Colorado Springs, CO –- As Pastor Ted Haggard embraced me a broad smile stretched across his face. With a New Year blessing he welcomed me to his recently founded fellowship, St. James Church. Conversation amidst the nearly three-hundred parishioners was filling the cafeteria at Timberview Middle School as Haggard and his wife Gayle greeted everyone before beginning the service. As I took a seat next to my fiancé Megan, and our friends, Jon and Kona, a young man climbed behind a keyboard and began leading the congregation through a series of worship songs. Soon Pastor Haggard took the reigns, calling on a family to bring their newborn to the stage so he could dedicate the child to God with a prayer.
Following the dedication, a disconcerting bit of financial manipulation unfolded: Haggard began a prayer addressing a monetary offering that each person in attendance was encouraged to give to one another.
“Let us invest in each other in a practical way. Our money symbolizes our time, our talent, our energy –all those things. So Lord, when we give to one another we demonstrate that we want to invest in them.” Prayed Haggard. Once done, Locking eyes with Jon, Haggard briskly marched towards him. Resting a hand on Jon’s right shoulder, He palmed seven dollars into his hand. As Jon attempted to wrap his mind around this unforeseen transaction, Kona retrieved a dollar out of her wallet, one that in protest to the 1957 addition of “In God We Trust” she had scratched out ‘God’ and written ‘Science’, and returned the favor to Mr. Haggard. The congregation followed. Holding out a half-closed hand at bellybutton height like a couple hundred valet parking attendants tipping each other, everyone began passing the buck. As they embraced one another, they embraced the investment process, believing participation could keep them from embarrassment and, after all, the cash would most likely comeback to them in the next handshake.
A few minutes after this charade everyone returned to their seats to wittiness the dedication of yet another baby. As the mental channels of family and reciprocal investment opened, Haggard called for one more offering. This time the congregation was to tithe the church under the condition that a large portion of the funds collected would go to a family whom the church deemed in need. At the end of the service the lucky family would be handed the cash. Considering that the flock had just been exchanging money with little loss, they willingly opened their wallets wider than before and placed their hard earned cash into the lottery of St. James Church. In light of all the “don’t tread on me” bumper stickers in the parking lot, I understood their ability to fall for the charms of a charismatic speaker. But even against the wills of the free market they so proudly champion? This mock-up of mutual investment raised speculation from all of us, was Haggard performing a social psychological experiment or trying to use his power to make cash at the only thing he knows how to do — run a fiscally lucrative church.
Expecting a sermon promptly after the tithe was collected, I was surprised yet again when Haggard revealed that today there isn’t going to be a sermon. Instead, Haggard passed 3 x 5 index cards out to the audience and requested that we write down any question on our minds that we would like to ask him or Gayle. “I mean it, anything. This is Saint James Church after all,” he remarked. Haggard explained that the congregation can help set the direction for St. James and that he wanted to set a precedence that this church is not going to be like a mega church but a place where people get access to their church elders, who are flawed humans like everyone else in the world. As each person in attendance, including yours truly, scrambled for the nearest pen, the Jeopardy theme song bellowed in the background.
Before his fall from grace Haggard was the founder and lead pastor of New Life Church, a 14,000-member mega church. He also was the president of the National Association of Evangelicals (The NAE consists of over 45,000 churches nation wide) giving him the helm over 30 million people.. As such he held weekly conversations with President Bush and was often seen rubbing elbows with Tony Blair and other key political players at the beginning of the new millennium. Known for championing anti-gay rhetoric, Haggard famously lost it all in 2006 when a male prostitute, Mike Jones, confessed to selling him methamphetamines as the two maintained an alleged three-year sexual relationship (Haggard claims the two never had sex, Jones only sold Haggard drugs on multiple occasions and “masterbated him” after a message.” After admitting that there is some truth to the allegations, New Life Church, a multimillion-dollar corporation, contractually asked Haggard to resign and the leave the ministry as well as the state of Colorado for a minimum of two years in exchange for one years severance pay (roughly $200,000).
