NYTimes struggles to label Eddie Long

Before we examine a slice or two of this recent New York Times piece about Bishop Eddie L. Long, I feel the need to ask a few basic questions about this troubled church leader’s theology.

So, what does the Catholic Church think of the so-called “prosperity Gospel”? I think it’s safe to say that the Church of Rome teaches that this doctrinal innovation is dead wrong, dangerous and, perhaps, even heretical.

What do the Eastern Orthodox churches think of the “prosperity Gospel”? Ditto.

What does the Southern Baptist Convention think of the “prosperity Gospel”? Ditto.

What do self-proclaimed Christian “fundamentalists,” the people who are so conservative that they openly embrace the label “fundamentalist” as accurate, think of this controversial doctrine? They reject it, as well.

What do ultra-conservative Calvinists think of it?

I think you can see a trend here.

The point is that the “prosperity Gospel” has, for the most part, emerged out of a pretty specific niche in modern Christianity (decent Wikipedia page here). This stream of thought is usually linked to Pentecostal churches, but may also be found in other evangelical networks. In the case of Long, he is a leader in what is called the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. Note the interesting combination of “Baptist” and “Full Gospel.”

Truth is, it is inaccurate to simply say that the “prosperity Gospel” is proclaimed, or even viewed as acceptable, by “conservative Christians.” The reason that this statement is wrong is that the overwhelming majority of the world’s conservative Christians reject the “prosperity Gospel.” It’s hard to be a “conservative Christian” when so many of the world’s conservative Christians think you are a heretic.

Hopefully, GetReligion readers can see the logic of this. To understand Long, news consumers really need to understand why his ministry was frequently criticized by most conservative Christian believers, even before his recent moral fall from grace.

With all of that as a backdrop, let’s look at the top of this Times field report from yet another Times team trip into an exotic foreign land — the Bible Belt.

LITHONIA, Ga. – At the height of his power, Bishop Eddie L. Long would pack tens of thousands of people into his megachurch in the suburbs of Atlanta.

With his well-cut suits, passion for Bentleys, and dynamic, accessible style of preaching, he quickly climbed the list of the nation’s most powerful religious leaders. He built his ministry, which stretches to Kenya and other countries, on a strong message of conservative Christianity that included promises of prosperity and attacks on homosexuality.

Now, it is certainly true that conservative Christians believe that sex outside of marriage is sin. That is an ancient doctrine that would unite traditional Christians.

So it is safe to say that conservative Christians believe that sex outside of marriage is sin. However, it is not logical to say that all people who believe that sex outside of marriage is sin are, in fact, traditional, conservative or even creedal Christians. These circles intersect, but they are not the same.

Toward the end of the story, there was another interesting combination of terms that yields more heat than light.

Support for Bishop Long continues to shrink. Just before the sexual coercion settlement was announced, the Rev. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., left the church.

On Sunday, a small group of antigay, religious protesters stood outside the church urging Bishop Long to step down permanently. They said they planned to return every month until he left.

“He has a serious moral character flaw,” said Isaac Richmond, 73, the minister at the Church of Human Development in Memphis. “It’s a moral question and he’s a religious figure. We don’t want that image as a role model for young men in the African-American community.”

It’s possible that this crowd of protesters was united by its opposition to homosexuality and, thus, has turned on Long because of his alleged behavior. Yet, on its face, the Times is saying that a pack of antigay protesters have decided to stage a public protest of the ongoing the ministry of the antigay pastor who has been accused of homosexual activity.

That’s sort of confusing. Perhaps it would have been better simply to quote the protesters, after asking them why they were there. Then again, if they were carrying signs that clearly identified themselves as “antigay … protesters,” then that reference would have worked. The label would be validated and illustrated. It’s a journalism thing.

It’s also possible that it would, in fact, have been accurate to call the protesters “conservative Christians,” but we really don’t have enough information to make that judgment. Why? For the most part, the Times simply served up labels.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    The behavior the protesters were concerned with was more likely the coercive nature of his actions that led to settling the civil lawsuits brought by the young men.
    Next comes the same-sex aspect of the matter.

    Why assume the protesters are just anti-gay? Are the folks upset with Penn State apoplectic because of Sandusky’s same-sex activity or the fact that it was allegedly forced on young people?

  • christopher

    Just a correction in your article. Bishop Long is not a member of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Felowsip.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    He isn’t, but his church is?

    Explain please.

  • Jeffrey

    There seems to be some doubt that Long is still part of Four Gospel and the church is affiliated with them. What’s the source of your information?

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com Mark Erickson

    There is no good reason to go on about conservative Xians and the prosperity gospel. The single sentence you do all this set up for is very clear. “that included” – that’s a modifying clause. It explains exactly what type of conservative Xianity the story is talking about. You’re grasping at straws to conform to a narrative. That’s not a good journalism thing.

    Also, NYT has an Atlanta bureau. Both reporters live there, they didn’t take a trip to report this story. Your second criticism is lame. I’ll explain why if you like.

  • Dale

    Mark Erickson wrote:

    There is no good reason to go on about conservative Xians and the prosperity gospel. The single sentence you do all this set up for is very clear. “that included” – that’s a modifying clause. It explains exactly what type of conservative Xianity the story is talking about.

    You’re mistaken. “Conservative Christianity” is a vague term, and probably isn’t useful in this context, and tmatt’s post illustrates why. Most Christians who qualify as theologically conservative view prosperity gospel teaching as not merely a tradition within Christianity, but as a false teaching– a heresy.

    To call prosperity gospel teaching “conservative” is like calling a Jewish pig roast “orthodox”.


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