In 2006, Ted Haggard was perhaps the most powerful evangelical in America, a Bush confidant and grinning culture warrior. I’m not proud to say it, but when he was disgraced in a scandal involving a gay prostitute and crystal meth, I felt giddy with schadenfreude. Since then, I’ve laughed when the former evangelical superstar was mocked on the Daily Show or in Roy Zimmerman’s biting song “Ted Haggard Is Completely Heterosexual.” As with Larry Craig and David Vitter, the revelation of his furtive sex life exposed the broader hypocrisy of the religious right. That was a salutary thing, but it obscured, at least to me, the awful drama of a human being undone by his own internalized homophobia. To watch Alexandra Pelosi’s deeply sad new documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, is to realize that this story is tragedy, not farce.
Pelosi first met Haggard while filming Friends of God, a documentary tour of the American Christian Right. At the time, he was president of the 30 million-strong National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of the 14,000-person New Life Church. Haggard built the church from scratch in Colorado Springs, helping to turn that town into a kind of evangelical Mecca. Haggard and Pelosi clearly developed a rapport, which allowed her extraordinary access to the man after his downfall.
Now Haggard, scorned by his former friends, humiliated and apparently broke, is using Pelosi’s film to reintroduce himself to America, and to seek some measure of understanding. He’s been on a publicity junket, appearing on Oprah on Wednesday with his wife, Gayle, and on Larry King Live tonight. Haggard is desperate for redemption, but he can’t do the one thing that might make it possible—admit and accept that he’s gay, and work to create a more inclusive faith that won’t force other gay Christians into shameful, soul-destroying secrecy.
It’s still possible to see in Haggard some of the indefatigable energy and will, the voracious hunger for human connection and approval, that made him a star in the first place. The film, premiering tonight on HBO, begins with the preacher during his glory days, speaking to stadiums full of rapturous worshippers, hugging and roughhousing with male congregants, riding a scooter through New Life’s sprawling lobby. Then it all implodes, his ruin narrated in news clips. We see a church leader reading a letter from Haggard to his crying congregants: “There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life.” In an archaic-seeming settlement agreement, the church pays Haggard severance, but “banishes” him from the entire state of Colorado. Shots of him driving a U-Haul through a barren western landscape are interspersed with clips of various people condemning him. “He just needs to disappear,” says one church leader.
In Pelosi’s hands, New Life comes off rather worse than its former leader, exiling one of its own when he most needs support. As his circumstances spiral downward, Haggard displays a surprising and impressive absence of self-pity, except when he talks about being abandoned by his former friends. “The reason I kept my personal struggle a secret is because I feared that my friends would reject me and abandon me and kick me out and that the church would exile me and excommunicate me, and that happened and more,” he says. I started watching with the impression that Haggard was a villainous hypocrite, but quickly began hoping someone would extend him a bit of Christian charity.
New Life is clearly worried about Pelosi’s portrayal. Earlier this month, Senior Pastor Brady Boyd sent an e-mail to church members alerting them to the documentary and defending the church’s behavior. “In the next few weeks, you may hear and read a great deal of media reports concerning an upcoming HBO documentary featuring Ted and Gayle Haggard,” he wrote. “The documentary chronicles their life in Arizona and their return to Colorado Springs. In the documentary, Ted and Gayle express their hurt and disappointment in the way they were treated by New Life.” He insists that the church acted with honor and generosity, but seems to be on the defensive.
Haggard, of course, is not simply a victim—far from it. By preaching against homosexuality and allying with anti-gay politicians, he helped cause real damage to gay people’s rights. He misled confused gay Christians by perpetuating the myth that they can be “cured.” Most seriously, this week brought the revelation that Haggard sexually harassed Grant Haas, a 22-year-old New Life church volunteer who was himself struggling with his homosexuality. According to the Associated Press, the young man says that Haggard “performed a sex act in front of him in a hotel room in 2006 and sent him explicit text messages.” His pastor’s advances left Haas devastated, leading to a period of “isolation, struggles with drinking, drugs and suicide attempts,” according to the AP. New Life appears to have bought Haas’s silence, paying his tuition and counseling bills on the condition that he not speak out about what happened.
It’s possible that Haas isn’t the only man Haggard victimized. According to an e-mail that New Life sent to its members to explain the latest revelations, “After Mr. Haggard’s fall, we received reports of a number of incidents of inappropriate behavior… We renew our invitation today for anyone who believes he or she has been hurt to please come forward.”
Haggard must be condemned for preying on Haas and any other men he might have hurt. Watching Pelosi’s documentary, though, it’s clear he’s been severely punished. A national laughingstock in his fifties with no work experience outside the ministry, Haggard struggles to find a job, eventually becoming a traveling salesman working on commission. His family lives in a series of borrowed homes in Arizona, at one point ending up in a single hotel room. But while he’s existing as a sexually tortured, publicly excoriated Willy Loman, he maintains a shockingly good-humored facade, evincing a psychologically volatile combination of denial and steely discipline that’s both admirable and unnerving. On the one hand, he looks like he’s going to crack, and it isn’t surprising when he tells Oprah that he was close to suicide. Still, stripped of fame, respect and a place in the world, his uncanny showman’s gift for radiating faith is thrown into high relief. Suddenly, it becomes clear just how much potential he wasted by hewing to a self-hating theology.
At one point, Haggard decides to go back to school to study psychology, saying, “After my crisis, the therapists were the ones who gave me answers.” One senses that he’s on the verge of an epiphany, that he could be breaking free of the fundamentalist paradigm that deformed his life, and the lives of people like Haas. If he could, he might perhaps make amends with the gays and lesbians that he injured during his years of anti-gay activism, and find a new community to take refuge in. But he can’t. He still refuses to identify as gay, insisting to Oprah that he’s a “heterosexual with issues.” He and his wife both insist that he can make a choice not to act on his sexual impulses or be defined by them, and thus avoid a label that apparently continues to terrify him. That’s where his tragedy lies, and the fact that he helped reinforce the closet that’s destroying him doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking.