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Atlanta Megachurch Pastor Bishop Eddie Long Dies At 63

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today comes word that the well-known Atlanta area mega church Pastor Bishop Eddie Long passed away from cancer at the age of 63. Over the course of more than three decades in ministry, he built New Birth Missionary Baptist Church just outside of Atlanta into what has been believed to be one of the nation's largest churches with some 30,000 members. He might be best known nationally for conducting the funeral services of Coretta Scott King, widow of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and a civil rights icon in her own right back in 2006 during which he hosted President George W. Bush and former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

But he also became a controversial figure for his lavish lifestyle and anti-LGBT positions and was later accused of sexual misconduct by several young men whom he had mentored. We wanted to hear more about him, so we've called the Reverend Asa Lee. He is associate dean for community life at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and has lectured on the history of the black church. Reverend Lee, welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

ASA LEE: Glad to be here today.

MARTIN: Tell us a bit more about Bishop Long. What was he known for?

LEE: Well, Bishop Long's ministry coincided with the rebirth of black Atlanta in the early '90s. And in many respects, Bishop Long was a pioneer in the merging of Baptists and Pentecostal sort of styles of worship into a very charismatic ministry and worship experience. And that, coupled with his strong Biblical preaching in African-American circles, really launched New Birth into a stratospheric ministry globally.

MARTIN: He also, though, as we noted, came under fire for a very lavish lifestyle, you know, extremely expensive, you know, cars and homes and other accoutrements. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

LEE: Yeah. So when we speak about sort of televangelism, this phenomenon of excessive wealth kind of is not unique to any one ethnic expression of televangelists. And Jonathan Walton, who's a professor at Harvard who wrote a book in 2009 called "Watch This!: The Ethics And Aesthetics Of Black Televangelism" - and one of the things that he puts forth is just that Eddie, himself, Bishop Long, himself - in order to establish sort of the idea of God's blessing from a prosperity perspective really use the wealth of his ministry to fund everything from multiple houses to airplanes to cars, etc. And then would use these assets, if you will, to say this is the blessing of God which is classic prosperity gospel ministry.

MARTIN: He among others did attract the attention of congressional investigators at one point. But what also attracted the attention of the authorities were these allegations of sexual misconduct that were brought by four young man whom he had mentored.

Now, these cases were settled outside of the criminal justice system, so there was never any sort of public finding of wrongdoing. But I did want to ask what impact did those allegations have, particularly in light of the fact that he was a noted preacher against same-sex marriage and civil rights for same gender loving individuals? So what impact do you think those allegations had on his public standing, if you will?

LEE: They were absolutely devastating. Bishop Long's ministry was built on what many would describe, and I would describe, as homophobic preaching and teaching, very conservative reading of scripture. And so his positions that he preached for a number of years put him in a position that when these allegations broke, they directly went to his character and spoke to his integrity and credibility as a minister. And so I believe that those allegations were a singular contributor to the demise of the New Birth ministry under Bishop Long.

MARTIN: How will you teach about Bishop Long's ministry going forward?

LEE: Bishop Long's ministry, although, it did a lot of good - let me be very clear when I say that there were a lot of moments of positive ministry moments where lives were changed in terms of social-economic standing - but the way in which that ministry took place was an emphasis on personal piety, holiness and not much the prophetic witness against injustices in the broader society.

And so in the African-American church, Eddie Long is one of those kinds of figures that is worth examining as a tipping point in the way in which the African-American church has centered itself in the community and the message that has been preached, specifically in the African-American community.

MARTIN: That is the Reverend Asa Lee. He's associate dean for community life at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. Reverend Lee, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LEE: Glad to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.