Recovering From Rejection: The Second Coming of Ted Haggard

Pastor Ted stands astride two hay bales triumphant and seemingly oblivious to the frigid night air inside the Haggard family barn, where 75 people have gathered for a prayer service.

Dressed in jeans and a favorite gray NYC sweatshirt, Haggard launches into a Borscht Belt routine for evangelicals that plays to raucous laughter. He wisecracks that God’s preoccupation with keeping tabs on Barack Obama may delay immediate answers to their prayers. A joke about the biblical significance of preaching in ramshackle sheds glides effortlessly into tonight’s homily from Acts 28:17, in which Paul, exonerated, returns to Jerusalem from Rome to persuade the Jews that the Messiah has indeed come.

In Haggard’s reading, he is Paul: not guilty as charged by the authorities, and preaching true redemption to the skeptics. His exegesis simultaneously taps into evangelical anxieties about persecution and lambastes its harsh authoritarianism, a foil for the self-styled apostle banished from his secular and spiritual kingdom for committing modern American evangelicalism’s cardinal sin of homosexuality.

The teachings of Paul play a starring role in Haggard’s personal and professional resurrection following the 2006 sex and drugs scandal that led to his abrupt resignation from the twin pulpits of conservative religious power: New Life Church in Colorado Springs and the National Association of Evangelicals and an unceremonious exile to Phoenix, Arizona.

Haggard fancies himself the rebel bucking authority, and bringing Christ’s true message to the masses. “I’m gonna be like Paul,” he tells me, relishing his new itinerant role. “This is insanity but I’m gonna to do it.”

The fallen pastor’s own Road to Damascus is taking place just off Interquest Parkway in Colorado Springs, a city referred to as the Jerusalem of evangelicalism.

Meet Ted Haggard 2.0

“I’m going to teach the Scripture,” Haggard tells me in his living room two days before the service. “But I’m going to teach it first person singular. I’m going to tell you how God has worked in my life and you can work it out with my story with the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit and how God’s going to walk you through your life. But I’m not going to tell you what God thinks. You have to determine that on your own.”

Haggard’s weekly Oval Office phone calls and grip and grin NAE photo ops with former President George W. Bush are now mere vestiges of an old life, prior to what he calls the “crisis.” At New Life, which Jeff Sharlet described as “not just a battalion of spiritual warriors but a factory for ideas to arm them,” worship services were extravagant multimedia, fog machine-choked productions, in which Haggard used his pulpit to wage spiritual war against satanic forces, including the demon of homosexuality. “It would be devastating for the children of our nation and for the future of Western civilization,” he told Christianity Today in 2005, “for us to say that homosexual unions or lesbian unions or any alteration of that has the moral equivalence of a heterosexual, monogamous marriage.”

At the pinnacle of Haggard’s power, he moved seamlessly between the firebrand populism of evangelical believers and the institutional halls of fundamentalist realpolitik. Now, from his rustic pulpit (not unlike the basement from which he launched New Life, or, perhaps, an intentional manger), Pastor Ted weaves a personal metaphorical tale of running afoul of the authoritarian religious leadership to which he once belonged.

“We don’t really know you but we know you’re bad,” Haggard preaches from atop the hay bales as he awkwardly tries to weave a reference to the authorities who banished him New Life.

“The Kingdom of Earth is bound by rules,” he declares from his New Living Translation Bible. “There is no forgiveness in the Kingdom of Earth. The only hope is for the Kingdom of Heaven to invade the Earth.”

The cracker barrel-styled reading of Acts—and of I Corinthians 13 at the prayer meeting the week before where 150 people reportedly swarmed his house—are emblematic of Pastor Ted’s uncanny, Zelig-like talent for reflecting the emerging Christian Right zeitgeist of the moment. In the mid-1980s, the so-called Charismatic and Pentecostal “shift in gravity” from the Deep South westward had much less to do with a random vision to build a church in Colorado Springs than the rapid population boom fueled by cheap land that would lead to a new free market Christianity political power base in the Western United States.

In less than a decade, Haggard built one of the most influential megachurches in the nation.

Not Everybody Loves a Comeback Story

Today, Haggard and his wife Gayle jet set nearly every weekend to speak at emergent churches across the nation with a well-worn script about forgiveness and redemption.

“Out of Hebrews I know I am forgiven past, present and future,” he tells me during our living-room chat. “Out of John, I know that anyone who says he has no sin is a liar. Out of some of the other Scriptures, I know I am cleansed. I know I am a new creation. I know my mind is renewed.”

Haggard’s new role makes some of his fellow travelers very unhappy.

