Thoughts on Ted Haggard

Last month Ted Haggard, one of the most politically connected, evangelical pastors in America, admitted to buying drugs and having sex with a male prostitute. I tried not to talk about it at the time because I believe strongly that pastors should not push their political beliefs and Haggard believes very strongly that pastors should push their political beliefs. But like everyone else, I do have a few thoughts on the issue.

My first thought is that as Christians, we should not get into the habit of judging people who have fallen. It's hard to say that when he was such a hypocrite, but it's best to keep him in perspective. Even though most of us (hopefully) don't have as huge a gap between what we claim to believe and what we actually practice as Haggard did, isn't it true to some extent that "all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23)?

"There is part of my life," he said when finally caught, "that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all of my adult life." While he was inwardly wrestling with his own gayness, he was outwardly condemning people who were gay. There is a sad self-loathing in his words.

My second thought is about the damage that this kind of thing will do to the Body of Christ, which has already been damaged greatly in recent years. It both hurts believers (especially those who tend to worship their leaders) and it reinforces non believers (those who are glad to see one more reason to hate religion).

But it also drives away the good people who have a legitimate spiritual hunger and are wondering if the church might be a place where they can be helped. I remember years ago when Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker went down in flames over a sex and finance scandal (they confessed to each other one night that both had had affairs, and then discovered that their separate affairs had been with the same man). And I remember when Jimmy Swaggart was caught buying dope and sex from a prostitute (of the heterosexual persuasion, however). Not long after those occurrences, I saw a survey in the paper that found that following the collapse of these religious rock stars, positive attitudes of Americans toward religion declined by about ten percent. In other words, we all suffer when they go down. In the eyes of the average American, the poor pastor down the street who faithfully does his or her job and preaches the gospel, is just as bad as the powerful religious (and these days political) person who talks weekly to the White House and monthly pays for sex.

In the long run, nobody wins. The spiritual seekers give up on organized religion; church attendance in America takes a dive; and the polarization in America between believers and non believers gets worse.

One last observation about how some of Haggard's colleagues responded to the mess. Shortly after the story broke, four evangelical leaders were interviewed on CNN about the scandal. The interviewer asked them to assess the damage this might do to the movement. Every one of them denied that Haggard was much of anything, or that they even knew him, or that he had much influence either in religion or politics (On this last claim, it's helpful to remember that he pastored a 17,000 member church, was the president of the National Evangelical Association, and held weekly political strategy-session phone calls with Carl Rove). Their hypocrisy on the matter was hard on the stomach.

But their response paled in comparison to two other mega-church pastors. One was in Virginia and the other in California. In separate articles they both said that the blame for the scandal needed to be shared with Haggard's wife. They said that, had she not "let herself go" he would not have strayed. If a man's wife allows herself to become unappealing to her husband, then the man should not be held totally accountable if his eye wanders and he is forced to get his satisfaction somewhere else.

While it is true what I said about trying not to judge others, comments like those are the lowest of the low. It's hard not to say that there is should be special place in hell for people who would lower themselves to that kind of statement.