Editor’s Note: Rev. DeForest "Buster" Soaries is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey. He is a former Secretary of State of New Jersey, and was featured in "Almighty Debt: A Black in America Special.”
By Rev. DeForest B. Soaries Jr., Special to CNN
(CNN) – When I was a child, if a crime were committed, my grandmother would say, “I hope he wasn’t colored.” Her concern was that all African-Americans suffered whenever one of us was caught doing something wrong. In those days black people raised their children to abstain from behavior that would give credence to the stereotypes that society had used to characterize us and justify the injustices heaped upon us. And most of us embraced that ethic.
Today I understand how my grandmother felt – not so much from a racial perspective but rather from a vocational perspective. As a member of the clergy, I am always hoping that an accused child molester or an embezzler from some community organization is not a member of the clergy. In 1982, the Gallup organization reported that 63% of people surveyed felt that clergy had high or very high honesty and ethical standards. This topped a list of various professions including lawyers (25%), members of Congress (15%) and car salespersons (6%). By 2011, Gallup reported that nurses topped the list of those believed to have high or very high levels of honesty and ethical standards with 84% believing they did. Lawyers dropped to 19%; members of Congress dropped to 7%. Lobbyists and car salespersons were also at 7%. And clergy dropped to 52%. That means that almost half of the people surveyed do not feel that members of the clergy are honest and have high ethical standards.
And I am not surprised. The inappropriate antics of many clergy could easily cause one to wonder if there are any moral standards for those who preach and teach morality. We are all too familiar with the flaws among some Catholic priests and their highly publicized breaches of trust and sexual indiscretions with children. But Protestants have our share of disgraces in the pulpit, too. Homosexual bashing pastor Ted Haggard left his giant church in 2007 following a gay sex scandal. He later admitted to GQ, "I think that probably, if I were 21 in this society, I would identify myself as a bisexual." Prosperity preacher and television evangelist Robert Tilton was accused of throwing away prayer requests that he received from donors and television viewers without even reading them. And mega-church pastor Eddie Long settled lawsuits with four young males who accused him of coercing sex acts. It is time for a remedy within Protestant churches.
On top of the settlements, Eddie Long was recently “crowned” in his Atlanta church by a so-called messianic preacher. This is but the latest in a series of bizarre and embarrassing incidents that have occurred in Protestant pulpits. Christianity really does not need any more contemporary examples of buffoonery, debauchery or clowning in the pulpit. But there seems to be no shortage of candidates who are willing to offer themselves as the leading, present day holy hyenas in clergy garb. A video of Eddie Long in this religious mockery that went viral could certainly confirm the view of many skeptics that religion and institutional churches are for children and fools.
Perhaps the only thing more embarrassing and disturbing than the sight of a Baptist minister being wrapped by an alleged Torah scroll and carried in a chair by four grown men supposedly symbolizing royalty, was the sight of hundreds of worshipers at Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church standing on their feet and cheering in the church’s sanctuary as if there were some authenticity involved in this sacrilegious circus.
Long later apologized to the Jewish community. But his apology to them should have been preceded by an apology to his own congregation.
But then again why should he apologize to a congregation that seemed to be engaged in this foolish festivity? Are Christian people so desperate today that we are gullible en masse? Where are the Christians who model service and sacrifice, as Jesus did?
Unfortunately, too many people have confused "strange" with "deep." They seem to believe that the stranger it is, the deeper it must be. Shame on people who have this herd mentality and follow the crowd wherever the crowd goes. As long as there are cheering audiences to affirm foolishness in church, there will be willing clergy to accept their praise.
The remedy that can put a halt to this behavior is some form of formal accountability that protects the flocks from the wolves in sheep clothing. There are many congregations that understand that they, too, have a religious obligation. It is to demand excellence and integrity among the clergy. When people begin to eject fakes and frauds from the pulpits of our houses of worship, true religion can thrive and play an important role in society.
As long as people support buffoonery in the pulpit, there will be those who will gladly oblige them.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rev. DeForest B. Soaries Jr.