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June 11th, 2010
04:23 AM ET

Ted Haggard, Resurrected

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Ted Haggard is back.

In 2006, a gay sex and drug scandal knocked this former head of the National Association of Evangelicals from his perch as pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Earlier this month, Haggard emerged from his own private purgatory, announcing that he has started a new nondenominational church, St. James, which will meet in his home. 

Haggard’s resurrection left me with a series of questions, including whether he has done his time and what this unending cycle of sin, confession, and redemption says about America. To answer these questions, I contacted Susan Wise Bauer, an independent historian and author of The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Confession in America—a history of how the high and mighty fall, confess, and (more often than not) bounce back.

Stephen Prothero: Ted Haggard is Reverend Ted again. As public grovels go, how did he do in his 2006 admission of "sexual immorality"?

Susan Wise Bauer: Haggard's confession was almost picture-perfect. A leader caught in scandal has to reassure his followers that he doesn't intend to go on misusing the power that's been handed over to him. He has to offer his followers a chance to demonstrate their own power, by taking part in a forgiveness ritual that allows them to hold the leader to account. If he can manage to use language that suggests he's on the side of good in an ongoing struggle against evil, so much the better.

Stephen Prothero:  So did he do all that?

Susan Wise Bauer: Haggard's original letter to his congregation, and his method of delivering it, accomplished all these things. By handing the letter over to other church officials and disappearing from the scene, he showed that he was willing to relinquish his power immediately. He assured them that he would “never return to a leadership role at New Life Church." He also asked them to forgive him, which gave them a chance to demonstrate their own power as a church body.

Followers who have been betrayed by a leader need the opportunity to show that they're not powerless, and Haggard's letter repeatedly appealed to parishioners to "rise to the challenge" of forgiveness. Finally, he portrayed himself as a fallen warrior in the battle against evil, which (given the nature of his offenses) was no small accomplishment. He was divided in two, he said, with a good side (which he identified as truly himself) warring against a "repulsive and dark" side.

Stephen Prothero: So how soon is too soon to return to public life? Jimmy Swaggart is back. So is Bill Clinton. Has Haggard served his time?

Susan Wise Bauer: Depends. It isn't too early for him to return as minister of a smallish, not-very-prestigious congregation, which is what he's trying to do. If, however, his followers see him grasping for more power, they will likely grow suspicious, suspecting that his return was motivated not by the desire to serve, but by the desire to be prominent once again.

Stephen Prothero: But surely some members of his old church still feel betrayed. Shouldn’t he just stay out of the pulpit forever?

Susan Wise Bauer: According to whose standard? He promised that he wouldn't return to leadership at New Life, and he hasn't. He promised to go through counseling, which he did. (Remember the huge announcement by his counselor that he had been "cured" of all homosexual impulses?). He promised to be accountable to a selected group of ministers, and so far as I know he's held to that.

Stephen Prothero: With David Letterman, Tiger Woods and others, we have seen a run on high-profile confessions since your book came out.  So much so that South Park spoofed the lot of them in a March episode called "Sexual Healing.” Who in your view has done the best job of public groveling in recent years?

Susan Wise Bauer: Tiger Woods hit all the important notes in his confession. Woods is neither a religious leader nor an elected official; he's a celebrity, so his relationship to his public is governed by different expectations. Still, he began by making himself accountable to everyone in the room, acknowledging that they have some sort of power over him and that he has a responsibility towards them. He said “I am sorry” directly and without excuse. He rejected the idea that his talent and celebrity gave him any right to bad behavior, even using the word “entitled.”

He didn’t drag his wife into the room to stand by him—something that always focuses our attention on the wronged party. (All those politicians who make their wives stand by them while they apologize just remind us how badly they’ve abused our trust). In fact, he came to her defense. Finally, he managed to portray himself as both the sinner and, to some degree, a victim. I was at first skeptical about him excluding the press, but this decision allowed him to portray himself and his family as hounded by the media.

