After the fall

Will the Haggard scandal usher in a new age of Christian tolerance or increase the religious right's homophobia?

Published November 7, 2006 1:15PM (EST)

At last night's evening worship at New Life Church, prayers continued for former pastor Ted Haggard. On Sunday morning, congregants had listened as a letter was read aloud in which Haggard confessed to being a "deceiver and liar" who had waged a lifelong struggle with "repulsive" homosexual urges. On Sunday night worshippers dabbed at their eyes and lifted their palms heavenward, pleading for God to forgive their fallen leader. But anyone who had been at the same Sunday night service a week earlier for what would turn out to be Haggard's final sermon would think they had heard something like biblical prophecy.

"Father, we pray that lies would be exposed. That deception would be exposed," he said during his final appearance in this massive sanctuary in the round. Haggard's prayers were answered quickly. Just days after his sermon, he was accused by a male escort, Mike Jones, of a three-year sexual relationship.

Even Haggard's choice of Bible passages on Oct. 29 foreshadowed his fall. From the Old Testament, he preached about God's rejection of Saul from Israel's throne. As Haggard told his flock, Saul was cast out for disobedience. "There are positions that God has for us in our life, but by our obedience or our disobedience we will fulfill the calling of that position ... And he may, depending on the level of disobedience, reject us personally."

Haggard then closed his sermon with a blinding smile. "Enjoy the candidates out front, and don't forget the amendment effort." He was referring both to the political candidates waiting outside the church to meet some of its 14,000 parishioners, and to Amendment 43, the initiative to ban gay marriage in Colorado. Haggard was a proponent -- and, it's rumored, an author -- of Amendment 43.

It's a dark irony that a political pitch about homosexuality was to be Haggard's final message to the church he founded two decades ago and built into one of the most powerful megachurches in the nation. Mike Jones says he came forward to expose the hypocrisy of the ginger-haired pastor, who was also the head of the National Association of Evangelicals and one of the most important conservative Christian leaders in the country. On many people's minds here is just how Haggard's admission will affect both Tuesday's election, locally and nationally, and future political battles. But the fallout of the Haggard scandal extends far beyond electoral politics. Equally in question is how the long standoff between evangelical and gay Americans will be affected by the revelation of one man's sexual identity. Will the Haggard scandal decrease tolerance in privately held beliefs and at the polls?

Richard Cizik, the vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who is known to uphold the compassionate side of "compassionate conservatism," sees the potential for positive change in the sexuality wars. He admits his optimism may seem counterintuitive coming out of such a negatively charged event. "Both communities," gay and conservative Christian, "are going to have to come to some mutual understandings that might help actually restore some of the broken fabric of this country. Maybe Ted Haggard can help us learn to do that.

"Evangelicals have to acknowledge that there are people in our own churches who struggle with this temptation. Including leaders. We all know Ted has struggled with this issue. That's shouldn't be a big surprise. The gay community resents it when we don't acknowledge it. And he did."

Cizik is quick to note that instead of carrying the standard-issue homophobic cross, Haggard broke from his evangelical brethren to oppose anti-sodomy laws and invite members of gay-friendly churches to speak and sing at his church, even though he spoke out against homosexuality as recently as last week. But neither Haggard, nor Cizik, nor any other prominent conservative Christian has suggested that it's time to rethink the notion that homosexuality is an abomination. Never is it seen as anything but sin, failure and rebellion against God. As Cizik notes, the response to Mike Jones may have been less vitriolic than some may have predicted, but it's still of the "love the sinner, hate the sin" variety, just as it has been for Ted Haggard in churches and Bible study classes across the country.

Haggard himself offered quite a mixed message. Since the scandal exploded on front pages across the nation, some people believe that his complicated example of tolerance mixed with homophobia may leave nothing but intolerance in its wake. Michael Cobb, the author of "God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence," thinks it will make evangelicals regard anything except withering disapproval of homosexuality as evidence of a personal secret. "If you demonstrate any symptoms of tolerance," says Cobb, "that might be pointing to something dark lurking in your history. It's all about suspicion. If Ted Haggard can be a homosexual, then everyone can. That's the whole message. And if you have a connection to someone who is queer, or even tolerate them, does that rub off on you?"

Cobb grew up in Colorado Springs. He remembers the tension between Haggard's "sinner loving and sin hating" back when the pastor was building a midsize church called New Life into today's juggernaut. In the early '90s, a constant flow of envelopes printed with the New Life logo would arrive in Cobb's mailbox, filled with tracts about the evils of homosexuality and the importance of the heterosexual nuclear family. "And yet," Cobb notes, "[Haggard] was more tolerant than other [evangelicals]. One could biographize that today. And people will."

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It's not Haggard, however, who gets to write the rhetoric of his sexual history. It's the nation's No. 1 homophobe, the godfather of the religious right, the tyrant against tolerance, James Dobson. Dobson's Focus on the Family campus lies just south of New Life Church off I-25, but his reach is global and his compassion for homosexuality is nil. During Sunday services at New Life, it was announced that Dobson, with a team of two pastors, would be overseeing Haggard's "therapeutic restoration."

Just as much as Dobson is certain that Christ is Lord, he believes that homosexuality can be cured, or as a Focus on the Family tract was titled, "There Is Hope for the Homosexual." Dobson has close ties to Exodus and NARTH, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, the two main policy and "research" groups behind the "ex-gay movement," which maintains that homosexuality is nothing more than an addictive behavior that can be treated with psychological assessment, reconditioning and prayer. As Connecticut pastor Stephen Bennett, a member of the ex-gay movement himself, explains, "Homosexuality by God's grace isn't an issue with myself anymore. Hopefully this man is going to get whatever help he needs, like I did."

