The controversy stemming from recent allegations that Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of a megachurch in the suburbs of Atlanta and a married father of four, enticed at least four male teenagers into having sex with him, revives memories of numerous scandals that have plagued religious leaders over the years.
If the allegations contained in the lawsuits filed against Long are true - and he says through his attorney that they are not - it would be behavior reminiscent of disgraced evangelical pastor Ted Haggard. His double life was exposed in 2006, when a male prostitute disclosed that Haggard, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals, had been a regular customer for three years.
Mike Jones, the male prostitute, said he came forward after learning of Haggard's true identity. He said, "It made me angry that here's someone preaching about gay marriage and going behind the scenes having gay sex."
Haggard was forced to resign as president of the evangelical group and his Colorado Springs-based New Life Church.
A survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2002 showed that while Americans had become more accepting toward homosexuality in recent decades, Americans were significantly less tolerant than other democracies, including France, Britain, Italy, and Germany. A Pew poll last October found that African Americans, who are considerably more religious than other groups, are much more likely to consider homosexuality morally wrong (64 percent) than whites (48 percent) or Hispanics (43 percent).
The prominent religious leaders who have fallen from grace evidently view the Ten Commandments as the Ten Suggestions.
In 1986, Jimmy Swaggart exposed a rival Assemblies of God minister Marvin Gorman for carrying on an extramarital affair with one of his parishioners. A year after taking Gorman down, Swaggart discredited Jim Bakker, another rival who had cheated on his wife, Tammy Faye, while on an out-of-town trip.
Bakker was also accused of paying $265,000 in hush money to Jessica Hahn, his onetime secretary, who said she was raped in 1980 by Bakker and another PTL (Praise the Lord) preacher, John Wesley Fletcher.
The PTL empire disintegrated after Bakker was convicted in 1989 for defrauding millions from people who had purchased $1,000 life memberships in hotels that were never built at his Heritage USA theme park. Bakker served five years in prison.
Gorman, who was kicked out of the Assemblies of God denomination, retaliated against Swaggart by having him trailed to a Baton Rouge, La., hotel and photographed leaving with a well-known prostitute.
"I have sinned against You, my Lord, and I would ask that your precious blood would wash and cleanse every stain until it is in the seas of God's forgiveness," a tearful Jimmy Swaggart said on television in 1988.
In 1991, Swaggart sinned against the Lord again. When he was pulled over in Indio, Calif., for driving on the wrong side of the road, another prostitute, Rosemary Garcia, was in the passenger's seat. Instead of issuing another tearful apology, Swaggart told his members, "The Lord told me it's flat none of your business."
What makes the charges against Bishop Long so egregious is that he has preached against homosexuality and in 2004 led a march to support a national constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
In his lawsuit, Jamal Parris, one of the men who claimed that Bishop Eddie Long lured them into having sex with him, said Long performed covenant ceremonies at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., with young men he called his spiritual sons.
"Defendant Long uses various rituals in the Ceremony, including candles, exchange of jewelry, and discussion of Biblical verses that reinforce the spiritual and God-like connection between himself and the young man," the suit alleges.
Malcolm X wrote that Elijah Muhammad, who headed the Nation of Islam for more than 40 years, also cited Scripture to rationalize his impregnating two of his former secretaries.
He said Muhammad told him, "You recognize that's what all of this is - prophecy. You have the kind of understanding that only an old man has. I'm David. When you read about how David took another man's wife, I'm that David. You read about Noah, who got drunk - that's me. You read about Lot, who went and laid up with his own daughters. I have to fulfill all of those things."
The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, was evidently fulfilling his sexual desires in a $700,000 house he shared in Tierra Verde, Fla., with Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler whom he had hired as the group's public relations director. But that extramarital affair came to a halt in 1997 when Lyons' wife, Deborah, set the house on fire.
A subsequent investigation into Lyons' personal life and finances ended in his being convicted of grand theft and racketeering. A jury found that he had swindled more than $4 million from companies that wanted to market credit cards, life insurance, and cemetery plots to his organization. Lyons served a 5½-year Florida state sentence, a concurrent 4½ year federal sentence, and was ordered to make $5.2 million in restitution to the companies he cheated.
A different kind of cheating has occurred in Roman Catholic churches around the world. In the United States, 10,667 people accused U.S. priests of sexual abuse from 1950 to 2002. The church has paid more than $2 billion in settlements.
Although other institutions, such as Congress, Boys Town, and the Boy Scouts, have been rocked by sex scandals, religious leaders are held to a higher standard.
1 Thessalonians 5:12 (King James) reads, "And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you."
Clearly, we did not know those over us in the Lord as well as we thought.