Meet the New Haggards—Same as the Old Haggards?

Before Ted Haggard’s 2006 fall from grace—the result of a scandal involving drug use and a male prostitute—he and his wife Gayle coauthored a breezy, heavily-illustrated marriage guide, From This Day Forward: Making Your Vows Last a Lifetime. Post-scandal, the book seemed to epitomize the unrealistic demands the Christian right puts on women: that a “wife loves her husband with unflinching devotion,” seeks to please him, love him, and above all help him, since, as the book warns, men often have affairs with coworkers because they “are drawn to the women who help them do their task.”

The warning applied little to Gayle, who had dropped out of Oral Roberts University to “support a man of God” like Ted, and worked at his side for years as a nationally-recognized evangelical women’s figure, running New Life’s women’s ministry teaching students to be better wives. Yet when Ted fell, fellow megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll took the opportunity to crudely chastise Gayle Haggard by insinuation, writing that pastors’ wives too often “let themselves go,” confident that their pastor husband is trapped by vocation into fidelity.

Although Driscoll’s remarks were widely condemned, they merely highlighted a commonly held view that Ted’s actions became Gayle’s shared sin, and revealed the certainty from the outset that all eyes would be on Gayle as the couple responded to the crisis. Gayle announced as much in a goodbye letter that was read to the congregation in her absence, providing a parting lesson to the women of the church: this was no rupture in their marriage, but a continuation of her life’s role. “My test has begun,” Gayle wrote, “watch me. I will try to prove myself faithful.”

In time, however, once the Haggards fell into an unglamorous obscurity in the suburban Southwest, and after Gayle stood by her man through betrayal, financial uncertainty, and the disdain of most of her community, they seemed to stop watching her.

Until now. Gag rules imposed on the Haggards by both separation and spiritual “restoration” agreements with New Life have been lifted and the couple is free to discuss their side of the scandal—which they’re doing extensively, in nationwide church appearances and through Gayle’s promotion of her new book. Why I Stayed: The Choices I Made In My Darkest Hour (Tyndale House, 2010) chronicles her and her family’s years in exile and urges women to follow her in choosing a path of forgiveness and love towards their flawed husbands.

Why I Stayed paints a compelling picture of an eternal evangelical women’s leader continuing to demonstrate the path of virtuous Christian wifehood to a now national audience by following her disgraced husband into exile, taking on his sins as her own, and submitting her own pain to the rigorous doctrine for Christian women that “love is a choice, not a feeling.”

It’s also an uneasy tale of redemption from Ted’s gay sex scandal that flirts with the language of tolerance. The Haggards found support and even friendship from many in the gay community, and continue to lobby for broader categories of sexuality to include Ted’s self-identified “heterosexual with issues” orientation. At the same time they declare that his gay attractions were a sin born of childhood abuse and describe gay sex as a menacing influence on a victimized Ted.

For a family that fell from evangelical grace so spectacularly, a resurrection like this seemed inevitable. But both in the book and in an interview with RD, the new Haggards sometimes seem much the same as the old Haggards, if somewhat humbled. For icons from the era of compassionate conservatism, maybe this message—a slight repackaging of love the sinner, hate the sin—makes sense as revelation to them. But the strictures of the narrative they’ve laid out for themselves—a steadfast wife and a repentant husband whose sexuality is only as sinful as any other sin—may strike the outsider as more bump in the road than divine revelation.

You talk a lot about your convictions being tested in Why I Stayed. After years of women’s ministry, did you see this as a continuation of your teaching role?

I view what my husband and I have been through as an ongoing part of our journey in God. So I feel that what we’ve been through has actually prepared us—and if you mean me specifically, prepared me—to minister more effectively. Because I’ve experienced something that many women go through and it’s only served to deepen my faith and to teach me the valuable teachings of Jesus which are the power of forgiveness and the power of love to cover a multitude of sins in order to move forward in a relationship.

Was I modeling in the choices that I made? Definitely I modeled what I believed and taught women, but more specific than that I followed the teachings of Jesus in responding to my husband’s moral failure, in wanting to heal with him. What I didn’t model was a one-size-fits-all [solution] to marital problems. I was able to make the choices I made because of the choices my husband made as well: that he was repentant, that he wanted to save the marriage as well, and that he wanted to work with me to heal our marriage. Because he made those choices I could make the choices I made: to stay with the marriage, to work through our difficulties, and learn to forgive in the midst of our difficult situation.

