Yes, Ted Haggard is a Hypocrite! But, So What?

Here we go again!

Ted Haggard, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals and rejected Colorado megachurch pastor, is once again apologizing for what he now refers to as an “inappropriate relationship” with a 22 year-old male volunteer at his church in 2006. You may remember Haggard as a former leader of the “moral” conservative machine who resigned two years ago when it was revealed that he would defend the sanctity of traditional marriage and attack the gay lifestyle in public only after having been oiled down by a male prostitute while smoking meth in private.

But despite his protestations and denials in late 2006, this latest news reveals that the New Life congregation was both aware, and attempted to cover up, Pastor Haggard’s indiscretions. The church agreed to pay money for college tuition and counseling for the young man, Grant Haas, in exchange for remaining silent about his relationship with Haggard. Though Haas originally agreed to the deal, he is now coming forward as a result of the HBO documentary airing this week, The Trials of Ted Haggard [look for an RD feature this week—ed], where Haggard presents himself as the victim of this whole tragic turn of events.

Now I have long argued that any news we receive about Ted Haggard’s private life should not come as a shock. Haggard’s is a tragic yet common tale. We are often the very things we despise. Politicians who champion the cause of “family values” are frequently those whose own households are cracked under the veneer of respectability. And the same male preachers who spew vitriolic, homophobic sermons from the pulpit are repeatedly the ones singing “It’s Raining Men” at the revival after-party. So to discover that Pastor Haggard’s pharisaical public posture was a sanctimonious smokescreen is not at all surprising.

What I am more concerned about is the response from persons on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. There is indeed a temptation among progressives to feel vindicated every time right-wing hypocrisy is revealed. Yet if we define a hypocrite as someone who professes beliefs, feelings or virtues that one does not actually hold, it is an inaccurate appellative. It is quite possible to be morally dubious and ethically inconsistent yet remain sincerely committed to a particular stance. The fact that Thomas Jefferson and Strom Thurmond enjoyed rolling around in the sack with African American women did not nullify their commitments to slavery and racial segregation, respectively. And just because George W. Bush and Dick Cheney effectively dodged military service did not mean that they were any less committed to other young men and women “staying the course” in Iraq.

But, more importantly, simply tagging folks like Haggard as hypocrites does little for the cause of justice, and even less toward uprooting the sort of cultural climate that creates such dissociative identities in the first place. Recent history has proven that for every right-wing career that has been destroyed by scandal there will be another bible-thumping, sexually repressed sycophant ready to emerge to exploit the anxieties of otherwise sincere Christians.

This is why progressives better remain committed to fighting Ted Haggard’s ideolog—as opposed to taunting his actions. Yes, we can hold him up as a modern-day Elmer Gantry, a poster-boy of religious insincerity. But we will do better by identifying, naming and seeking to heal the levels of self-hatred and insecurity among Christian (and other) communities that leads to xenophobic self-projection and demonization of minority groups and perspectives. For this is the fertile soil that cultivates Ted Haggard’s kind of religious demagoguery in America, a demagoguery that will prove much stronger than Haggard’s personal desire to live as a “saved and sanctified” heterosexual.

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