Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Collateral damage; or, what happened when my father impregnated his sister-in-law and called me his nephew

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I was (virtually) flipping though The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier today -- I like its political cartoonist, Mike Luckovich, and in general it's a pretty good paper -- and I came across what looked like yet another story of fundamentalist Christian hypocrisy, specifically, yet another sex scandal at yet another church. And this one, it seemed, had all the makings of a Jerry Springer show:

The 80-year-old leader of a suburban Atlanta megachurch is at the center of a sex scandal of biblical dimensions: He slept with his brother's wife and fathered a child by her.

Members of Archbishop Earl Paulk's family stood at the pulpit of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit at Chapel Hill Harvester Church a few Sundays ago and revealed the secret exposed by a recent court-ordered paternity test.

In truth, this is not the first — or even the second — sex scandal to engulf Paulk and the independent, charismatic church. But this time, he could be in trouble with the law for lying under oath about the affair.

The living proof of that lie is 34-year-old D.E. Paulk, who for years was known publicly as Earl Paulk's nephew.

"I am so very sorry for the collateral damage it's caused our family and the families hurt by the removing of the veil that hid our humanity and our sinfulness," said D.E. Paulk, who received the mantle of head pastor a year and a half ago.

D.E. Paulk said he did not learn the secret of his parentage until the paternity test. "I was disappointed, and I was surprised," he said.


Surprised? Disappointed? Makes sense. How would you feel if you found out your uncle was really your father. How would you feel if the founder of your church had committed adultery with his brother's wife, fathered you, and then lied about it -- for decades? I can think of a few words stronger than surprised and disappointed. And I'm not sure I'd use the phrase "collateral damage" either.

But, back to the point: None of this might be at the level of what Ted Haggard did, and, in terms of exposure and popularity, Paulk is no Haggard, nor even a major name in preaching world, but it's a sordid scandal nonetheless, and not the first such "sexual misconduct" scandal to have engulfed Paulk and his church. (Have a look at the Earl Paulk page at ReligionNewsBlog.)

So: Gotcha! Hypocrisy!

Right?

Wrong.

I can't speak to Paulk's character, nor to his political views, but his church, now his son's church, is anything but a bastion of religious rightism. Rather, it seems to be a socially progressive church that even I, a devout secularist, could get behind and support (if not for the whole belief-in-God thing). Here's an example of that progressivism, as reported in Southern Voice back in July:

An Atlanta area mega-church is attempting to counter the anti-gay teachings of many similar congregations by welcoming gay men and lesbians to join a "Pro-Love" march and rally at the Georgia State Capitol on July 28.

"Our main thrust right now is to speak out, or at least show a different demonstration of the love of God," said Brandi Paulk, wife of D.E. Paulk, senior pastor of the Cathedral at Chapel Hill, a 1,000-member, predominately African-American church in Decatur.

"Think of how many churches in America are preaching against gay people," Paulk said. "That's just not what we feel is correct."

Organizers hope between 500 and 2,000 people attend the Pro-Love march through downtown Atlanta, which aims to unite "Muslim and Jew, Christian and Atheist, Gay and Straight."

Commercials advertising the march will soon be on cable television channels featuring the statement: "Hate is an epidemic only cured by love."

Several members of the Cathedral at Chapel Hill congregation have objected to the event, and Paulk said she wouldn't be surprised if the church loses some members."But we also have an uprising of people who are hungry for something like this," Paulk said.

All in all, no matter what you think of "the love of God," that's pretty amazing. The religious right is so loud, and so noxious, it's easy to think it speaks for many more Christians, many more religious believers generally, than it really does. Hatred and bigotry is alive and well in many Christian communities and churches, and the leaders of those communities and churches are often prominent public figures who spew their hatred and bigotry throughout the political arena, given a platform even by large and powerful media outlets, but for all of that there are decent Christians working to bring people together, to teach (and preach) love and understanding, and to overcome the hatred and bigotry that are unfortunately still so rampant in American society.

Here, in the suburbs of Atlanta, is a church brought low by scandal. But at least it's not more of the same -- the same hypocrisy, the same hollow righteousness.

On the contrary, it is a church where genuinely good works are being done. It is an admirable effort, and much more of it is needed.

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