Under the unrelenting scrutiny and scorn of the public, the Haggards spent the following three years struggling to find work and build a new life in Arizona. Most of the people they considered to be their family through Christ, turned their backs on them and joined the public in ridicule. The Haggards couldn’t go anywhere; whether at a job interview, Starbucks, even the Dollar Store, Ted was often recognized and mocked.
Ted and Gayle eventually both earned a masters in psychology through the University of Phoenix. Proceeding a two year media blackout, they returned to the limelight in Alexandra Pelosi’s (daughter of Nancy Pelosi) HBO documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard. The reappearance of Haggard was followed by a young member, Grant Haas, of Haggard’s old New Life congregation, coming forward with condemning audiotapes of Haggard. In the recordings Haggard is heard asking Haas to destroy all of the sexual texts he had sent to him along with a plea to keep silent and to forgive him for his sexual advances. These advances entailed Haggard taking the boy on a trip and climbing into his hotelroom bed while masterbating.
After what Haggard refers to as his “dark days wondering the desert,” he moved his family back to Colorado Springs. In June of 2010, despite the concern from a few of his children, he founded St. James. The first few St. James services were held in the Haggard’s barn. After moving to a couple different locations due to the unexpected interest, and increase of patrons coming to hear his “resurrected” philosophy, the congregation found themselves in the Timberview Middle School cafeteria.
The questions for the Haggards came from diverse ideologies. The first:
“Is president Obama the Antichrist?”
As the laughter subsided, Ted Haggard responded, “No. We’ve got to get out of thinking like that. For some reason evangelicals have made a horrible, horrible, mistake. We’ve allowed for there to be an increase in apocalyptic literature sales every single time there’s a democrat in the Whitehouse. It has not served us well. It’s just not smart. What that indicates is that if we think like that, we’re really stupid people. Stop buying into that stuff. Stop it. I mean it; STOP IT!”
He went on to praise the Obamas for the way they model family and to make a statement about he we need to bless them and pray for them — not curse them.
After a few ridiculous questions such as, “do cats go to heaven,” and “what’s your shoe size” some one asked, “I’m struggling with my sexuality, does that mean I can’t worship god?”
Gayle Haggard responded, “No, not at all.” She then went on stating that her and her husband believe the best way to express ones sexuality is in a heterosexual monogamous relationship, but that we’re all human, so we all make choices that following Jesus can help resolve.
Ted expanded, “We’re made in God’s image. We, means everyone. God loves people who are different from you and different from me. The great strength that should be of a born again believer, is that we know God loves people who are different from us. That’s why we should always be the ones extending the olive branch, always extending a hand of love, always extending redemption.”
“Why did God create the dinosaurs only to kill them all off?” The slant of this question seemed to be from a creationist perspective yearning for Haggard to dismiss dinosaurs as myth.
To our surprise after seeing his response to Richard Dawkins in The Root of all Evil,Haggard remarked, “Why do you think he destroyed them? We still have chickens, birds, and lizards. There is a process of natural law on the earth that’s going on. And we are somewhat responsible for a decline in the amount of species that live on the earth. Because we have dominion, we have a responsibility — just like you parents are given dominion over your children — to care and protect the earth. I personally don’t like that the politically liberal groups seem to own concern for the environment. I think all Christians should have a concern for the environment, because we know we’re living in God’s masterpiece. Don’t you agree? I don’t like the fact that Bible believing people, by and large, have accepted an apocalyptic view, which is, ‘it’s all going to burn up one day and that’s God’s plan, so why should we care about it?’ Thinking like this — it’s just not good. It’s like saying, ‘you’re going to get old and die someday anyway, so why don’t we just kill you.’” Haggard firmly asserted to his silent audience, “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Not really a question but a statement by a nonbeliever was posed: “I find it offensive that Christians think it’s their responsibility to use their faith to influence government.” Looking to my colleagues concerned that one of them may have posed such an inarticulate statement, I was relieved to find that it wasn’t one of us; it seems we’re not the only spectators in the church today.
