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Ted Haggard: Three Complex Issues

Like Tony, I’d rather see the Ted Haggard story go away entirely. But it won’t, at least not yet, because Haggard feels he has more story to tell. 

As Haggard’s former writer, I was called upon to comment or write in the days, weeks, and months after he was exposed. I ignored most of those offers (exceptions here, here and here; the first two were written in a fog and I long to revise them). I have turned down all offers to write since. I don’t have any pressing need or desire to write about it now, but because I would like to see the story be shaped in ways that promote understanding, I’ll offer what I can. 
To be sure, Haggard does have more story to tell. Come January, we’ll get one big slice of that story through Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary, and another slice through whatever Haggard and his family tell the media. As those narratives come out, followed closely by reactionary media, I’d like to offer three points to bear in mind–three complex issues that are too often over-simplified; we’d all be helped if these issues could remain sufficiently complex: 
1. Haggard’s sexuality is complex. Haggard has been a litmus test for the way people think of sexual orientation: some assume he’s gay and in denial, others that his gay dalliances were just one expression of his general deviance. The truth is much more complicated: like all of us, Haggard needs to work out, to carefully discern, the nature of his sexuality. It’s not as easy–for him or for countless others–as simply straight or simply gay, and it’s not healthy that our culture believes that sexuality is that easy. (Hanna Rosin’s recent story on transgendered kids is one painful witness to the complexity of sexuality.) Unfortunately, because of Haggard’s actions, he has to work out these not-simple matters in public. It’d have been better for him to to work them out in private, but we should all acknowledge that at the very least, if the truth of his sexuality is unknown to him–and if his explorations happened in the context of a long and fruitful marriage–we can’t presume to know the truth of his sexuality, either. We should let it be as messy as it is.
Note: The “completely heterosexual” story was prompted by a gaffe of one of New Life Church’s overseers. It was a terribly unhelpful comment, and it should never have been considered the most accurate reflection of Haggard’s mind. 
2. The post-fall story is complex. Haggard was said to have entered a restoration process, then recused himself of it. We should be skeptical all around here. Did Haggard really submit to a process? And did the church’s overseers develop a comprehensive plan in the first place? In what way did they encourage him to follow through? What did they expect to happen during the process?
Part of the reason I’m pressing this point is that Haggard isn’t the first pastor to get into moral trouble, and it’d help us if we understood best practices for restoration. What is the model for restoring someone like Ted Haggard? What fruits of repentance do they have to show? What would a fully restored pastor look like? Would he plant a new church? Be back at his old post? Go into a different line of work? What are church members to expect in situations like this? Also, and importantly, what is the difference between a pastor of 150 people getting in trouble, and a regional/national figure like Haggard? How should restoration be approached differently when the public is watching via the media? 
This is a great moment for education on these issues, and I’d hope that Christians keep asking these questions of their own church, and of the whole Church. 
3. Haggard’s current family situation is complex. Most people won’t care about this, but when you write about or talk about Haggard, it’d be human of you to bear in mind that he’s a guy with a wife and 5 children, a daughter-in-law, and a granddaughter. The kids go to work and school and face friends and peers. Maybe that fact makes you angrier at Haggard, maybe it breaks your heart, maybe it makes you more sympathetic or able to see him as a human being. Whatever, as long as it removes Haggard from the realm of the abstract. 
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mike jones

posted December 23, 2008 at 3:09 pm

As the man who exposed Ted Haggard, I also have more to say. I will wait until I see the documentary. Alexandra filmed me for about 2 hours 1 1/2 years ago. Lets see if she fits me in to it. If she does not, it is total propaganda then.

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posted December 23, 2008 at 4:35 pm

Certainly sexuality is far more complex than either one is gay or straight. But it is also far more complex than Christian theology allows for as well. And when we consider the Haggard family, who are truly innocent victims, we have to remember that Haggard’s own faith and church pushed him into marriage. Haggard has repeatedly said that the had these problems his entire life. Many evangelical churches promote the claim that “change is possible” and this gives false hope to individuals that they can mould their own sexual orientation through prayer, faith and action. This encourages individuals to marry and that is what creates these innocent victims.
One of the great crimes the church has committed over gay issues is not necessarily what it has done to gay people (bad as that is) but how it has encouraged the creation of families who then get hurt. Women, who were deceived into marrying a gay man, shunning other suitors that they had, are hurt by this. Children born in those marriages are also hurt by this trauma. Theology that forces gay men into the closets doesn’t just create gay victims. It also hurts wives and children.

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Albert the Abstainer

posted December 24, 2008 at 8:10 am

Sexual orientation should best be seen in the light of dominance of attraction to one sex over the other. In other words, hetero without any attraction to the same sex, or homo without any attraction to the opposite sex is not common. Most people fall on a spectrum. I know I do. I am very close to the full hetero side, but there are days when I see a really good looking guy, and I feel the attraction. In other words I get the gay attraction even though it is not my practice. If evangelical/fundamentalist Christians can be honest enough with themselves to see that homosexual attraction is normal rather than aberrant they will be in a better position to look at issues like the Ted Haggard one.
If the offense was looked at as purely adultery without a gay spin, would the story have been significantly different? In other words, from a Christian perspective is the sin being gay or adultery? Personally, I think it is the adultery which has caused the harm. The fact that his indulgence was with a man should be irrelevant, but for Haggard’s history of anti-gay rhetoric.
One final thing which always gets me when a mega-media pastor is caught in something sexual: Those sins which are most aggressively condemned from the pulpit are often those to which the speaker has the greatest temptation. Of these, sexual indulgences are most often at the top of the list.

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posted December 24, 2008 at 9:08 am

I generally do not care if someone is gay or not. That being said I have never looked at a guy and said ” Wow I would like to have that” get a grip!

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posted December 24, 2008 at 10:48 am

Patton – you are spot on. We have countless other stories that are less high profile than Haggard but just as tragic. I recently had to step away from a ministry I was assisting when the highly closeted priest’s marriage of over 20 years imploded in part due to his sexuality – he’s so repressed that he’s now involved with his twenty something assistant (she’s naive enough not to realize he’s latently gay).
One thing that struck me living for a total of four years at Yale Divinity School was how many guys were gay or bi-sexual. Yet, even at a “liberal” school like Yale, many of them felt they had to play the role of a total hetero male with the wife and kids because that was the image they needed to project in order to ensure their job future. This was especially true with the Episcopal priests in training – and I wonder how many priests will come out and go through the Gene Robinson experience?
On the other side, I’ve had seminarians advocate that it’s OK to be promiscuous and be a priest – any discussion with this crew about personal morality among religious leaders is met with a spiritual sneer as though they want all the perks that come with being seen as a church leader (especially those on the speaking/writing circuit) but none of the responsibilities that come with leadership.

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Martyn Oliver

posted December 29, 2008 at 2:42 am

Knowing how difficult even writing about all of this is, I must first commend you for, well, managing. But you do more than that–you bring to light the very real and very human exegencies of the situation, finding room to honor not just Haggard’s very human failings, but to give space for all of us to reflect upon our own. Well done.
As with so many things, the lessons of the “scandal” cannot be appreciated without spending time in the messy, uncomfortable, complexity of the human condition. You show this, and do so eloquently. Thank you.

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