A billboard near an Atlanta highway reads, “Love Like Him, Live Like Him, Lead Like Him.” The motto refers to Jesus Christ, but the smiling face next to it is that of Bishop Eddie Long.
Long built a humble suburban Atlanta congregation into a giant TV ministry on the strength of his charisma and his interpretation of the Gospels, including the magnetic idea that the faithful will be rewarded with wealth. It’s a doctrine the architect and leader of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church embodies with his own luxury lifestyle, including a private jet, jewels, a luxury automobile and a mansion.
“It’s like the ‘in’ church to be associated with,” said Terry Belton of Charlotte, N.C., who has attended the New Birth church there with his wife. “You feel like you’re going to prosper by being associated with that church. A lot of people go there because of him. We went … because of him.”
Now the shepherd needs his flock more than ever. Long, an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, has been sued by four young men who say he used his money and power to coerce them into sexual relationships. No criminal charges are likely because the men were beyond the age of consent, but the allegations and the hypocrisy they would expose if proven could threaten his leadership of New Birth, which boasts more than 25,000 members, a sprawling campus and a $50 million, 297,000-square-foot cathedral.