09 November 2006

The Theist: The Haggard Scandal

The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Some of us are old enough to remember the sleezy boom days of televangelism in this country--Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Tilton. How many sordid books were written and 15-minutes-of-fame careers were launched from the sordid tales of sexual and financial exploitation? If you're too young to remember, or old enough to have forgotten, count yourself blessed. For some of us, memories of those days were kindled by headlines last week about the fall of “evangelist” Ted Haggard. I wonder if some headline writers just assumed that any fallen Christian leader must be an “evangelist”; last time I checked, he wasn't an evangelist (i.e. a traveling, Billy Graham style harvester of souls), and has never been a televangelist, but rather a pastor, conference speaker, and head of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Before the scandal I'd seen Haggard a few times on television. First, I saw him interviewed by (the great theologian) Barbara Walters in an ABC special on the concept of heaven. Later, I saw him in a BBC series called The Root of All Evil, being interviewed (really, confronted) by famous biologist, author, and anti-religion campaigner Richard Dawkins. Both times, I was put off by Haggard--to Walters' questions, he seemed to duck and dodge, rather than giving a straight answer. And he ended up giving his assailant Dawkins a ridiculous lecture about the dangers of arrogance, before running him off his church's property. Haggard struck me as the opposite of a straight-shooter--someone always carefully managing the image he presents and who always thinks he can charm his way past tough questions, wielding that forced smile. He's not someone I'd like to see as a spokesman for Christianity, whatever his merits are as a preacher or pastor.

Haggard's weaselly nature manifested again when the accusations hit the news. In one carefully calculated statement, he said that he had never“had a gay relationship.” Well, that may be so, but the accusation was about repeatedly paying a gay prostitute for sex. In another, he tried to get away with admitting only paying for a massage, and offered a Clintonian claim that he'd bought meth but never used it. When I saw these statements, I thought, “he still thinks he can talk and manipulate his way out of this!” To no one's surprise, it didn't work.

There have been some ugly reactions from those happy to see Haggard go down. Some callously see the episode as no more than a benefit to progressive political efforts, or as simply a welcome humiliation for those evil, power-hungry, sanctimonious, Bush-voting religious conservatives. All I can say about such reactions is: look at what our nasty political culture has done to you.

More interesting is the widespread reaction that Haggard is a vile hypocrite, who enjoys gay sex while “bashing” gays from the pulpit. Better that he should have been “true to himself” and simply led a gay or bisexual lifestyle. In my view, there are several things wrong with this reaction. First, it isn't “gay-bashing” or homophobic to believe, and to publicly say, that gay sex is morally wrong. This moral claim is an entrenched part of nearly all the world's great religions (yes, even cool ones such as Tibetan Buddhism) and it must be distinguished clearly from various political positions about the legal status of gays and gay sex, as well as from hatred for gays.

Further, this moral belief is plainly compatible with loving and valuing one's gay neighbors as oneself. I'm not aware that Haggard has ever publicly expressed any sort of hatred for homosexuals, or cast them as sub-human, or played any of the cards of the true bigot. He's even spoken out in favor of civil union legislation. In general, I've found that evangelical Christians are less prone to the evils of anti-gay bigotry than the general populace. We should remember that respect, tolerance, and kindness don't require that people agree with all our moral judgments, or approve of all of our behavior.

Haggard admits that he has struggled all of his adult life with desires incompatible with married life. Does this mean that he's really gay, or bisexual, and that he ought to just play the part? Hardly. For one thing, the man is married with five children. Even if he should have chosen a different course before, from a moral standpoint that is irrelevant, given his current obligations to his wife. Further, just because I have a desire for X, doesn't mean that I must act on the desire for X or else be a hypocrite or a phony. Most men, at one time or another, with varying frequency, experience sexual desires for other men, for women other than their wives, and for various other people they ought not have sex with (e.g. stepdaughters, employees). It's one thing to say that it's permissible to follow any desire you may have, at least in cases where no one is obviously hurt by your action, but it's ridiculous to assert that anyone is obligated, on pain of being a phony, to act on a desire just because they have it, even when it is a strong and recurring desire. To the contrary, moral behavior is all about only acting on some, but not on other desires!

Is Haggard a hypocrite? Not exactly. He's someone (just like the rest of us) who had a habit of doing something he believed to be morally wrong, and then hiding it. In his own words, he's “a deceiver and a liar.” This seems a more fundamental and serious moral problem than his formerly hidden sexual practices. What's even more interesting is his remarkably thorough, excuse-free, abject, face in the mud repentance in his statement read to his (former) congregation on November 5. It's worth finding that online and reading it in full. How many of us are willing to adopt that posture, when appropriate?

The only proper response to the story is sadness--at a man, probably isolated and under pressure from many quarters, who failed to live up to his own beliefs about right and wrong, who gave into meaningless, immoral sex with a prostitute, and fell into a pattern of systematic deception of his wife and coreligionists. Anyone who's been addicted to any sort of bad behavior should feel their pain. Should he have adopted different beliefs? Should he have made better choices? However you answer, there's no cause for joy in this news.

1 comment:

The Constructivist said...

T, you must find this really annoying rather than, say, really hilarious, then....