Preacher-turned-pariah tells of his two years in the wilderness

Sat, Jan 31, 2009, 00:00

AMERICA: Disgraced evangelical pastor Ted Haggard tells his side of the story in a new documentary

PASTOR TED Haggard’s fall from grace two years ago thrilled the hearts of many American liberals, who saw it as a perfect morality tale featuring sex, drugs and Evangelical Christian hypocrisy.

As the founder of New Life, a mega-church in Colorado Springs and president of the 30-million-strong National Association of Evangelicals, Haggard was a regular presence on television and a frequent visitor to George Bush’s White House.

In November 2006, however, Haggard admitted that he had been a client of Mike Jones, a Denver male prostitute who also supplied the pastor, who was married with five children, with crystal methamphetamine. He lost his ministry, was ostracised by the national evangelical leadership and sent for “spiritual counselling” before disappearing from public view.

Haggard’s horsy grin was back on American television this week as he promoted a new HBO documentary about what happened to him after the scandal.

Produced by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, The Trials of Ted Haggard shows the pastor and his family moving from town to town in a mostly fruitless search for work after his church banished him from the state of Colorado.

Haggard’s exile was one of the conditions attached to a $100,000 payoff from New Life, which also ordered him to stay away from the media for two years and not to return to preaching.

Watching the pastor, his wife Gayle and their two school-age sons driving from place to place, their possessions piled into a U-Haul trailer, it’s difficult not to feel sympathy for the family and for Haggard himself, reviled from all sides. His old friends in the Christian community shunned him after the scandal as gay activists denounced him for refusing to declare that he was gay.

Haggard acknowledges that he still has sexual feelings for men but he insists that he is not gay, describing himself instead as “a heterosexual with issues”. He still believes that the Bible teaches that sex should only be between a married man and his wife but he understands why gays would like him to come out of the closet.

“I’m sympathetic with that perspective and certainly in this process, I’ve become more kind and understanding and sympathetic to those needs,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

“I think where I am is I can be an advocate with the gay and the heterosexual community on the fact that people need to openly discuss their sexuality and be very honest with it. My shame that kept me from discussing it and being open about it, and then becoming deceptive about it, was what led to such horrific pain. And I am so sorry for the silence that I had that resulted in duplicity.”

Haggard’s wife says she knew about his sexual complexity before the scandal but she defends her decision to stay with her husband, saying simply, “I love him”. For his children, the pastor’s fall came almost as a relief after years of seeing their father placed upon a pedestal. For much of the past two years, the family has moved from town to town in Arizona, staying in cheap hotels or in the homes of strangers as Haggard tries to find someone who will employ him.

“I’ll get the job if they don’t Google me,” he tells Pelosi after one interview.

Haggard finally finds work selling health insurance door to door on a commission-only basis but after the first week, he has sold nothing.

Last summer, New Life allowed the family to return to Colorado Springs, although Haggard says he has no plans to return to the ministry. Days before the documentary was broadcast this week, a young man who used to work at Haggard’s church said that New Life had paid him $180,000 to keep quiet about a sexual encounter with the pastor. Haggard refuses to talk about how many other gay relationships he had, although he told Oprah Winfrey that the old feelings that got him into trouble have not gone away.

“But they’re not compulsive any more, and I do have temptations, but they’re not compulsive,” he said.

The story of Haggard’s two years in the wilderness may soften the hearts of some of his critics but his experience is unlikely to encourage other religious figures to be more open about their sexuality.

“The reason I kept my personal struggle a secret is because I feared that my friends would reject me and abandon me . . . and the church would exile me and excommunicate me,” he says. “And that happened. And more.”