much more than Long, who's filing the lawsuits or the church. Yes, perceived Christian prohibitions against homosexuality have lent added weight to the story. Long is held up as a hypocrite in the fashion of another fallen anti-gay, evangelical preacher, Ted Haggard — who, ironically, is one of Long's few public sympathizers to this point. How could one preach so adamantly against homosexuality and simultaneously engage in same-gender sexual activities? we wonder out loud. A double dose of "Shame on you, Reverend!"
Yet directing all this energy toward Long seems to suggest that we think this is simply a case of an individual clergyman gone astray. To be clear, if the allegations are true — and the continued unveiling of evidence seems to support that point — I certainly hope the courts, and his congregation, hold Long fully accountable. Even more, I hope the victims find the healing and support they deserve.
However, much more important than Long's fate is that of the countless young women and men who will still be routinely abused sexually (and ignored), gay and lesbian youth who commit suicide for lack of a safe space, and believers whose faith is now imperiled by the fray. In focusing so much on the bishop, do we lose the forest for the trees?
The uncovering of Long's alleged indiscretions has provided a vehicle for the American public's collective anxieties about the shifting sexual order — a story much bigger than the bishop. On one hand, the fight for LGBT equality, from same-sex marriage to "Don't ask, don't tell," has predictably provoked defenders of heterosexual privilege, including Long himself. There is a growing movement that rightfully insists that homosexuality is not a deviance, that gays and lesbians are fully human, and that sexual diversity is a reality to embrace. For every minister spouting homophobic vitriol, there is a crowd of laypersons whispering, "I know the preacher said [fill in the blank], but I don't believe that." These private conversations are slowly finding a public voice.
On the other hand, media coverage has often situated Long within the familiar tropes of black religion and sexuality as inherently pathological. Sure, it's easy to point to black churches as homophobic, but gay-friendly churches are a small minority, in general. And as the tale of Haggard reveals, the so-called down-low phenomenon — of men who are in intimate relationships with women but who also have sex with men and don't identify as "gay" — transcends race, even as the lion's share of "the blame" is unloaded on black culture (see The Oprah Winfrey Show, 2004). While part of a broader tradition of muscular Christianity, Long's hypermasculine ministry is nothing if not a response to the so-called down-low panic. Whatever way you frame it, his is not solely a black story that society can project onto the familiar racial other.
The outing of Long, if we can call it that, has made him the ideal target for a perfect storm of racial and sexual angst lurking beneath the surface of our conversations. Perhaps naively, I still hope that our anxieties can be converted into more than a cross for one preacher — even one who's worked so hard to earn it. While Long appears to be a fitting scapegoat, this scandal implicates us all. Perhaps it will provoke the sustained and substantive dialogue that we so badly require.
Josef Sorett is an assistant professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University. He is currently at work on two books: a religious history of debates regarding racial aesthetics, and an edited volume that explores the sexual politics of black churches. You can find out more about Sorett at josefsorett.com.