Friday, November 03, 2006

Ted Haggard, We Hardly Knew Ye.

I haven't had much to say about the allegations against Pastor Ted, the Colorado Springs religious right leader who has been accused of hiring a gay prostitute and doing crystal meth. Even though it's happening in my neck of the woods, I don't know anything that hasn't been reported in the national media. As things stand now, Haggard temporarily stepped down from his position as head of his church, has resigned his position as head of the National Evangelical Association, and has admitted to some of his fellow church leaders that at least some of the allegations are true. And while I'm all for reserving judgment on the accused until the facts come out, I've got the feeling that when the dust settles, all or nearly all of the allegations against him will have turned out to be true. Haggard is finished.

I first heard about Pastor Ted in a Harper's Magazine article I read last Summer. If anyone wants some background on who Haggard is, what he represents, and the kind of impact that he has on our political landscape, this is the article to start with. It's long but it's good. There is much that could be said about the highly commercialized and politicized phenomenon of the fundamentalist Megachurch, which Pastor Ted embodied, but I'll let the article speak for itself.

The author of that article, Jeff Sharlet, also has an interesting blog post about the new allegations. I'll reproduce some parts below:

Details are still coming in, but it seems a gay man in Denver named Mike Jones was watching TV recently when he saw one of his regular sex partners, whom he knew only as "Art," on the tube: Ted, welcome to celebrity.

I just talked to Jones on the phone. He's not vindictive, nor particularly political; he's voted for Republicans and Democrats. He struggled with his decision, out of compassion for a man in the closet. He was motivated, he said, simply by being a gay man who's been around long enough to know how Ted's politics play out in the ordinary lives of people Jones cares about. That's about as good a motive for outing someone as I've ever heard. This afternoon, Ted announced that he was temporarily stepping down from his positions of authority. A press conference of national evangelical figures that planned to express support for Ted has been called off. Jones has made available recordings he says are of Ted asking him to procure meth, and an envelope in which he says Ted mailed him money. [...]

If the story is true, Ted's a hypocrite of the worst kind; then again, he's also another victim of the very closet over which he publicly stands guard, as are all the New Life church members he's led into it. That story may not make the mainstream media. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Ted's downfall will be reported with any more nuance than that of Mark Foley's political collapse. Sex, it seems, blinds the press to politics. [...]

The downfall of Ted Haggard is not just another tale of hypocrisy, it's a parable of the paradoxes at the heart of American fundamentalism. I wrote about the role of sex in Ted's theology, but removed it from the final edit of the story (some of it I refashioned into a short essay on Christian Right's men's sex books for Nerve). I made the mistake of viewing Ted's sex and his religion of free market economics as separate spheres. The truth, I suspect, is that they're intimately bound in a worldview of "order," one to which it turns out even Ted cannot conform.

This, I think, is a critical point. Ted is hardly the only evangelical leader to be outed for scurrilous behavior (usually gay sex it seems) in recent times. It is almost a weekly event these days to hear about some pious fire-and-brimstone type being caught up in a massive scandal, in spite of the fact that were we to believe their own self-righteous proclamations, they should be the least likely people to commit such behavior. But commit it they do, and in spades.

It is therefore impossible not to conclude that there is something rotten in the heart of Christian fundamentalism. I could go on and on about the superstitions, tribalism, repressiveness, and belligerence that tend to exemplify the fundamentalist movement, but I see these as symptoms of a much deeper problem. What exactly that problem is I'm not sure, but I would dearly love it if for once -- just once -- the national media would at least recognize that there is a problem that needs explaining. I'm afraid, however, their kid glove treatment of religion will wall them off from even asking such questions, and instead Pastor Ted's transgressions will be regarded as just another juicy scandal, with the trifecta of sex, politics, and religion that the media love, and no one will ever bother to ask just what the hell is wrong with these people.

Update: You can watch snippets of an interview with Haggard and a lengthy interview with Jones here. I'll repeat what I said before: Haggard is finished. His excuses make no sense and his accuser appears to know all the right details. Watching Haggard squirm, seeing that pained look on his face that screams of guilt, I couldn't help but feel a strong wave of pity. I don't know if I should be happy that I have a sense of empathy or if I should smack myself back to reality. This guy has done more than his share of damage.

The sad truth is, just as this isn't the first time (or the second, or fifteenth) this has happened, it won't be the last either. The fundies will continue to blindly follow leaders who commit crimes and spit in the face of their own moral dictates. To the rest of us, they'll continue to look like demented, raging hypocrites. To them, the rest of us will continue to look like The Enemy. Not until they're finally made to account for themselves, somewhere within our national discourse, is this kind of thing going to change.