H.B. London, the dour head of pastoral ministries at Focus on the Family, denounced the prayer services in the press, in a widely-circulated email, and on his blog. London reportedly told the Religious News Service of Haggard’s plans to hold prayer services, “When you think of the ethics of that, it, to me, just defies explanation.”

Not to be left out of the media feeding frenzy, other high-profile pastors in the conservative evangelical Christian community quickly piled on.

C. Peter Wagner, who co-founded the World Prayer Center with Haggard and is well known for the exorcism-obsessed New Apostolic Reformation movement, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that Haggard is deceiving himself and that he’s not fit to preach. “He must have someone confirm him in the body of Christ” before he can preach again, Wagner said.

Former Foursquare pastor Jack Hayford, another NAR bigwig and member of Haggard’s now-disbanded restoration team, and Gary Black of Rock the Nation youth ministry echoed the tightly-scripted public excoriations about the incomplete apostolic protocol. Said Black, “I would be shocked to think he’s ready to lead a church.”

After the public humiliation of the “crisis,” attacks by his former peers continue to sting. Haggard shifts uncomfortably in a plaid recliner and repeatedly points to London’s email for emphasis as we talk in his living room.

“I don’t believe I will ever be forgiven by the modern day Pharisees,” said Haggard not only because he broke the rules but that he refuses to disappear from public view. “Redemption can never come to the sinner. I’m going on with my faith walk and they despise me because of it.”

Haggard’s tenuous relationship with fellow Colorado Springs evangelical kingpin James Dobson of Focus on the Family is fairly legendary and well documented. What’s new is the startlingly provocative description of his former compatriots as authority- and rules-fixated Pharisees—a notion that also reinforces his own disquieting personal portrayal of himself as a modern-day apostle, a notion no doubt borrowed in part from New Apostolic teachings.

From Master of the Universe to Castaway

While the fundamentalist helm comes unglued over the prospect of a new Haggard ministry (and a new book deal he’s currently negotiating) there is the potential that it could seriously backfire. Vilify him too viciously and too personally without a carefully crafted patina of Christian charity and they risk being perceived by the flock as self-righteous. Haggard’s own spectacular self-destruction offers an important cautionary tale for those who traffic in intolerant fundamentalist morality when their own human frailties are revealed.

Ignore him and the rules-based authoritarian cottage industry comes undone. The era of fallen pastors, like Jimmy Swaggert, slinking off to obscurity, appear to be over. Now disgraced right-wing authoritarians appear on Dancing with the Stars, where corrupt former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay cha-cha’d his way into the hearts and minds of American TV viewers. Haggard seems to be testing these new limits with a carefully crafted rebellion against the rule makers.

Haggard’s theological world view is as ultra-conservative as theirs, but he has studiously avoided the public persona of the scolding fundamentalist preacher stereotype.

He talks now of modeling his prayer sessions on the glory days of Billy Graham and Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright before the evangelical movement took on the oppressive moralism of the 1980s and ’90s when Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson and their media empires came to power.

“When religion became politicized it became dualistic in thinking,” he explains. “Right-wrong. Good-bad. So rather than it being a gospel of good news and rescue, it became a finger-pointing gospel of judgment.”

“If I have the opportunity I will return evangelicalism back to its Christ message rather than its judgment message,” Haggard vows, now that he has been a victim of said judgment. “This is all going to work out and it’s going to embarrass the people who have been hateful and judgmental because the facts of my crisis are not that bad.”

It’s that sense of pretzel logic that is most confounding when Haggard talks about judgments. In terms of his “crisis,” he won’t cop to being gay—just “sexually complex.”

Yet, Haggard clings to the fundamentalist perspective of homosexuality as sin while claiming that he was never an anti-gay preacher. Then, in the same breath he admits to supporting civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. But as a pastor, he wouldn’t bless one. It’s not a position that is likely to score him many liberal or conservative points.

Haggard credits his therapists, The Trials of Ted Haggard director Alexandra Pelosi, Oprah, and the secular media with offering the compassion and respect his family needed to rebuild their lives.

“I don’t hear from the Rick Warrens or the James Dobsons,” confided Haggard. “The Chuck Smiths or the Chuck Colsons. I don’t hear from the TBNs or the Daystars. Or the denominational leaders.”

“My therapy for the past two and a half years has been recovering from rejection by the church.”

It remains to be seen whether Haggard’s new anti-authority message merged with his patented soft-sell evangelical vibe can spark a rebellion against the old guard. But like Paul, Pastor Ted does not see himself as a quiet exile.