Stephen Prothero: How about a groveller who has fallen flat on his face?

Susan Wise Bauer: John Edwards couldn't have done a worse job if he had set out to torpedo his own career. He hired the videographer Rielle Hunter in the first place because he thought the entire country would be fascinated by a video showing the mundane details of his daily life, and every word he spoke about his affair oozed ego. Mark Sanford was also cringe-makingly ineffective. His affair showed that he was willing to abuse his power as an elected official for his own gain, and his attempts to explain merely focused our attention on his betrayed wife who, like the voters who put Sanford in office, trusted him only to be taken advantage of.

Stephen Prothero: So is ego the key here?  Or, in Buddhist terms, egolessness?  Is the art of the public grovel about checking your ego at the door?

Susan Wise Bauer: It's about admitting that you're just the same as anyone else–no more worthy, no more deserving of power. Public life tends to obscure that basic truth. We can sense when a public figure has started to become a little too impressed with himself. When scandal follows, we take it as confirmation: He thought that the rules governing human behavior didn't apply to him, that he was special, that he could get away with it. We need to see him admit that none of this is true.

Stephen Prothero: Finally, don’t you think that Americans are suckers for all this redemption stuff? We want larger-than-life heroes. We want to cut them down to size. Then we want them back again. Isn’t there something pathological here?

Susan Wise Bauer: I don't think it's pathological. It's a by-product of our idealism–our commitment to democracy, and its implication that all people are truly, deeply, spiritually equal. In America we say that any boy can become president. That's an expression of hope. The flip side is that once that boy is in the White House he is no better than the rest of us. If he starts to get exalted ideas about what he can get away with–starts to act entitled–that's a betrayal of the democratic ideals that put him in office.

Stephen Prothero: So much for pastors and politicians. Are there different rules for celebrities?

Susan Wise Bauer: Absolutely. We want our religious and political leaders to take charge, but we feel deeply ambivalent about the amount of power we've handed over to them. So we are anxious to rebalance the relationship by cutting them down. Celebrities are different. As long as they’re entertaining us, they can get away with a lot more. And, yes, we're always ready to welcome them back because they don't have the same power over us. I'm trying to think of a celebrity whose life was ruined by scandal. Remember Rob Lowe? Doing fine. Martha Stewart? Back on top. Tiger Woods? He may be struggling to make the cut, but he’s playing again.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Christianity • Homosexuality • Protestant

soundoff (106 Responses)
  1. Marine57

    Gentlemen,
    The view of all comments that you give us shows the earliest or first comment always showing at the tom of the list. THIS IS BACKWARDS, guys. Note that all other posted comments on CBS, Fox, and MSNBC show the most recent posts at the top of the list. Therefore, as we go by and look, we see a constantly changing list of comments. This is as it should be. Would you mind so much to change your procedure to match up with all of those news people around you?

    June 15, 2010 at 9:27 pm |
  2. NJ Bob

    So, Elmer Gantry is back! Haggard embodies everything I find so utterly nauseating about most religious people. He makes me proud to be a 100% through-and-through rational, freethinking secularist.

    June 15, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
  3. Hi

    God isn't real. Sorry to disappoint you. Live your life and be happy.

    June 15, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  4. Pro-Petey

    Petey, I like your response. That's a good one.

    June 15, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
  5. Gary

    Fact: people are either born straight or born gay...religion needs to deal reality . But religion is based on faith,opinion,and rules written by man. I guess reality has no chance afterall

    June 14, 2010 at 8:58 pm |
  6. Race

    The real horror of all of this is the puriant, disgusting beliefs about sin that superstition, ignorance and intolerant hatred have created with regards to homosexuality. Mr. Haggard is a hypocrite precisely because he believes that his own sexuality is evil in the eyes of God, while completely rejecting the truth that his homosexuality is created BY God, even if it IS a choice on his part, since God decides what choices people make and do not make, according to judeo-christian and islamic belief systems.
    In christian dogma, Christ is salvation, period. It does not matter what you have done. It does not matter what sin you have committed. Accepting Christ as one's saviour with honest contrition for one's sins automatically guarantees salvation and everlasting life. Any argument to the contrary is apostacy and heresy, according to every mainstream christian religion. Christ died for ALL sins, no matter how offensive, henious, or evil anyone might think that they are.
    It is just a real pity that so many have been brainwashed into believing that sex – the sacred gift from God – is sinful in the first place.

