“Godly Or Bad?”: The Return of Ted Haggard

There was a lot of sex at Ted Haggard’s church in Colorado Springs. Haggard himself told us so. In a particularly chilling scene from Friends of God, Alexandra Pelosi’s 2006 travelogue through evangelical America, Haggard stands outside New Life church with some young married dudes, egging them on like a frat brother hazing the pledges: “You know all the surveys say that evangelicals have the best sex life of any other group,” Haggard says, winking and nodding to the camera. Turning to one young blonde in a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, Haggard asks, “How often do you have sex with your wife?”

“Every day,” he says. “Twice a day sometimes.”

“Every day,” echoes another.

Haggard pushes them further. “Let’s say out of 100 times when you have sex, what percentage does she climax?”

“Every one,” says one.

“Every one,” echoes the other.

All three men explode in nervous laughter, joined offscreen by a woman’s voice that quips wryly, “There’s a lot of love in this place.”

Just in time for Thursday night’s HBO documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, we’re learning more about just how much love there was at New Life. It turns out that Mike Jones, the Denver gym trainer and escort who went public in 2006 with accusations of sex and drug use with the then-head of the National Association of Evangelicals, was not Pastor Ted’s only sex partner. This time the scandal hits closer to home. A 22-year-old former New Life church member, Grant Haas, now says that Haggard lured him into a sexual relationship in the summer of 2006 when Haas was struggling to understand his own sexual identity.

“It was like he had two personalities,” the young man told Newschannel 13 in Colorado Springs, detailing Haggard’s appetite for crystal meth, poppers, Viagra, and porn. “It was like here is this 50-year-old pastor who is the ultimate man of God and then, this 16-year-old horny boy who couldn’t keep himself together.” Add charges of hush money, and we find ourselves in very familiar territory. Scandal! Hypocrisy!

This past Sunday, the Rev. Brady Boyd, who took over from Haggard as senior pastor of New Life Church in the wake of the first revelations back in 2006, stood in front of his congregation, visibly anxious, to announce that “the wound has been re-opened.” Boyd said he had hoped the church “wouldn’t have to revisit the unpleasant parts of our past,” but at New Life as elsewhere, a buried past has a way of springing up from the grave to haunt the present.

When Haggard’s world came crashing down in November 2006, the pastor cut a deal with his church that exchanged silence for severance, plus time in a Christian “spiritual rehabilitation program.” It turns out that New Life was party to yet another non-disclosure agreement with Haas, who was offered $180,000 for college tuition and mental health services, provided he keep his sexual relationship with Haggard under wraps. Hush money? Boyd adamantly denies it. (He also noted, by the way, that the church’s insurance policy, not tithes, paid the bill to clean up Haggard’s indiscretions. And he also said the church wouldn’t seek to recover that money now that the young man had gone public with his story).

In his Sunday sermon, Boyd reached for the mantle of victim, telling his congregation, “We carried the burden and weight to protect you.” Speaking at length about the need for “discretion and wisdom,” Boyd promised to come clean, to “tell you everything I can.” Meanwhile, investigative reporters on the ground in Colorado Springs are working overtime to tell us everything they can, or all we can stand to know, as the drum roll continues for the debut of The Trials of Ted Haggard.

Alexandra Pelosi’s latest documentary follows in the footsteps of Friends of God, a self-conscious attempt to represent the complexity of American evangelicalism by humanizing the people who live in flyover country. Two years ago Pelosi, the 37-year-old daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, told the DC-based newspaper The Hill that she set out to make Friends of God for people like herself—people from New York City and San Francisco—who were clueless about the evangelical world.

Pelosi first met with Haggard during the production of Friends of God, when she visited Colorado Springs and New Life. In 2007, after Haggard’s fall from grace, the two met up in Arizona where Pelosi’s sister was living. There, she found Ted at the nadir of his professional life, moving between cheap motels with his wife Gayle and two of their five children as he went door-to-door, selling life insurance to strangers. From the pinnacle of evangelical leadership to this? Pelosi later told an interviewer that the story of Haggard’s exile was too compelling in its complexity to pass up. How the mighty had fallen! She brought along her camera, and the Trials of Ted Haggard was born.