You focus on seeing love as a choice, not a feeling, a common teaching in Christian women’s ministries. How did you see that before and after the scandal?

I do believe that love is a choice. And certainly when we began our marriage we were deeply attracted to each other and continue to be, and to have those feelings of loving being with each other and being glad that we’re in life together. But when we’re faced with difficulties, we have to face the action of love and in doing that, the feelings followed. I had to make the decision first of all to forgive my husband and secondly to continue to love him. In doing that, I felt my own heart heal. And I felt he had the opportunity to heal and I really did learn the power of love covering a multitude of sins.

Can choosing love make your emotional well-being secondary to the effort to respond in “a godly way”?

In choosing love [it doesn’t mean] that I’m not going to hurt or wasn’t angry. I had to go through my own emotions and feelings. But love was the path that I was on. I was choosing to love my husband and see him through the eyes of everything good he’s done and not just scrutinize him for all the wrong he had done. And to get a better perspective on what’s been going on in his life. I felt I had compassion for him in his struggle and his own shame and embarrassment, and compassion for myself for the hurt and pain that I felt. The scriptures tell us to love our brother as ourselves. I don’t think I neglected myself in the process but I didn’t neglect him either.

Is there a point where you stop choosing to love? In the book, you implied that you didn’t know if you could withstand betrayal again.

Actually what I said in the book is that I don’t know what my heart can handle, but I hope that I can choose to follow through on the same principles that I did this time. But I hope I won’t ever have to face that again. What I tell other women when they ask me what they should do in their situations, I always tell them to work out love and forgiveness as much as they’re able, but I don’t know what that will look like for them. It may mean that their marriage will not be rescued. Their husband may walk away, or if I’m talking to the husband, it may be the wife who doesn’t want to stay, and in that case you have to let them go. Your options are limited. Or if they’re violent, or want to continue on in a lifestyle that would be harmful to the marriage, then the options are limited. But as much as any of us are able, it’s best that we forgive to the level we can, and love to the level we can. But love doesn’t always mean that the marriage will be rescued.

Talk about how your husband’s downfall became your downfall, with regard to the response and sanctions from the church.

That remains a mystery to me as well. I always have to point out that the decision to separate us from the church did not come from the people of the church. I think if they were given the opportunity, they would have acted much in the same way I did. And they would have embraced us and been supportive and forgiving.

Once the decision was made to separate us from the church then I was suddenly lumped in and I think it was because I chose to stay with Ted. And Ted was being removed from the church so I think they assumed I would be. But when they started to refer to our sin and our restoration, I didn’t know why that would be. I don’t want to be prideful, all of us fail, but I was surprised that they saw us as one in that. My husband often points out that in the scripture it talks about Jesus numbering himself among the transgressors, and he says that’s what I did.

Can you talk about what your period of exile was like?

That was a very dark time in our lives, and I really felt that the separation from the church was as big a blow to me as the difficulties in our marriage. It really became worse because Ted and I were healing together and were working through the pain and processing what Ted had been going through and how it impacted me and our family. We were working through that together, and healing, but in being separated from the church, none of that processing could go on. So that just felt like a blow to everything I believed about the church and what it was there to do, and especially a church that we had dedicated 22 years of our lives to and felt like family. We could heal as a family, but couldn’t heal with the members of the church we thought of as an extended family.

Do you feel differently about the church as a result of all this?

One of the reasons I wrote the book was to challenge the church to be the church. I deeply love the church and what it exists to be, but we as the church have failed, on many levels, in representing Jesus and what the gospel exists to do. I love the church more deeply than ever having experienced being separated from it. And I have to be careful because I’m talking about the church at large, the church universal, not just the church I was part of. But I value the church that Jesus put in place and what it exists to do, which is to bring forgiveness and love to the people who need it most, and compassion. And I felt that that is something that I want to be a part of in the future and hope to challenge the church to do in the future, because that wasn’t what we felt we received from the church in our difficult hour.

