God's Politics

Jim WallisI heard the news about Ted Haggard late Thursday afternoon and felt heartsick. I was on the road and about to speak, but I couldn’t stop thinking that night about how much pain this was going to cause. I have gotten to know Ted in the last couple of years; we’ve had some good conversations and times of fellowship. I like him, and have admired his leadership at the National Association of Evangelicals. He was becoming a friend, and so I felt deeply for him, his family, his church, and the evangelical movement in which he has provided strong leadership.

Some wanted me to comment on the sexual scandal right away, including the media, but there was the usual cloud of allegations, denials, rumors, and inconsistencies; I thought it best to wait until there were more facts. I heard that the NAE was going to meet the next day, then the overseers of New Life Church (Haggard’s congregation in Colorado Springs) were going to make their decision, and then it was announced that Ted and his wife Gayle would offer personal statements to their church on Sunday. It’s always best to wait and listen before we comment too quickly – at least that’s what I think.

Friday the NAE accepted Ted Haggard’s resignation and Saturday the church overseers recommended his dismissal, both because of evidence of “sexually immoral conduct.” Sunday, Ted and Gayle Haggard had two quite extraordinary personal statements read to their church family to “clarify,” said Haggard, his “heart’s condition.” I commend both of their statements to you for their honesty and integrity.

Both letters fill me with sadness. Ted speaks of the internal battle going on within him for most of his adult life, admitted his “sexual immorality,” took full responsibility for his behavior, and apologized deeply to all those he has hurt. He confessed “deceptions” and admitted lying to those that he was the closest to. “The fact is, I am guilty of sexual immorality, and I take responsibility for the entire problem.”

When he said, “I am so sorry,” I could feel his sorrow. Such a clear and unequivocal letter took a lot of courage. Gayle challenged all the people she had taught in their church to never again think that her marriage was so perfect that she could not relate to women in difficulty.

The whole situation reminds us again of the basics – that we are all sinners and utterly dependent on the grace of God. Ted’s failures, and our own, remind us of why we all need a savior. What it should also remind us of is the need for humility and forgiveness in response to such painful revelations. Ted even expressed his concern for and called for the forgiveness of his accuser, a male prostitute who sought to expose him during an election campaign as a “hypocrite.” Some critics of religion, and evangelicals in particular, will say this situation shows that all Christians and their leaders are hypocrites. That’s not true, but it does remind us that all Christians, and their leaders, are sinners with their own “darkness” in deep need of the light of Christ. “None are righteous, no not one,” says the Apostle Paul, and we perhaps should be reminded by these tragic circumstances to not expect so much of leaders—who are every bit as human and fallible as those they lead, and every bit as dependent on God’s grace.

In a particularly insightful comment, Haggard’s letter said, “The public person I was wasn’t a lie; it was just incomplete.” In my experience, that’s true of most, if not all, leaders. And his letter also contained a warning for public leaders: “When I stopped communicating about my problems, the darkness increased and finally dominated me. As a result, I did things that were contrary to everything I believe.” Ted and his family are paying a high price for his behavior and he himself says he should be “disciplined and corrected.” In every tragic situation like this, there are always redemptive possibilities. In his letter, Haggard asks his congregation to “demonstrate the incredible grace that is available to all of us.” In one of the most thoughtful comments on Haggard, Rich Cizik, Vice President for Governmental Affairs at the NAE, told the Associated Press: ‘‘There is something good, believe it or not, that could come out of this. My hope and prayer is that this whole tawdry affair will lessen some of the vitriol that has gone on between gay rights activists and evangelicals.’’

The NAE has already appointed an interim President, Leith Anderson, who has the moral authority to take them through this crisis and beyond. While some on the Religious Right are already attacking the NAE and using this scandal for more gay-bashing, it is important that cooler heads and warmer hearts prevail. The NAE should continue on the courageous and biblically-directed path on which they have now embarked—to broaden and deepen the evangelical agenda to include the issues of poverty, the environment, HIV/AIDS, human rights and religious liberty, human trafficking, Darfur, and war and peace.

Ted Haggard says, “I am a sinner. I have fallen. I desperately need to be forgiven and healed.” And that’s just what we should all pray for now – for Ted, his family, and his church. In the letter to his church, Haggard said, “I have an overwhelming, all-consuming sadness in my heart for the pain that you and I and my family have experienced over the past few days.” Me too, Ted, me too.

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