Under Dobson's watch, Haggard's "problem" is one the religious right can surely solve with "restoration and rehabilitation," further suggesting to brothers and sisters in Christ that homosexuality is a cancer that must be eliminated by the radiation of faith. Haggard may even be just what the ex-gay movement was waiting for: a testimony of the highest order, a public figure guilty of chronic sin who can emerge cleansed of his desire, a paragon of sparkling heterosexuality. As Tanya Erdetz, author of "Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement," points out, "His story is perfect for the kind of evidence they like to present. Here's an example that this is merely a sin or an addiction, that he can emerge redeemed. You can overcome. This is just how they can be anti-gay and talk about themselves as being compassionate. It's a perfect opportunity." Michael Cobb points out that Dobson will get to prove through Haggard's "restoration" that the church is more necessary than ever before, that faith is the "technology of redemption," as he puts it. "They can show through Haggard that something actually happens. In some ways it's so scripted, so perfect."

This is exactly the message playing out in many of New Life's 1,300 cell group meetings this week, where people gather regularly in small numbers to stretch their faith on different themes, from "Prayer Shield for Prodigals" to "Exemplary Husband, Excellent Wife" and "Bowling for Blessings." Steve Glaeser leads a group called "Real Men," which he calls "a band of brothers here to encourage each other and hold each other accountable." His group studies a book called "Healing the Masculine Soul." Glaeser says that his group is praying to see their former leader "restored." He adds, "We believe that is possible only through Jesus. We believe there is a real devil, that there is evil, and that it can attack us. Each of us could potentially succumb to the same as Ted if we do not stay on course." Glaeser's message, like Dobson's message, is clear: Homosexuality is something for which there is no tolerance.

Prior to Haggard, one of the biggest evangelical sex scandals was Jimmy Swaggart's fall from grace. In 1988, the hugely influential televangelist was exposed for consorting with a prostitute. But among many Bible-believing Christians, Swaggart was a slick media presence, an icon of an age when the Bible was used as a key to open the bank accounts of gullible viewers across the country. Put simply, he was not the real deal. Not like Ted Haggard, driving a truck in high-riding jeans, accenting every sermon with self-deprecating humor, known to every member of his congregation -- and beyond -- as just plain "Ted." For the many Christians who consider Dobson to be the nations disciplinarian father, or Robertson to be the crazy uncle bankrolling the family, or Falwell the anachronistic grandpa making proclamations from his La-Z-Boy, and those prosperity ministers and faith healers on television to be the charlatan heirs to the house that Swaggart built, Haggard stood apart.

Yet Swaggart was also a heterosexual. In every major sexual scandal the evangelical church has seen, the sinning has included good, clean, baby-making hetero sex, even if it also involves adultery and prostitution. Not homosexuality. Not, as Dobson says "the promotion of perversion." In news conferences and at the pulpit yesterday, New Life Churchs board of overseers did not make a single mention of Haggard's cheating on his wife and paying for sex. Haggards "sexual immorality," his homosexuality, so overwhelms his other sexual transgressions -- such pedestrian boys-will-be-boys mistakes -- that it is the only thing for which he is being "treated." Dobson and his team will conduct an investigation of the former pastors "mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical life" as well as his computer and hard drive to plumb the homosexual depths of his mind. Evil is evil, and must be cast out of both the man and the kingdom.

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On Tuesday, Ted Haggard's friend and sometime attorney Doug Lamborn will run for Congress as a Republican from the district that includes Colorado Springs and New Life Church. It might well have been Haggard himself running for the seat. He had publicly flirted with the notion.

Yet Haggard was probably more powerful behind the scenes than any mere congressman. Haggard was instrumental in founding the Arlington Group, a conservative group in Washington that lobbies against gay marriage, and he was a regular voice on President Bushs Monday morning conference calls.

The combination of Haggard's political ties and personal combustion will likely not affect turnout locally or nationally, according to Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "People are not shocked anymore by hypocrisy." Nor does Sabato see the religious right shrinking from the American political field. "Religion is a constant theme in American life. It's always been a part of our politics. It always will be part of our politics."

Randall Balmer, author of "Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament," disagrees. He sees the Haggard scandal spinning out into larger disaffection with the religion right, even, perhaps as soon as Tuesday, when he suspects that many disgruntled rank-and-file evangelicals will sit out this election. Balmer says that the disaffection stems from the cult of personality that often drives evangelicalism. "A congregation like New Life galvanizes around a charismatic individual, and their whole understanding of faith is filtered through the oracle of the preacher," he says. "When something happens with him, then their confidence is shaken."

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, thinks the Haggard scandal has the potential to be a watershed in the evangelical community in the long run. "The religious right has got to think more about focusing on its internal family and less on regulation of everyone elses life and family through the political system," he says. "This event tends to focus your attention more on personal piety than political opportunism. I think over the next few years that is going to be a major debate within the evangelical community."

Meanwhile, Haggard's flock will decide Tuesday whether to show up at the polls, and whether to treat the voting booth as a civic prayer closet. Its hard for anyone here to imagine a last-minute change of heart about the gay-marriage ban. Local evangelicals will likely follow the example of their disgraced pastor -- a man who struggled to be everything he is not, a leader rejected like King Saul -- who announced proudly from the pulpit recently that he votes "a straight ticket."

By Lauren Sandler

Lauren Sandler is Salon's Life editor and the author of "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement."

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