    June 14, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
  7. Kate in San Diego

    I just feel sorry for anyone who has to live a lie. Having said that, I think his original church treated him abomidably and is one of the many reasons I can not consider myself to be a Christian. (That and the Book of Job – God would not torture someone like that just to prove a point to Satan.) His church should not have thrown him out and had no business throwing him out of the state of Colorado. To me, that does not reflect anything Jesus would have said or done. Born again Christians are showing themselves to be mean people.

    June 14, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
  8. Dave C.

    I just wonder though if there isn't any sin that Jesus didn't die for? Didn't even He respect ALL human life? I would tend to think so and even He said He didn't come to condemn anyone. WWJD? He would invite sinners to dine with him and not condemn the woman at the well.

    June 14, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
    • Gary

      religious folks today shouldnt condem any of agostics @ the well either .

      June 14, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
  9. David, CA

    Still gay, still lying.

    June 14, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
  10. Dave

    Maybe it's time for him to get a job and fade into the background

    June 14, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  11. chris F

    All of us are sinners and unworthy of the grace of God. God requires us to rebuke each other with love. If patient rebuking doesn't work for someone within the church then we are required to not invite that individual to worship with us until they repent. In the eyes of God, thinking about fornication with someone to whom you are not married is just as bad as what Ted Haggard did. If Ted Haggard has truly repented then he should be forgiven and welcomed back into the church. If Ted has repented then God has forgiven him and we are also required to forgive Ted.

    June 14, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
    • Gary

      I forgive him for his deceit. I think he should come out of the closet and live as a happy gay man. He should stop preaching hate and get a real job....

      June 14, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  12. Ficheye

    Christians aren't perfect... they are just forgiven..... Haw! So It makes them serial sinners, divorced two, three times, chronic speeders, closet drug abusers. If you want to believe God forgives you go right ahead... the rest of the world does not. Christianity is a centuries old scam that controls sheep and makes them think that they are superior to others. And the obsession with wealth just confirms that they are idol worshippers.

    June 14, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
  13. Gary

    Dont Worry Ted Haggered , there are plenty of religious idiots who will commence funding your ministry again. Just ask Benny Hinn,David Koresh,Oral Roberts ,Jimmy Swaggert,Pat Robinson,Joel Osteen,Osama bin ladin,Jim Jones,TD Jakes ,Jim Bakker and many more..

    June 14, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  14. JC

    Go get em Big Fella....????

    June 14, 2010 at 12:25 am |
  15. John

    Bring on the re-packaging and marketing team.

    June 14, 2010 at 12:18 am |
  16. Steve H.

    being homosexual is the same as having any other mental disorder. Drugs could help if they were looking for them yes just like schizophrenia there would be drugs to treat it. They used to homosexuality makes no biological sense it serves no purpose other then to mimic natural reproduction while drugging unmet emotional and mental needs. We all know this its easy to see our bodies weren't meant to be used like this its why no life comes from it. I can't blame people for giving into there mental disorders and trying to get all the support they can to say its not wrong. It is wrong and doesn't serve any purpose of life. Its very logical its wrong so why all the bashing when someone comes out and says hey this is a problem and im finding the right help to fix it. The reason all the hate is in our culture we run on emotions and programing not thinking and debate. We take every issue personally instead of trying to figure it out. Its so taboo to say its wrong now cause they have found out genetics plays a role well guess what does that mean alcoholics need not try to stop cause they can't or other drugs that show they stay with genes and make someone have a higher desire for certain drugs. What about pedophiles what will we say oh its ok continue on no big deal when we do research and find out there genes to are messed up more then others. I mean logically them acting on sexual impulses that serve no biological reason is a genetic mental and emotion problem just the same. These are problems they aren't ok and its ok to seek help so you don't jack with other peoples life's and bodies. We all got issues and regardless we should care and help each other through them but things are jacked up on earth lets look at problems as problems and not judge people. Nothing profound will ever take place judging things based on our feelings of them cause of who we know or how nice they are fix the system and the people fall in place same as jacked up system equals jacked up people with jacked up issues.

