A blog might not be the best medium for an essay like this. But I want to offer some more considered thoughts on Ted Haggard and his HBO documentary; I hope this performs some kind of service in a story that I hope will end–in its public iteration–very soon. This was written as a stand-alone essay, so please forgive its summary statements up top. Also, it was written before the latest allegations involving Haggard and another man–allegations that make these reflections sadly more salient:
Ted Haggard enjoyed frequent television appearances during the years when, as the outspoken president of the National Association of Evangelicals, his star rose high enough for Barbara Walters, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Brian Williams, et al to come calling on a regular basis. In November 2006, he disappeared quickly when he was caught in a sex and drugs scandal with a male prostitute in Denver. But this week, Haggard is gracing television screens once again. Oprah Winfrey and Larry King are profiling Haggard and his family, and HBO subscribers will watch “The Trials of Ted Haggard,”
a documentary by Alexandra Pelosi that follows the ex-minister through the dreary months after his star crashed.
In his two decades as pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, one of Haggard’s most legendary sermons was titled “There’s No Such Thing As a Secret.” Truth will out, preached Haggard, so you may as well confess your darkest impulses and actions. I was Haggard’s writer and editor for eight years, and I don’t know anyone who was not shocked that there was such a thing as a secret for him. Haggard’s double life was a searing revelation to his family, his church, and his closest friends.
Another legendary Haggard sermon was called “How Much Is Your Sin Going to Cost Me?” It was his sly, wry way of reminding us that there are social consequences for our actions. When we lie, cheat, and steal, we incur debts of time, emotion, and material treasure that our family and friends have to pay. Have integrity, he’d say, so that no one has to clean up after your mistakes.
In Pelosi’s film, we get some idea of what Haggard’s sin cost him: a career in Christian ministry, the respect of evangelical legions, and the ability to live exactly as he pleased.
He complains the church banned him from talking to the media and banished him from Colorado–“The church has said go to hell,” he tells Pelosi–which is not quite right. Church members mourned the loss of their beloved pastor and forgave him; many sent him personal messages to that end; many hoped for an eventual reconciliation. But the overseers of New Life Church–four pastors from other churches–asked Haggard to sign a contract agreeing to keep quiet and leave Colorado in exchange for a generous parachute: a year’s severance for Haggard and his wife, a vehicle, counseling expenses, and moving expenses. Haggard took the deal.
Many at New Life Church grieved over the decision to ask the Haggards to leave the state. But the overseers forced his hand for a very good reason: the church community needed a chance to pay the debts of Haggard’s mistakes. We needed to deal with the consequences of his actions. He had been our spiritual authority for years, and his duplicity twisted and tangled the church. We needed a season of strict separation from the man who had been a dominant force in our lives.
The other night, I watched Pelosi’s documentary with several friends who experienced Haggard’s downfall together. Afterward, we reflected on one of the benevolent outcomes of the tragedy: it forced us to deal in reality. Haggard had crafted an illusion of a perfect life. He rarely showed personal weakness, and he preached that faith in God and a can-do attitude were a guarantee of a life of happiness. In an earlier Pelosi documentary, “Friends of God,” he had bragged to the camera that evangelicalism was life on steroids–even our sex lives were better because of Jesus. “All the surveys say that evangelicals have the best sex life of any other group,” he said, and then had two young men from his church tell Pelosi how often they had sex with their wives–“Every day”–and how often their wives reached climax–“Every time.”
Something always does–and always did–smell off about the “Jesus makes life perfect” version of Christian witness. It’s not consistent with the Bible’s record of pain and suffering, much less what we know of ourselves. But hey, it sure seemed to be working for Haggard. His smile was constant, his energy endless. His life was an argument for the power of positive Christian thinking.
Haggard’s downfall was a clarion call to personal honesty. It challenged us to do the gritty work of growing in self-knowledge. John Calvin, echoing St. Augustine, wrote that there is “no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self.” Self-knowledge is, or should be, a natural outcome of a proper Christian life, because confession is a core discipline. The Christian is invited to admit the full truth of his or her life–as our scripture has it, to “walk in the light.” Christianity should be a path of self-disclosure. There is no such thing as a secret.
I was hoping–against hope–that “The Trials of Ted Haggard” would document his walking into the light. It doesn’t. It captures his attempt to re-enter the limelight. It’s agonizing to watch Haggard gather the pieces of his life, shuffle from temporary home to temporary home, and learn how to make an honest buck. It’s terrible to watch him suffer. But what’s most painful is the question the documentary doesn’t ask: Why? Why, just a few months after Haggard and his family suffered an unspeakable tragedy in public view, would he invite the cameras back? Why would he want his story documented and sold in this way?
Anyone who cares about Haggard, as I do, must see this comeback as a continuation of his tragedy. I wish Haggard well. Thus, I wish him a life of peace and quiet, a life balanced with equal parts solitude and intimate company. I wish him the courage of self-revelation. Haggard has recently told reporters that the issue of his sexual orientation is “complex.” No doubt it is–and it should be worked out through a process of careful discernment, a mixture of introspection and good counsel. It’s not possible to work out such complexities with a camera in your face, an audience in your near future.
As one friend said after we watched the documentary, this is Haggard’s Facebook. It’s not a confessional; it’s a media platform. To paraphrase HBO’s motto, it’s not reality TV; it’s just TV.