After Ted Haggard's public meltdown, friends and colleagues had a lot of questions for me. "Were you surprised?" one evangelical asked. No, I said, nothing surprises me anymore, not when it concerns religious figures and sexual failings. When I heard about Haggard and watched his initial comments to reporters, I thought two things: 1. He's lying, and 2. These kinds of revelations just leave me numb. I've seen it all in the last few years, both in the news and in the church circles I travel—from Bishop Terry Hornbuckle's compulsive drugging and womanizing to the junk that goes on in the church on the corner. By that I mean the preachers who sit arrogantly beside wives who bear on their faces the pain of neglect and verbal abuse, the adulterous pastors who pimp their members and the women who specialize in affairs with ministers. I'm not making this up.
Here's one particularly pathetic page in my mental scrapbook: The small Oak Cliff congregation that confronted their pastor about his sexual immorality, and when they came to church one Sunday, he'd locked them out. That's right: The pastor had padlocked the church doors and locked out his own congregation.
"Why does it seem like ministers who come out strong against homosexuality or adultery always seem like they're involved in it themselves?" someone else asked. Now that's an interesting question, and from the public record, it seems like a high profile in the religious world and elephantine hypocrisy go hand in hand. But the truth is I know quite a few ministers, high-profile and otherwise, who take an uncompromising stand on moral issues yet not a hint of sexual scandal has ever touched them. Locally, you can look no further than Dr. Tony Evans of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship; Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter's House; televangelists James Robison and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. Those are just a few that spring to mind, folks with a reputation for personal integrity, even if one disagrees with their teachings (and in the case of the Copelands, many evangelicals do). Those few names, taken together, count followers and listeners in the millions. Of course there are many, many more pastors and Christian leaders who adhere to a high standard of integrity.
I could also tell you, as one who's been in ministry on a very small scale, that getting involved in people's spiritual lives will expose every flaw in your being. And when that happens--and it will happen, again and again and again--you have two choices: repent and deal with it honestly, or rationalize it away and end up becoming a hypocrite and a liar.
We saw Haggard, pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs and the respected president of the National Association of Evangelicals, run through all the stages of public death and dying in four days. It started last Wednesday when a male prostitute claimed Haggard had paid him for drug-stoked sex several times over the past three years. Haggard began his ordeal as a hypocrite and a liar and emerged from it by Sunday as a repentant, broken man. Actually, in a statement he wrote that was read to his church on Sunday, I believed we've witnessed a miracle for our time: true repentance, such as I've never seen before on such a public stage. Really, all I'd ever heard up until now was increasingly tortuous "I'm sorry, but's."
"I'm sorry, but...I'm not going to step down from this pulpit, because God put me in this position. Plus, I have such an important ministry, and so many lives have been touched, and this organization will die without me at the helm."
"I'm sorry, but...no one's perfect, I have failings like everyone else, and God has forgiven my divorce/adultery/whatever."
"I'm sorry, but...the media/the haters/Satan are all out to get me. They just want to bring down the prophet of God."
I watched Haggard's statement to reporters last Thursday, and it was an excruciating example of being a really bad liar. Believe it or not, Christians who have a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ are terrible at lying. They're not used to it, first of all, and their conscience tortures them. Watch Haggard's bizarre body language while he babbles on about never having met his accuser, not knowing any gay people in Denver and how he's never had a gay relationship before. You'll see him smile repeatedly at totally inappropriate times, like when he's describing how his church could fire him if he's caught in immorality. Now surely that's cause for mirth. I recognize that smile—it's the brittle church smile I remember so well from my childhood, that nauseating niceness, the mark of the Christian phony who slaps a pious veneer on every conversation.
I wrote to a friend in the media that Haggard needed to go home, lock the door, collect his thoughts, then tell his wife the whole truth. After that, his elders. Then it was time to button his jacket, straighten his tie and tell the world.
How did evangelicals get to the point where controlling their public image is so much more important than telling the truth? In 20 years as a reporter in secular media, I've found that conservative Christians are some of the more image-obsessed individuals I've encountered. Well, maybe they're not worse than your typical politician. But I guess that's the problem. They're pretty much the same. Every event, every perception must be managed to fit the illusion that they're paragons of happiness, humility and piety. Ask a Pentecostal who's obviously depressed how they're doing, and there's a fair chance they'll answer with a manically chirpy "I'm blessed!" Present some critical news about an evangelical figure and you'll be damned to perdition for daring to touch "God's anointed."
With so much emphasis on artifice and entertainment in the evangelical world, with positions, a publishing fortune and an enormous church membership roll at stake (not to mention a family), I must say I was blown away by Haggard's apology to his congregation. It is so remarkable, it is worth quoting at length. It was read to New Life Church on Sunday by one of the members of the board of overseers that fired Haggard as senior pastor. Here's how it began:
"I am so sorry. I am sorry for the disappointment, the betrayal, and the hurt. I am sorry for the horrible example I have set for you.
I have an overwhelming, all-consuming sadness in my heart for the pain that you and I and my family have experienced over the past few days. I am so sorry for the circumstances that have caused shame and embarrassment to all of you.