Pelosi’s documentary introduces us to the man behind the headlines, and his wife Gayle, the long-suffering woman who stood by her man. We learn that Haggard struggled with his sexual identity for a very long time—a struggle that continues—and about the sexual abuse Haggard suffered as a second grader. (True? Perhaps. But it also fits a well-known story that the ex-gay movement tells about the genesis of lesbian and gay identity.) Ted reveals how hurt he was by New Life’s rejection, scorn, and demands that he disappear. Although he was pronounced “completely heterosexual” at some point in the church-sponsored restoration process, his spiritual rehab was declared “incomplete” by New Life supervisors when Haggard announced he was leaving the program in 2008. He continued to drift—to Illinois and back to Louisiana, where his ministry began, all the while developing his business plan for cut-rate life insurance. As for Haggard’s marriage, things have improved, thanks to therapy and to Gayle’s patience and forgiveness.

Recently, if you’ve cared to notice, we’ve learned even more from news reports and interviews leading up to the premier of Trials. Haggard, now fifty-two, is back home in Colorado Springs, living with Gayle and their five children and refashioning himself as a happy family man and a successful Christian entrepreneur. He’s selling life insurance and mortgage protection, according to his Web site, “with a growing volume of business even in the midst of recession.” For the record, Haggard still opposes gay marriage, and believes that “God’s best plan for human beings is for man and woman to unite together.”

It’s clear that Pelosi sympathizes with her human subject, certainly not a bad impulse for a documentary filmmaker. It’s a story about the possibility of forgiveness, Pelosi tells the San Francisco Chronicle, and a story about forgiveness withheld—not only by Haggard’s church, but by liberals and by gays and lesbians who have largely followed Haggard’s story with mocking derision. “Why the gay men and women of San Francisco should forgive Ted Haggard is because there’s nothing wrong with being gay,” Pelosi insists.

“The Christians are condemning him for being gay and that’s not who we are. We liberals are supposed to forgive that and say it’s okay.” (Well, okay, but Haggard now claims to be heterosexual). It’s clear that Pelosi also sees Haggard as a fascinating cultural figure, a man without a place to call home. “This is the problem with Ted,” Pelosi said in an interview with Religion News Service. “The gay community is not going to embrace him because he’s not going to say, ‘I’m gay.’ The Christian community is not going to embrace him because he is saying: ‘I have gay issues. I have issues with my sexuality.’ So, he’s fallen through the crack in between this cultural divide in America.”

I have no problem with Pelosi’s attempt to humanize Haggard, but the approach runs the risk of putting the leading man in the klieg lights once again. The run-up to tonight’s premier is a case in point. Haggard’s highly visible cultural makeover includes a blitz of newspaper interviews—the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times—and of course the obligatory stop on Oprah’s couch and a premier-night gig on Larry King Live. In the middle of this fallen celebrity self-promotion, is it any surprise that Haas would break his vow of silence to tell his side of the story? Why let Haggard have the last word?

“Are we going to be godly or bad tonight?” That’s the question Haggard reportedly asked Haas on the night they were first alone together. Before he arrived in Colorado Springs, Haas was himself an aspiring pastor, studying at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, once the mighty citadel of American evangelicalism. According to Haas’ own account, he let it be known at Moody that he was struggling with feelings of attraction to men. Their advice? Head west, to Colorado Springs, evangelicalism’s New Jerusalem, and to New Life Church, no less, where Haas found himself at the feet of the great Ted Haggard—“the ultimate man of God,” in Haas’ words.

As he tells the story, Haggard’s face brightened when the pastor discovered the young man was struggling with his sexual identity. The courtship began, furtively of course, and over the next year or so, their relationship deepened. The jig was up when Mike Jones, the Denver escort, went public with his accusations. Haggard was hustled off to spiritual rehab, while Haas felt increasingly isolated and slipped into a depression that finally spiraled into drug abuse and a suicide attempt.

There is something about American evangelical life that tends toward the production of these sex sagas, and that shapes our reactions to them as well. The higher the pedestal, the harder the fall, as the old saying goes. Scandal—especially sex scandal—seems pre-wired to some extent by evangelicalism’s relentless fascination with celebrity. And it’s not just an accommodation that the evangelical world has made with America’s all-pervasive celebrity cult—evangelical practice itself is arguably one source of that cult. Evangelicals have always tended to invest the preacher and his words with central importance, an importance that has too often been wielded not just in the service of the Lord but also in the service of the preacher’s own power. And that, of course, is a risky set-up when it comes to sex—a sign that supposedly godly lives can turn into a living hell, right here, right now.

jtodd@drew.edu'

J. Terry Todd is Associate Professor of American Religious Studies at Drew University and director of Drew's Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict. The author of several articles on religion in twentieth-century America, Terry is especially interested in religious conflicts over family life and sexuality, and how Christian ideas and practices shape US politics and mass media.