Ted Haggard, the symbolic centrist

ministries 1371 1Over the past few days, I have been watching the coverage of the Rev. Ted Haggard fiasco carefully to see how many journalists understand one of the most important facts in this story. What is that fact? Haggard is not a leader of the old Religious Right. For many people, he was the charismatic face of a more moderate brand of evangelicalism that backs the traditional Christian doctrines on the hot issues linked to sex and marriage, but also carries that "Culture of Life" emphasis over into discussions of poverty, the environment, the spread of AIDS, economic justice in the Third World and other issues.

Yet, at the same time, he was one of the new "moderate" evangelicals who had not lost the trust of the old-guard evangelical alpha males symbolized by Dr. James Dobson and Charles Colson. Haggard was a bridge personality, in other words. This made him an important figure for the White House, since he was an evangelical -- but not among the old faces that everyone is used to seeing on the cable TV shows (think Pat Robertson) that President Bush has avoided like the plague.

It isn't hard to find out this fact about the now resigned head of the National Association of Evangelicals. All one has to do is Google "Haggard," "evanglicals" and "environment" and some pretty obvious links pop up. In fact, the evangelicals-that-the-New-York-Times-can-love template was kind of a cliche there for a few months. Click here to see what I am talking about.

It's no surprise that there are hints of this reality in coverage by the talented and fair-minded Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times. For example, she wrote:

A father of five who dresses in blue jeans and drives a Chevy pickup, Haggard is well-known, and widely praised, as an energetic, charismatic pastor who has pushed to expand evangelical activism into issues such as global warming and world poverty. But he hasn't shied away from the traditional culture-war issues of abortion and homosexuality.

A lengthy profile in Harper's magazine -- which is quoted approvingly on Haggard's website -- recounts how he built New Life Church in part by hanging out at gay bars and inviting the patrons to come to his sermons and be saved.

Under Haggard's leadership, the National Assn. of Evangelicals, which has 30 million members, reaffirmed a policy statement that describes homosexuality as "a deviation from the Creator's plan" and calls same-sex relations a sin that, "if persisted in ... excludes one from the Kingdom of God."

Note the presence of the words "if persisted in." That is a fine point that applies to all kinds of activities that traditional Christian believers consider sin.

In addition to Simon, reporter Myung Oak Kim at the Rocky Mountain News has included some references to Haggard's moderating role in modern evangelicalism. (I am sure there are other articles of this type that I have missed in the deluge. My apologies, in advance.) In an article on Haggard and national politics, Kim uses language that is very similar to that of Simon:

Within the evangelical community, Haggard is considered a moderate. Since becoming president of the 30 million-member evangelical organization in 2003, he has worked to broaden the mission of the NAE beyond hot-button issues like homosexuality and abortion to environmental consciousness, fighting poverty and promoting international human rights. ...

BK TH001 250pixelsAnd in her latest story, Simon carries these themes even further. While many focus on the impact of the scandal on Republican politics, it is much more important for journalists to ask how it may or may not affect the fault lines within modern evangelicalism.

Thus, Simon writes:

Jesse Lava, who runs an online community called Faithful Democrats, said he hoped Haggard's call for more activism on issues like poverty would gain traction in the coming months as his followers confronted "the fact of human fallibility" and remembered that "we need to address people in need with grace and compassion."

But political scientist John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, predicted the opposite effect. Haggard's push for action on global warming raised hackles among powerful leaders on the religious right. With Haggard discredited, those leaders may be able to swing the focus back to issues such as abortion. Or the evangelical movement -- a solid GOP bloc over several election cycles -- could splinter.

"This could have quite profound implications for how evangelicals [affect] politics in the future," Green said, "long after we've forgotten the results of this coming election."

Of course, there is no need to "swing the focus" back to abortion. That is the issue that never, ever, goes away in American politics -- in either party. Ask the Democrats who are biting their tongues while a few culturally conservative Democrats in key red zip codes try to win some Hill seats that may return the party to power. The issue is whether the evangelical agenda narrows and narrows and narrows, while the old guard lose trust in the leaders who are trying to take their place.

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