After the scandal, pastor Mark Driscoll implied that wives were responsible for husbands’ indiscretions. Was that a response you came across much?

You know, I did hear about that comment and I understand that he apologized profusely for it afterwards, because many people attacked him for that kind of thinking. I am sure that there are some who think like that. I didn’t. In the privacy of my husband’s and my marriage, I wanted to know, was I not enough? I think that’s common to most women who experience unfaithfulness in their marriages. It’s part of the process, you look inward and think, where did I fail?

I think it’s a healthy question to ask, but I don’t think it would have been a healthy question to dwell on, like it’s all about me, because clearly my husband had gotten trapped in something that was harmful to him and our marriage. So he bore that responsibility and made it clear to me that he bore it, and that it had nothing to do with me not being enough and him not being attracted to me. He felt as if it was another matter altogether that he had to deal with.

Can you discuss the almost witch-hunt atmosphere at New Life after the scandal?

I think what happened was there was a lot of confusion and we were separated from the church, so there was an onslaught of misinformation and rumors—not just from the church, but from the outside as well. So I think that people were reacting with fear instead of doing those simple things that Jesus teaches us to do. And that led to all kinds of suspicion.

Talk about your objections to descriptions of Pastor Ted’s work as anti-gay.

Anyone who was a member of New Life Church knows that Ted was never a hateful, anti-gay preacher. He did teach the scriptures and the scriptures do talk about homosexuality in the same paragraph as it’s talking about lying, stealing, pride, or anything that the Scriptures say is not God’s design for us.*

I have to be very careful here, because I have gained some knowledge in understanding how our human condition impacts all of us, but Ted was never hateful in his approach and always welcomed people into the church regardless of what their struggles were, whether they were sexually related, or other issues, he welcomed them in and said that our goal as a church is to encourage people in their relationship with God. So he never turned people away and always was open to everyone. And as is evident in his own struggle—he still believed he belonged in the body of Christ.

In the book, you talk about acquaintances and even friendships you made with people in gay and lesbian community, including a classmate at the University of Phoenix. Did this change your thinking in any way?

Not at all. The reason I tell that story is that prior to our—to the scandal—I describe the church and Ted’s teaching as being as merciful and compassionate as we knew how to be. But in the process of our scandal I discovered that we didn’t know what it felt like to be the person who felt rejected, who felt like they so desperately needed compassion.

So when I described that situation, to my classmate and friend who was a lesbian and I talk about us sharing together I realized I didn’t view the relationship so much as that I had to share my faith with her, but I felt like we were a “we.” We were friends and people together on our journey and we could share freely our experiences.

Talk about your sense that Ted’s “sin” was “too repulsive” for some of his church friends to forgive, and what that says about the place for gays and lesbians in the evangelical community.

That was never communicated outright, although I do think that that had to have been a factor and that there are those I think in the Christian community who separate that out as being a more repulsive sin than others. I think that that’s true in our society as well, but I do think that we need to get a better perspective on the human condition and why people are the way they are and be more understanding and compassionate of people and what they’re up against in their lives, and not add to their burden.

What feedback have you gotten from the gay community about the book linking homosexuality to childhood abuse?

We have had some negative responses to the descriptions that Ted has given of his own unique experiences of being sexually abused as a child and how that impacted him in terms of giving him unwanted, intrusive thoughts. That’s not true of everyone who identifies themselves as being homosexual, but it is true of his journey and it’s his story. Some do not support him in that, because they felt that he’s saying that that’s a link for all people. He’s not, he’s saying that this is what happened to me. Certainly not everyone who’s been abused has the same response, but this was Ted’s story and certainly it’s been played out in enough people that it’s not an unusual story either. That’s not true of every person who is homosexual or who was abused, but it’s what Ted was able to put together with his counselors.

But is there a specific response to people who would see that association as anti-gay?

Well, we never saw his work as anti-gay. I understand that some would see his work that way because he taught the scriptures that homosexuality isn’t God’s best for us. But I always have to throw in that we also teach that God is understanding of our human condition and it’s no different than someone who struggles in other areas of our life: like pride, in my case, I think that’s something that I have to struggle with. The scriptures say we’ve all sinned and are all short of the glory of God. So in that context, that’s how we viewed homosexuality.