Haggard’s response was to first condemn the idea of being personally offended. “Over the past forty years we’ve seen several political movements start over being offended. There are lots of things that are offensive, but being offended is a sign of weakness. So get over yourself.” He replied. Then perhaps the most surprising statement of the morning surfaced:
“We are all citizens and we all should influence the discussion. The lively debate is what protects our freedoms. Now, I think Christians should use their strengths to protect others that are not like us. Rather than saying, ‘we are the righteous ones,’ or ‘we are the moral ones.’ Are we really? I mean it, Really? No we’re not. But what we are, are the ones who can care for others. I remember back in the day when Martin Luther King Jr. was doing his work; the evangelicals hated him. Why did they hate him? Because he had a couple adulterous affairs.”
The audience shifting in their chairs. Some squinted in concern, others mumbled in agreement while others scanned the room in resentment. Haggard continued,“So what is more important: racial equality or the fact that MLK was unfaithful to his wife? See, I think we got the cart before the horse because we emphasized his moral condition rather than that he was the son of a Baptist minister, he worked his way –against the odds — through a PHD from Boston University, and spoke of how we should love one another rather than hurt one another, rather than destroy one another. He did a better job of encouraging people to be filled with the Holy Spirit than anyone from his generation. But we allowed the political process and our own bigotry to do the work, and our group ended up on the wrong side of that deal. I argue we (evangelicals) have allowed for this to happen many times. What we should be doing is making America a better place for everybody. We need to start thinking beyond those who feed us the party line.”
Haggard continued, “Now, I know some of you are going to say, ‘Ted has become a liberal.’ Well, perhaps I have. If liberalism means respect for human beings, if liberalism means equality, if liberalism means blacks get to eat in the same restaurant with whites, Hispanic people and Native people. I see many of you are nodding in agreement, but if I had said this back in the day in a born-again, Evangelical, Bible believing church, they would have run me out on a rail. I say we become the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Which means we don’t just fit into the normal stereotypes, but we think things through.
It also means that, in this constitutional republic that we’re in, if one of you is a conservative republican, which I am, and you believe in the free market and limited government and you want all those things and you can argue them, then you should. And then there is Nancy Pelosi.” (Derision and accusations of Pelosi being the Antichrist are voiced around the room.) “Pelosi goes to communion everyday. Her big scripture is Matthew 25, (when I was in prison you visited me. When I was naked you clothed me) and her basis for her liberal ideology is Biblical. So we say, these are different scriptures than the ones we emphasis. So what are we going to do with that? What are you going to do if you see Nancy in heaven? See, we make a mistake when we confuse faith and politics. So if you’re going to a school board meeting, go as a citizen. We don’t need to carry our Bibles. I’m not saying deny your faith. But because it’s in the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be reflected in law. For example all of the divorce laws are ungodly, but not one of us would want to have those laws removed.”
Haggard then went on to describe laws that are ungodly — but just. Interestingly, he chose to look at the history of marriage equality in regards to race, hinting at civil unions for gays yet not coming out with it.
Gayle wrapped up the service with a bit about the necessity of forgiveness. As the service was coming to its end the Haggards called on a family to collect $2700 that was collected during the tithe. The family wasn’t present, but another family close to them was and offered to take the money to them. Haggard, turned to the audience, “Ok. I have a suggestion. This week I found a trailer to haul all of the church equipment in. I already purchased it from a man who made me a deal allowing payments to be made on it. How does everyone feel if I put this money towards paying the generous man who sold me the trailer so he doesn’t have to be put out for St. James church?” Before really giving the audience time to digest Haggard asked, “do you agree?” everyone shouted Amen in agreement. Haggard smiled, “Thank you and God bless. Now if you could bring your chairs towards the back of the room we can make room for the tables so we can all dine together.”