I asked that this note be read to you this morning so I could clarify my heart's condition to you. The last four days have been so difficult for me, my family and all of you, and I have further confused the situation with some of the things I've said during interviews with reporters who would catch me coming or going from my home. But I alone am responsible for the confusion caused by my inconsistent statements. The fact is, I am guilty of sexual immorality, and I take responsibility for the entire problem.
I am a deceiver and a liar. There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all of my adult life. For extended periods of time, I would enjoy victory and rejoice in freedom. Then, from time to time, the dirt that I thought was gone would resurface, and I would find myself thinking thoughts and experiencing desires that were contrary to everything I believe and teach.
Through the years, I've sought assistance in a variety of ways, with none of them proving to be effective in me. Then, because of pride, I began deceiving those I love the most because I didn't want to hurt or disappoint them.
The public person I was wasn't a lie; it was just incomplete. When I stopped communicating about my problems, the darkness increased and finally dominated me. As a result, I did things that were contrary to everything I believe.
The accusations that have been leveled against me are not all true, but enough of them are true that I have been appropriately and lovingly removed from ministry. Our church's overseers have required me to submit to the oversight of Dr. James Dobson, Pastor Jack Hayford, and Pastor Tommy Barnett. Those men will perform a thorough analysis of my mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical life. They will guide me through a program with the goal of healing and restoration for my life, my marriage, and my family.
I created this entire situation. The things that I did opened the door for additional allegations. But I am responsible; I alone need to be disciplined and corrected. An example must be set."
Reading those words, I don't hear a single "but." Yet he goes even deeper:
"Please forgive my accuser. He is revealing the deception and sensuality that was in my life. Those sins, and others, need to be dealt with harshly. So, forgive him and, actually, thank God for him. I am trusting that his actions will make me, my wife and family, and ultimately all of you, stronger. He didn't violate you; I did."
He concludes his statement by slamming the door shut on his entire career in ministry at the hugely successful megachurch he founded:
"Gayle [his wife] and I need to be gone for a while. We will never return to a leadership role at New Life Church. In our hearts, we will always be members of this body. We love you as our family. I know this situation will put you to the test. I'm sorry I've created the test, but please rise to this challenge and demonstrate the incredible grace that is available to all of us."
Readers, keep this scene fixed in your mind: You have just witnessed something exceedingly rare in our age and culture, an act of genuine repentance. Repentance that falls in sorrow and abasement and holds nothing back—no reputation, no achievement, no notions of personal dignity. All of that is considered meaningless before the overwhelming importance of getting right with God. Repentance such as this must always precede true deliverance from moral failure.
With Dobson, Hayford—probably the most respected Pentecostal figure in America—and Barnett, Haggard and his family are in good hands. Homosexual desires don't pop up out of nowhere overnight, as Haggard acknowledges, but I do believe healing is possible. I have to wonder what measures Haggard pursued that he alludes to in his statement; I have found that many Christians struggle in secret with same-sex attraction, and for many if not most, deliverance and healing are far from complete. One problem is there are few places to go where Christians both believe in the truth of Scripture—that homosexual relationships are sinful—and where they practice faith that Jesus can completely transform a person's life, including their broken sexuality. (It's even tougher if you're a leader. Evangelist and author Lisa Bevere—a member of Haggard's church, coincidentally, whom I interviewed several weeks before the scandal broke—noted that pastors and their wives have nowhere to go to heal.)
In my experience, you don't find that kind of transforming power in churches where the leader is living a sexually immoral life—or where gays are persecuted in word and deed. (One bizarre sight many Pentecostals have witnessed is a church where the preacher rails against homosexuals but a musician, singer or choir director is obviously gay, and no one says a word. Why? The preacher cares more about the person's gift than the state of his or her soul. Plus, confronting the individual's homosexual sin might shine a light on the leader's own sexual transgressions.) The pastor might be brilliant in preaching certain subjects, such as avoiding the snares of drinking and drug abuse, and his or her members will be victorious in that area. But if he's involved in sexual sin, you'll find that it's prevalent in the congregation—often for generations to come, especially when the offenses are kept hidden. There are spiritual principles at work, of sowing and reaping, and of sin thriving in dark places. When Israel's King David, for example, engaged in murder by proxy to kill the husband of his lover, violence and sexual sin never left the royal house—until Jesus shattered the curse through his sinless life and death on the cross. But that happened hundreds of years later, long after the monarchy and the nation of Israel had dissolved.
My own pastor has been in ministry for 20 years and no one has ever even questioned his sexual integrity. It helps, he says, that his wife has a sixth sense for women on the make, and he respects her enough to actually listen. He also refuses to put himself in any situation where he's alone with another woman.
But all of that takes humility, something lacking these days among evangelicals, drunk as they are with the success of having one of their "own" in the presidency and occupying positions of power, influence and prosperity in unprecedented ways.
After everything had been stripped away, Ted Haggard had the good sense to thank his accuser for exposing him. Now that impresses me.
After all it's the mercy and kindness of God that allowed him to become a laughingstock, an emblem of Christian hypocrisy. His public humiliation brought about the kind of sorrow that leads to salvation. And that is ultimately all that matters. —Julie Lyons
Bible Girl readers: I've posted early this week. There won't be another column posted on Thursday. Can't get enough of Bible Girl? Visit our archive. Want a Bible Girl alert sent to you when new columns are posted? Drop me a line.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.