But certainly we also know that all of us have to deal with our human condition, and that’s how we viewed what Ted went through. He had to face that: this is my human condition. Not that he’s gay, because he doesn’t feel that’s accurate. And many in the gay community would affirm that. Because they don’t feel as though what he described or went through is their experience with homosexuality. And we’ve received many letters of encouragement from the gay community [which has] encouraged us to stay with our story of not categorizing people and letting people have more to say about their own identity and who they feel they are and their own story.

That’s all Ted is doing, is saying this is where it crossed over in his life. He still feels as if he is primarily heterosexual, and that’s [how he has] identified his whole life, but he was having these tormenting thoughts that led to temptation, and he acted out on it on a few occasions, and had some encounters and that’s what led to our scandal. But he feels as though he had to find out why that was going on inside of him and that led to his childhood trauma which led to his compulsion.

The people who are writing and encouraging you are gay or people who are trying not to be?

No, they are people who are gay. I have a beautiful letter here—I have boxfuls of letters. The most thoughtful letters I have received have been from gay men who have just kind of cheered me on in being loving and compassionate towards my husband and trying to be understanding and not falling for all of the categories, and feeling as though it’s a more complex issue.

This letter here is from a woman who identifies herself as being a gay rights activist. And she says things to me like [responding to an interview on Oprah], “Gayle, when you spoke about the choice to not act on compulsions, you were speaking the truth. Our compulsions do not define us. We are defined by how we live, what we believe and what we care about.”

And then she talks about her own life, and goes on to say, “Gayle, you are a hero to me, even though I’m not a Christian. I can see clearly that you both are moving towards the real and true nature of living with grace.” And she also says, “If you were not a gay man, even if you’ve acted on compulsions at times, then you do not need to let the addictive compulsions of being attracted to gay sex define you. After 17 years of marriage and studying, I have learned a great deal about sexuality,” and she goes on about the different experiences people have, “and that’s not the same as being gay. It never has been, it never will be.”

I did an interview with Rosie O’Donnell, and she said it’s a disservice to the gay community for people to keep labeling Ted as gay. Because clearly he is not.

And so it’s people who are trying to let Ted identify his story and who he is, as well as hope that they will be respected when they describe themselves and the identity they describe as theirs. What I think is that we need to respect every individual, and be compassionate of everyone’s story.

If you and Ted were to pastor a church in the future, how would gays and lesbians find the experience there?

We would continue to teach the scriptures from time to time when they come up—and this isn’t the main message of the church by any means—but when the subject comes up we would teach the scriptures that this isn’t God’s best. But we want to teach people on the journey of God, and recognize that this is a journey. And be supportive and not separate people out but be loving and kind and compassionate of people’s human conditions and that’s where I think I’ve grown more compassionate in really not wanting to judge anyone, but wanting to encourage people in their journey in God.

Would part of the counseling include programs or recommendations for people to stop acting on gay attractions?

Ted always says, read your Bible and see what it speaks to you, and we will help you on your journey in God. And if people come to us and ask us and say I don’t want to continue on in this lifestyle, or I am battling these compulsive thoughts, then we would encourage them to get into counseling, and to do what they can to try to deal with the situation. We understand how difficult that is for many people, so we’re not going to exclude them, we’re going to try to be as supportive as we can. Just as we would for anyone who was struggling in any area of their lives. I think we just can’t single out homosexuality as we have in the past.

Do you still have plans for the church for exiled Christians?

At this point, we have not committed to starting another church, we just see it as a possibility. But we may. And if we do, anyone would be welcome, so if people feel that they haven’t fit in other places and they fit with us, we would welcome them. I think the scripture that keeps coming to mind for me is where Jesus says, “come unto me all ye who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. I will give you rest for your souls.” I think that’s what I would want to represent in our church, if we should have one.

Any other next steps?

Right now, Ted and I are traveling to churches and speaking on weekends. Our goal is to share our story of forgiveness and grace, and we’re getting invitations daily. All kinds of churches: different denominations, independent churches, all sizes. As people are beginning to hear our story and realizing that it resonates with the gospel, they’re wanting us to come and share with our churches.

*There are many “scriptural” views on homosexuality. For an alternative reading go here.