|Critics Feel Justified in Bashing Fallen Pastor
By Jeff Brumley
October 5, 2010
Columnists and bloggers across the nation have stomped on Bishop Eddie Long with both feet since accusations arose last month the vocally anti-gay Atlanta pastor coerced young males to have sex with him.
A proponent of the "prosperity gospel" and known for his lavish lifestyle and strident opposition to same-sex marriage, he's a juicy target for gay activists and political pundits alike.
"We don't yet know whether Long is guilty of sexual abuse, but it's clear that he's guilty of perverting the Gospel," an Atlanta newspaper columnist wrote on Wednesday.
And those words are kind compared to others that have been written and broadcast about the megachurch pastor.
Do such attacks amount to kicking a man while he's down, or is it deserved scrutiny and punishment for a hypocrite? Most observers on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue agree Long is getting blasted and that - if guilty of the accusations - he may have had it coming.
And while there is a dispute over whether such public scorn is reserved for conservative Christians - evangelicals say it is, moderates and liberals say it isn't - they also agree the Long situation is just the latest example of a society that loves to gloat over disgraced public figures.
Sadie Fields, an Atlanta-based political consultant and former head of the conservative Georgia Christian Alliance, said Long should be treading the exemplary path he's been telling others to follow. Still, she finds it disturbing how viciously his enemies and critics have assailed him before his day in court.
Taking delight in the demise of others is known by the German word "schadenfreude," and it rises to social hysteria whenever those claiming the mantle of morality are caught doing that which they previously condemned, said Paul Apostolidis, a political science professor at Whitman College in Washington and co-editor of the 2004 book "Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals."
Apostolidis said the phenomenon helped drive the passionate reaction to the sexual scandals of former televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, as well as non-religious figures like Tiger Woods.
'A sad commentary'
The First Coast has seen its share of these cases.
The Rev. Robert Gray, former pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, was disgraced at the end of his life by accusations he molested children in the 1970s. He died in 2007 at age 81 while awaiting trial.
Pastor Darrell Gilyard, once a protege of First Baptist's former pastor Jerry Vines, is in prison for molesting a girl in his Jacksonville church and has admitted to fathering a child with a woman he raped during a 2004 counseling session.
Fields said such cases are tragic because of the trust violated by religious leaders. Equally as sad is how public figures are treated before they're even tried, let alone convicted.
"If there's a flaw to be found it is this kind of piling on and salacious delight" people take in others' failures, Fields said. "It's a sad commentary on human nature that people find satisfaction in other people's pain."
Is it sex or ideology?
But others say the criticism is fueled by ideology.
"There is a double standard by the media ... against pro-family, Christian or conservative individuals," said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based legal ministry that supports conservative causes.
Liberals are rarely raked over the coals by the media with the same enthusiasm fallen conservatives are, Staver said.
He cited the case of movie director Roman Polanski, a convicted pedophile who has eluded U.S. authorities for decades, with scant attention from columnists.
Whenever a conservative "falls they pile on them and try to use that human failure to discredit the underlying message," Staver said, in this case opposition to gay rights.
But the Rev. Stephen Goyer said he doesn't buy that argument.
Former President Bill Clinton and presidential hopeful John Edwards were both heavily disgraced for their extramarital sexual exploits, said Goyer, pastor of Riverside Presbyterian Church.
"Sex sells whether you're liberal or conservative, and each side says 'you're picking on me,'" Goyer said. "The issue of gloating is just as tragic as the act itself."
Besides, sometimes those who seem most likely to benefit from piling on simply refuse to do so.
"There are people who are always happy to see someone caught with their hand in the cookie jar," said the Rev. Grant Lynn Ford, pastor of Odyssey Church, a Jacksonville congregation made up mostly of gay and lesbian members. "We do it with politicians, and preachers in particular, who say one thing and do another."
But Grant said he feels compassion for Long - partly because of the hit he's taking and partly because he may be a gay man struggling with his sexuality.
Grant said it's an issue he once wrestled with himself and that for some gays the struggle ends in suicide.
"I feel sorry for the guy," Grant said.
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