In a series of events that became a major news story because of their titillating nature, Ted Haggard, then head of the National Association of Evangelicals, lost his position and found his personal life in turmoil as the result of a same-sex scandal a couple years ago. Effectively in exile since then, he has recently surfaced as the subject of an HBO documentary by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Haggard and Pelosi have some history that led to the current documentary, and if you watch it you’ll be amazed that Haggard allowed someone such intimate access to his heart and his life. I’m sure many people will see him as naïve. The documentary is heartbreaking and disturbing on many levels, not the least of which is how it plays into the hands of every secularist myth about the repressive nature of religion, and specifically Christianity.
In a sense it is impossible to be an objective observer of these events given that they are told through the lenses of a non-Christian and of the person whose struggles it documents. But even the most sympathetic Christian observer would have to say that the Church Haggard once led did not comport itself with Christian charity.
After his fall was made public, Haggard and the church came to some sort of agreement that he would leave his home in Colorado and move to Arizona. He was given a severance package, and it appears that the agreement was mutual. But the term ‘exile’ was used by both Pelosi and Haggard. In one article about this, the author said something that doesn’t surprise me:
Pelosi said the documentary is as much about the church as it is about the Haggard family.
"The story is about a church that preaches forgiveness," she said in an interview here. "He, as a pastor, preached forgiveness and redemption. But he was not forgiven and he was not redeemed. They cast him out and they exiled him.
"It was very biblical in a way. Not that I even read the Bible, so I wouldn’t know. But the people who go to church get told every Sunday, `We forgive.’ He was not forgiven. That, to me, is what is interesting about it."
You see, not only are Christians repressive, they’re hypocrites.
Well, of course we are. We’re human! And according to Scripture, fallen human beings who always struggle with sin. Whether that is sexual sin or being judgmental about it and lacking compassion, we all fall short.
Whatever Pelosi’s motives in making the documentary, the church’s exile of Haggard is a pretty radical move. I’m sure Haggard agreed to it because he felt a huge amount of guilt and shame. As he said at the time,
The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality. And I take responsibility for the entire problem. I am a deceiver and a liar. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life.
I’m equally sure that the church’s leaders insisted on the move. Such a high profile failure of such a high profile leader in their church and in the evangelical movement (the NAE has 30 million members) had to be repudiated, and it would be much easier for that to happen if Haggard were simply to disappear. One cannot help but wonder, however, whether the situation might have been handled differently and more gently if Haggard had committed adultery with a woman. My guess is yes.
But even though one might wish his church had shown more compassion, it probably had to be this way. Imagine the zoo the secular mainstream media would have made the life of that church had Haggard stayed around. After all, there is nothing the mainstream media like more than the fall of powerful religious people. And it is not every day that a church, especially one as large and influential as Haggard’s church was, has to deal with such a gigantic failure.
What was probably most difficult to watch in the documentary was Haggard grappling with his demons on camera. Pelosi used a handheld camera that conveys the feeling of a home movie. We see Haggard interviewed on a golf course, in his car on the way to a job interview (something he’d never done before), moving in and out of hotels, and in one of the most strange and poignant scenes, lying under the covers in his hotel bed reading Bible verses on his phone. We see him walking with his wife as she declares her respect and fealty for her husband, and we see a family forced to become nomads as another consequence of their father’s sin. (Haggard has five children, only the two eldest of which appeared in the documentary.)
What struck me most powerfully was the film’s portrait of a man struggling with what our culture tells him is natural and something to which he should just give in even though his conscience and principles tell him the opposite. Homosexual activists despise the man because of this very struggle. They believe that to deny homosexual attractions, among those who have them, is to lie to oneself. It is a refusal to embrace the true "you," in their view. To be fully realized as a human being, you must embrace the urge as if it were as natural as the color of your skin, they argue.
In a recent appearance on the CBS Early Show, Haggard was asked if he is a homosexual. His answer: “It’s complicated.” He preceded that by saying no, but ultimately he refused to put himself in a sexuality box, which I’m sure is equally dissatisfying to his critics of both the left and right, the secular and the religious.
The secular leftist view I mentioned above is predictable, but there is a strain of thought and theology in the Christian tradition called perfectionism that might not be so well-known. This view holds that once someone becomes a Christian, sin loses its dark power to hold them and the individual can progress toward perfect holiness. This limited view of the power of sin makes it very easy for many Christians to lack empathy toward those whose struggle is greater than theirs. In contrast with such purists, the Apostle Paul would have understood Ted Haggard’s struggle very well.
Haggard’s wife accompanied him on that CBS Early Show appearance, and she is just as big a part of the story as he is:
Ted noted that he and Gayle are still "very much together," and Gayle agreed, saying, "Absolutely."
Haggard says they have a "better marriage now than before the scandal. Our children are all together with us. The family has come together beautifully. Actually, that’s what saved my life."
Haggard said, "I deserve what I got and what I’m getting. But Gayle is the hero of the story. Because of it, our children are fine and they’re growing. We’re fine."
He admitted, "I deserved what I received. And so the way my view is, if people hate me, if people resent me, if people call me names, that’s justice. I deserve that. If somebody’s kind or gives me grace or is gentle, then that’s a gift.
It is refreshing to see Haggard take full responsibility for his actions and refuse to blame God or wallow in bitterness. It
is likely that he has struggled with such feelings, but he refuses to give in to them. A reasonable and sympathetic person cannot watch this documentary without being impressed by the man’s integrity and honor, and hoping he gets back on his feet and on with his life.