    June 13, 2010 at 11:35 pm |
    • Kyle from MS

      So when your dog tries to hump someones leg they are mentally ill? No. It has to do with a bodies natural urges meeting the emotional needs of a brain. It is no less wrong then a teenage boy masterbating instead of going out and getting some girl knocked up. Or maybe you think it is "Gods" will that we go through reproductive maturation at 11 and 13 and we should be getting married and having babies at that age?

      June 14, 2010 at 9:25 am |
    • JenCaz

      Clearly you are not capable of intelligent and well articulated thought. That blathering is indicative of not only a complete lack of education; but an incredible dearth of understanding of human nature grounded in scientific fact. We don't spend enough educating people in this country.

      June 15, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Marriage has always been between a man and a woman; it is a union that is open to life. A union that cannot be open to life is a union that is not natural. Only a married man and woman can rightly partake in the gift of sexual love; all others know by their conscience that this is true. Marriage cannot be for same sex persons because there is no possibility for a new life to be gotten from the union.

      Single persons of any gender must also refrain from sex for it is only a gift for the married man and woman.

      There are those who say ‘they love each other’ and that makes ‘it’ right or ok to have sex without a true marriage, but then they eventually get married because of their conscience, or split up.

      Why do people want to get married? Because they know they have no right to sex without it. But you see, marriage will not protect the conscience of people in union that does not include God. You see, marriage is not between just a man and woman but it is also an agreement/covenant with God that they will be open to life through the sexual act. Having a minister pronounce ‘the two of you’ married—does not mean that God is blessing that union—He can’t bless a marriage with children if there is no possibility of it to begin with.

      Leaving God out of it doesn’t work. Even some marriages between a man and a woman are not blessed by God when they enter into marriage and say they do not want to be open to children. Many of them use contraceptives and abortion to meet their desires.

      Not many have written about marriage in this light on this site but I could see how the original article could lead down this path-one comment leads to another until it triggers one into responding. Thank you Steve H for bringing some thoughts worthy of mentioning.

      There is no man made contract that will ever make it right for same sex marriages. Man's laws are not above God's laws–and His are written into our conscience so we morally know what is right and what is wrong. If this makes any of you upset who are reading this, it could be your conscience is trying to tell you something.

      June 16, 2010 at 11:59 pm |
  17. Carole Clarke

    Ted Haggard ought to get back in the closet but he won't. He only has one talent to make money and it's drumming up religion. There will be suckers ready to give him one more chance because they are weak and prefer to follow and he will pander to their lowest levels. But they're all adults and are responsible for their own choices.

    June 13, 2010 at 10:45 pm |
  18. Richard

    The real humor in all this is to see Haggard squirming and flagellating himself for doing something that the rest of the progressed world has matured enough to understand is not only acceptable, but is so obviously natural that the issue no longer requires comment. But apparently it does, because a good chunk of America operates on a staggeringly low level of consciousness.

    June 13, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
  19. rainier08

    Gene, Touche' on the Karl Rove. Ive said thar for years. He was the one Jeff Gannon was seeing I'd bet a paycheck.

    About life after death ? I know too many people who HAVE indeed had these after death experiences. Too many to think they are all just making it all up.

    June 13, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
    • rickinmo

      Dreams or hallucinations maybe. After death experiences–you must be joking.

      June 15, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.