After placing my chair against the back wall I approached Haggard to ask a few questions. He was reticent at first, but then, as we spoke he changed his tone and invited me to his house for the Broncos game and the men’s group later that night. Informing him that we had plans in Denver in a few hours, he granted me a few questions. We talked about the freedom that he has been granted since his fall from grace.
Haggard explained, “Oh, yeah. No comparison. I feel so much more freedom with what I say and how I live my life for God than ever before. In fact, I feel closer to Jesus than ever before and believe that my life is affirmation that he lives.”
Gayle Haggard was also kind enough to chat with me a bit about forgiveness and to give me a copy of her book, Why I Stayed. While Gayle and I were conversing, Megan approached Ted about marriage equality. As Haggard was trying to convince Megan that he has been for civil unions and equal legal rights for gays since the nineties, I entered the conversation. Megan and I, not ignoring his hypocritical and bigoted past, expressed our remorse for what his family went through in regards to the condemnation from the public and predominantly the so called believers.
Ted Haggard giving Richard Dawkins the Christian side-hug
“What it is, is that they (evangelicals) get into a mindset where they just aren’t thinking.” stated Haggard. “They just start to become robots. That’s what we’re crusading against here.” He thanked us again and restated that he would be glad to talk to me at his home and that we should at least stay for the meal about to commence. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to do so, but with his arm around me in a Christian side-hug, Ted Haggard thanked us again for coming and welcomed us back anytime.
New Year, New Beginning?
Seeing Ted Haggard speak in 2011 is like watching old Liberachi or Freddy Mercury videos and wondering how people ever mistook them for straight. It’s not that he’s necessarily gay, it’s that when watching his past sermons, what he was trying to keep from the audience is retrospectively obvious. Whenever he spoke about homosexuality in his sermons, or “sneaking out at night,” he wasn’t actually addressing the people who he was preaching to — he was preaching to Ted Haggard.Now those uncomfortable moments of self-reflection surface through self-deprecating humor. Haggard has taken to joking about his past scandal as a setup for how forgiving Christ is. However, what’s become searingly obvious to anyone paying attention is that public ridicule and abandonment are what caused Haggard to partially understand a portion of the struggles facing everyday people. It’s his fall that helped him see his own bigotry. It took Haggard getting a taste of the hell he helped create to deliver him from Evangelical Christianity and lead him towards his new, more Emergent, theological position. Even with his new interpretation of Christianity, Haggard will doubtfully admit that he’s a shinning example of how God is created by man and such creations are slaves to ones experiences. And although he does admit that as sexuality unfolds on a spectrum, he’s not exactly straight, Haggard still refuses to admit that being at least slightly gay, is part of human nature. Haggard’s cognitive dissonance is stunning.
In The Trials of Ted Haggard, he states, “I don’t know if I’m gay, but I know I’m an evangelical.” To hold a dogmatic belief that caused him to live a secret life, and then to proclaim that exposure of his natural desire is what cured him from that very desire, is boggling to those who don’t try to put their life inside a box created from something as discrepant and flawed as the Bible. Haggard’s belief in Jesus is what damned him and yet what he claims saved him. All in all, the jury is out. Only time will tell if he’s genuine and has really had a change of heart. Demonstrating that it’s all in how one interprets Christianity, and that the majority of Christians get it wrong most of the time, doesn’t make a strong case for the creditability of Christianity. What it does, however, is show that the only way Christianity can retain any sense of integrity is to adapt its mythology and philosophy to the more thoughtful and just moral philosophies present in the educated secular world. And again, what that proves is the uselessness of this more-often-than-not unjust and oppressive faith, unless of course, you want to make a buck.
For more on the Haggard’s return to the pulpit checkout the 1hr documentary, Ted Haggard: Scandalous, airing on TLC January 16th, 2011.