Men like Bishop Eddie Long are fouling the legacy of the civil rights movement.
Passing through Union Station in Washington, D.C., last week, I made my usual nod to the statue of A. Phillip Randolph. You can miss it if you are not looking for it, and it has been allowed to suffer defacement. (The sculpted pair of reading glasses held in the great man's hand was snapped off some years ago and was never replaced.) Randolph built a powerful trade union for black railroad workers and proposed the first march on Washington when Franklin Roosevelt was president. His role in the later civil rights movement was germinal and dynamic. But you never hear his name anymore, and it is not taught to schoolchildren. Nor is the name of Bayard Rustin, a charismatic black intellectual and pioneer of gay rights, who organized the March on Washington in 1963. Along with many other secular democratic heroes, Randolph and Rustin have been airbrushed from history. The easiest way to gain instant acceptance as a black "leader" these days is to shove the word Reverend in front of your name.
Or, if you are really greedy and ambitious, the word Bishop. Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia preaches that Bayard Rustin was a vile sinner who suffered from the curable "disease" of homosexuality. I have a rule of thumb for such clerics and have never known it to fail: Set your watch and sit back, and pretty soon they will be found sprawling lustily on the floor of the men's room. It may be a bit early to claim the scalp of Eddie Long for this collection, but I doubt I shall have to withdraw. Here, after all, is what his friend the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, of the First Iconium Baptist Church (no less!), has to say: "This is the issue: how can you be against homosexuality and you are allegedly participating in it? That is the epitome of hypocrisy." Cynicism and naivete seem to coexist happily in this statement. The Rev. McDonald does not quite seem to believe the rather unimpressive denials issued by his richly draped brother in Christ. And he talks as if fevered denunciation of homosexuality has never before been an early warning of repressed desire.
One of his alleged partners in depravity may have been on the borderline of the age of consent, but otherwise I can't make myself care about whether the self-anointed Bish was rogering his flock. What concerns me isn't even the laughable obviousness of his cupidity: the jewels and gold chains and limos and bodyguards. This is all a familiar part of the tawdry business of "Churchianity" now finding loopholes for the rich and venal at a well-upholstered religious establishment somewhere near you. No, what offends me is that Long was able to get four presidents of the United States to attend his opulent circus for the funeral of Coretta Scott King in 2006. What a steep and awful decline from the mule cart that carried her husband's coffin in 1968. And the decline can be measured out in dog collars, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson all the way down to the Rev. Al Sharpton and the venomous Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Many other charlatans have benefited from the clerical racket, and the most notorious of them—Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart—have been white. But there is something especially horrible about the way in which the black pulpit gets a sort of free pass, almost as if white society has assured itself that black Americans just love them some preaching. In this fog of ethnic condescension, it is much easier for mountebanks and demagogues to get away with it.
It is not amazing to me that the Bish is still standing and getting moist applause from the pews after the testimony of his boys brigade of LongFellows. (What the hell is that name, if not a giveaway?) It is amazing that he is still around after the ceaseless exposure of his personal finances. What I should like to know is this: How much of that funding and expenditure has been tax-deductible or written off as "charitable"? In a time of widespread discussion of the spread of the tax burden, why is it never proposed that the vast sums raised by the churches be subject to the scrutiny of the IRS? And still another question: In 2006, Long's church received about $1 million of U.S. taxpayers' money from the "faith-based initiative" of the George W. Bush administration. It was suggested at the time that this might be a quid pro quo for the Bish's militant stand against gay marriage and other homosexual abominations. If so, it would make my follow-up question even more amusing: How did Long and his young friends, "bonded" as they were in strong male "covenants," actually spend our cash?
To those young friends, then, "Thank you all very much for coming out"—as Sen. Larry Craig actually did say at the opening of his own post-men's-room press conference. The day can't be far off when Long follows the traditional script and starts to yowl for prayer and repentance. And this would all be the greatest fun if it didn't also involve the degradation of the King family and the steady erosion of the real memory of the civil rights movement, which is not safe when left in the keeping of God's bigmouths and tree-shakers.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Bishop Eddie Long by John Amis/pool/Getty Images.