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Kevin Roose on Ted Haggard

As I’m sure everybody knows by now Kevin Roose interviewed Ted Haggard and wrote a substantial piece about it for GQ Magazine [link], and Sarah Pulliam Bailey has written a pretty good summary at GetReligion [link]. Bailey correctly points out that Roose has done good work here in going back and filling in some gaps in our understanding of what exactly caused Haggard to leave New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

Let me say first of all that even though Haggard was head of the National Association of Evangelicals he didn’t mean much to me as an evangelical. This is something that folks in the media don’t seem to understand about evangelicals: we tend to get our themes and talking points top-down, but we don’t follow our so-called leaders in a way that fits the popular political narrative. But that’s another topic for another day. Instead, I had heard of Haggard in an episode of This American Life [link], and I’d seen his bizarre appearance in the already bizarre documentary Jesus Camp. It wasn’t entirely clear to me from those media appearances that Haggard was actually a Christian, much less an evangelical. In retrospect I’m willing to chalk that up to editing, narrative restrictions, etc.

But when Haggard left New Life I felt I’d seen that particular movie before, because the plot seemed so familiar:

  • Pastor gets caught up in scandal that’s distasteful enough that nobody will actually say what he did
  • Church leaders fire pastor; important aspects of severance agreement are undisclosed
  • Many rumors rush into information vacuum; various stories fail to completely line up
  • Former pastor, church leaders repeatedly claim the other side is misrepresenting him/them
  • Church broadly divides into four camps: loyalists to each side, the don’t-cares, and the disillusioned
  • Two camps stay, two camps go
  • Pastor re-enters the ministry, possibly with a triumphant return to his old church
  • Both the former pastor and his former church soldier on with mixed success

We definitely got most of this basic template in this story, especially when Gayle Haggard resurfaced with her book and Ted appeared to contradict some of the established story, saying that he never did some of the things the leaders at New Life said he did. I don’t know where you saw this, but I saw some of it at Phoenix Preacher [link], see also [link]; unfortunately Haggard’s appearance and comments are no longer available, having as best I can tell been archived with the old Phoenix Preacher site.

The facts of the story, as best I can tell, go like this: Haggard was in Denver and asked his hotel concierge to recommend someone who could give him a massage. The concierge recommended Mike Jones, who turned out to be a prostitute and drug dealer. Haggard purchased drugs from Jones on a handful of occasions, as well as receiving one or more massages from Jones that were not strictly speaking therapeutic massages. Haggard also took  crystal meth.

As best I can tell Haggard and his wife are aggrieved at his dismissal by the church leaders. It has never been clear to me what the Haggards expected was going to happen when his behavior came to light. He never actually says that he expected to be retained at full salary as pastor while having sexual encounters with both his wife and at least one man and at the same time experimenting with hard drugs, but I can’t figure how else to interpret his actions and comments over the last several years.

Roose focuses more on the sexual side of this story than he does on say the drug issue or the church organization issue. This isn’t surprising; Roose is at some level aiming for a gripping read rather than doing a longitudinal study, or whatever. And he took a somewhat similar tack in his book about Liberty University. I’m left with the impression, however, that Haggard isn’t actively addicted to crystal meth: this many years of heavy use would have damaged his smile, for example, and Roose notes that while rectangular Haggard’s smile is apparently intact.

I am personally more interested in the church organization issues surrounding the Haggard story. I can’t figure how a man with as many responsibilities as Haggard must have had (dealing with both NAE and New Life matters) had enough unsupervised free time to carry on a relationship with a masseur in Denver when he lived in Colorado Springs, more than an hour away. I’m also a little surprised that he knew who to ask when he wanted a particular kind of massage, and didn’t have a church functionary/handler/flunky/whatever around to serve as a deterrent. There must be a lot about the lifestyle of a high-profile preacher I don’t understand.

But more than that, I’d be more interested in figuring out how to avoid people (preachers) like Haggard generally, and I’m not sure how much we can learn from this story that’s helpful. I mean, everyone is tempted to terrible sins, but not everyone succumbs. And there are lots of preachers who are in positions not very different from Haggard’s at New Life, and certainly not all of them feel entitled to boyfriends and recreational drugs, much less partake of either one. Surely there must be visible warning signs, and they can’t all be as remote from the final result as, say, Haggard’s fascination with “grid praying.”

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