The Ted Haggard Show

Ted Haggard might be the story that never dies. Every few months, it seems, the family does something to capture reporters' attention, whether it's a media appearance or building their ministry. Julia Duin captured this idea on the Washington Post's Under God blog with the headline "How 'scandalous' is Ted Haggard now?"

It used to be when pastors were disgraced, they simply left town, changed occupations and otherwise made sure they were never heard from again.

These days, they get a reality show; specifically Ted Haggard: Scandalous, which aired Sunday.

...Just when you hope that this poor family is going to settle down and lead a happy life and ministry, they come out with another book or TV appearance. Why are they doing this? Is it the money? The need for acceptance? Fame? You tell me.

These questions come up again as we read a new profile of Haggard from Kevin Roose at GQ magazine, complete with the family in a hot tub. It's been four years since the former pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs resigned from the National Association of Evangelicals after a male escort alleged that Haggard paid him for sex and methamphetamine. Before we get into the piece, we have to get past the childish deck to the article, which Roose hopefully did not write (this often falls to an editor).

When the reverend Ted Haggard was outed four years ago, it was in a ball of biblical hellfire--crystal meth! Gay sex! Unholy massages! Banished from the church he founded, he was forced to wander the Arizona desert selling insurance. Now Pastor Ted returns with his wife by his side, a new church, and a more open theology. Is he chastened? Somewhat. Straight? Hmm. Ready for a second coming? Absolutely

The challenge of a 5,000-word piece is getting people excited enough to read newsworthy bits. Most of the headlines picked up on the part where he says, "I think that probably, if I were 21 in this society, I would identify myself as a bisexual." The piece itself does not carry a sensational tone and instead offers a very quote and picture-driven story. Roose leads the story with the issue of whether Haggard should have returned to ministry by starting a church last summer.

The question of whether Ted is in a position to help others--whether he should be helping others--isn't an easy one, even for some of his friends and advisers. "What happened four years ago was a violation," Glenn Packiam, a New Life executive pastor, said when we spoke on the phone last fall. Packiam still considers the Haggards friends, but when I asked if he thought Ted should be back in the ministry, he was careful. "Every person has to discern for themselves whether they can trust him again," he said.

In Ted's mind, though, he's never been more capable, more called, than he is now. He has walked through the fire and emerged with family and faith restored. He's "less broken now," he says, more whole, spiritually and psychologically. This may be true. But "less broken" doesn't necessarily equal "redeemed." And what he's working to repair may not be the sort of thing that can be fixed.

Contrasting these examples, Roose raises these lingering questions that show different ways of thinking about Haggard's ministry efforts. Further down, of course, Roose has to ask about the Mike Jones, the man who made the allegations back in 2006.

"We never had sex sex," he says, glancing at the car to make sure that Elliott and Jonathan are asleep. "I bought drugs and a massage from him, and he masturbated me at the end of it. That's it."

But Ted's true sore spot, the thing that drains the life from his voice, is the way he and Gayle were treated by their church in the wake of the scandal....

... "I used to think the church was the light of the world," Ted says. "But I've completely lost my faith in it."

Ted's complaints about New Life are old news to anyone who's been following his saga, but tonight, when I ask him if he really means to say completely, he stops and looks at the sky already starting to lighten.

"You've got to understand, Kevin, people are, at their cores, hateful," he says, rising to stamp out the fire's embers and go to bed. "I don't want to believe that, but the facts have prevailed over my idealism."

You can see how Roose uses quotes and scene-setting to let Haggard tell the story and help us understand the kinds of questions he was asking. Roose does some first-hand reporting where he visits Haggard's 200-some St. James Church, offering a picture of his preaching and the kinds of people who are attracted to the church.

Part of what these guys love about St. James is that it helps struggling people in real, tangible ways. During the offering, when most churches pass the plate, Ted instead has his saints give money to one another. Today the gifts included a $500 donation to fix one man's car and money for another man to pay his electricity bill.

"I'd rather have that conversation with a handful of people," Ted says to me after the service, "than have a worldwide TV audience and everyone think I'm a hotshot."

His voice trembles, "That $500? That's Jesus to me now."

I've seen Ted move himself to tears more than once, but this time it seems less melodramatic, more like he's plucking at some deeper internal tension. He's admitted that he went through a period of spiritual disillusionment after his scandal, and maybe this is how he's resolving it--with a church that's more like group therapy and with a gospel centered on a new golden rule: Do unto others as nobody did unto me.

This gives a snapshot of how Haggard is tailoring his style to a different congregation than he might have in the past. Finally, though, the section that most people are zeroing in on is the part about his sexuality. Roose asks Haggard about drugs and porn, showing us how he asked some specific questions to get into his sexuality.

For the first time since we've met, Ted isn't looking directly at me. "Here's where I really am on this issue," he half whispers. "I think that probably, if I were 21 in this society, I would identify myself as a bisexual." After a weekend of Ted trying to convince me of his unambiguous devotion to his wife and kids, I'm at first too surprised to say anything.

"So why not now?" I ask finally.

"Because, Kevin, I'm 54, with children, with a belief system, and I can have enforced boundaries in my life. Just like you're a heterosexual but you don't have sex with every woman that you're attracted to, so I can be who I am and exclusively have sex with my wife and be perfectly satisfied."

"But what does it have to do with being 54?"

"Life!" he says. "We live an ordinary life."

It's the most intimate exchange we've had, and the confession strikes me first as sad, then as nakedly honest, the kind of thing I kept wishing he would say to Oprah or Larry King or any of the other people who have demanded explanations of his muddled sexuality.

The piece really is worth a full read, but I've tried to offer a taste of the different aspects the article raises. We've seen the Haggards in the media cycle over and over again through Gayle Haggard's book and media appearances on Oprah, "The Divorce Court," the HBO documentary, and a recent program on TLC. On one hand, it's nice to see a reporter go back and try to clear up some confusing details about what exactly happened. On the other, we could ask questions about why we're still covering the details when Haggard no longer leads a large church or organization. So part of me is wondering why we're still talking about something that happened four years ago, but if we have to, this feature is a pretty nice way to do it.

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