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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. Maps

    Can't people see that he's nothing but a con man – he's certainly brainwashed his wife. Wish she would open her eyes like Mike Sanford's wife did and quickly. He'll pay for his hypocritical rantings one of these days. His mouth moves like rubber all the time – like it's been stretched. GAG – what a sleazy maggot.

    June 12, 2010 at 5:25 am |
  2. Mohared

    A man can build 1000 bridges during his life. But if he sucks just one cork, he will be known not as a bridge builder, but as a cork sucker.

    June 12, 2010 at 3:07 am |
    • Fleming

      Epic.

      June 12, 2010 at 6:17 am |
  3. Ed

    Faith predisposes people to this kind of moral gymnastics. Covering up lack of resposiblity and integrity. "Devil made me do it" You can repent for or justify any moral atrocity.

    Long history of deception shows total lack of empathy, lack of ability to have healthy realtionship with another human being. His marital life (assuming his wife did not know about it) was total lie. Hallmarks of a sociopath. If his wife is not like him, I am sorry for her.

    June 12, 2010 at 1:20 am |
  4. minicooper

    Brian, people do not go to hell for being gay... the people that will go to hell are the ones that did not go to Christ for forgiveness of their sin...no matter what that sin may be...none will be saved from hell and have eternal life without Jesus Christ....and it does not matter if anyone believes it or not...all will find out after the first death

    June 12, 2010 at 12:53 am |
    • bluenote

      Wrong, wrong, wrong. Please, Christians... STOP stating your beliefs as facts. I have been dead, there was no light, no family, no darkness, no hell... Just nothing. I was brought back by the SKILL of paramedics, and the LOVE of someone who cared enough to call them. Argue this til you're blue in the face, I was THERE, and I KNOW FOR A FACT that there is nothing after this. Make life as good as you can, because this IS, in fact, all there is. Nothing will EVER make my experience any different than it was, and no one can possibly invalidate it. Now, go and keep believing your fiction.

      June 12, 2010 at 9:44 am |
    • Maybe

      Bluenote, as an agnostic I lean towards agreeing with you, but to make a definitive statement that there is nothing after death based on your experience is ultimately as baseless as religious people who claim there is an afterlife based on no experience. For the sake of playing devil's advocate, if there was a god do you really think he'd let you in on that little secret because of a near death experience? Wouldn't god have known you were going to be brought back by the paramedics and just left you blank for a few minutes while that was going on?

      No one will ever be able to convince me that there is a god, but I don't think it's possible to prove their isn't one either.

      And Haggard is a hypocritical self-loathing piece of crap. I'd feel bad for him for being raised to hate himself for who he is if he didn't preach that same hatred and intolrance to others.

      June 12, 2010 at 10:00 am |
    • brian

      MiniC, I completely agree about your statement. No matter what the sin, God will forgive if we repent and seek His forgiveness through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. Thanks for clarifying this on the blog.

      June 12, 2010 at 10:12 am |
    • bluenote

      So, the argument, as I understand it, is that if there really IS a God, he wouldn't let me see Him, or any sign of the Afterlife in Death. Thus invalidating every single claim of 'seeing the light at the end of the tunnel' or seeing ones' deceased family members. The problem with people who believe in religion is that they believe it to the point of ignoring basic facts that stare them right in the face. Like the person who agreed with the above statement, ignoring completely what I wrote about my experience. That is, again, my EXPERIENCE, not my belief, and not fantasy, and not fiction. Know what's real? Music. Music is real. Find God in there... If He exists, that's where he is.

      June 12, 2010 at 11:34 am |
    • Maybe

      What would a god possibly have to gain by showing himself to someone who has a near death experience? If god wanted us to know that he was real then it seems like more people would be given definitive proof. But no one is. You can't prove god is real. It's not possible. I think you and I are in agreement there. I just don't think you can prove he isn't based on your experience anymore than one of those people who claim to have seen the light during their near death experiences can prove he is.

      June 12, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
    • bluenote

      @Maybe: Then all of the people who claim to have seen God during a near-death experience are lying. Which begs several more questions; Why would people who so strongly believe in God find it necessary to lie about seeing proof of his existence? Why would ANYONE say they saw something upon death that they, in fact, did NOT see? I am telling you, I was there, and there was nothing. Of course the religious people won't believe me, that would shatter their fragile little lie. But for Agnostics not to believe me, well, that kind of tells me that they might be leaning more heavily in one direction than the other.

      June 12, 2010 at 4:46 pm |
    • Petey

      Oh I get it. Christians shouldn't state their beliefs as facts – they should state YOUR beliefs as facts. Like you do.

      Hypocrite.

      June 14, 2010 at 10:46 pm |
    • JenCaz

      Having watched so much physical change take place on the planet in my 50-odd years, I think I'll stick with just dying and becoming some other form of bio-material that makes up the planet. It's non-judgmental and generally pretty consistent; it doesn't care what kind of creature I am, it will absorb my body and energy without hesitation or ambivalence for my lack of religious continuity with someone else's beliefs. That is a faith born of physics, not man-made philosophical dogma.

      June 15, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
  5. ILikeMen

    The head line should read:"The erection of Ted Haggard"

    June 12, 2010 at 12:41 am |
    • swright

      ROFL! Your comment has made my day!

      June 12, 2010 at 4:31 am |
    • Mark S., Lansing MI

      Ewwww!!!

      June 12, 2010 at 9:06 am |
  6. Brian Bowen

    Perhaps so, John C, but WE are not the ones telling everyone else they are going to burn in hell for all eternity for being gay, now are we?

    June 11, 2010 at 11:49 pm |
    • brian

      God judges the heart of everyone. If Ted is truly repentant, which I believe that he is, then God is good and faithful to forgive him. God's thoughts are not our thoughts. At the final judgment, we all must give an account of our lives (gulp). I choose to put my trust in Him. No one is beyond redemption.

      June 12, 2010 at 12:30 am |
    • Selfish Gene

      Guess which brian is wrong

      June 15, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
  7. John C

    I cannot fathom that all across the world people are looking forward to the next person to have their dirty laundry aired. Please do not think I am saying this is permissible to have a dark side but lets take a good look at ourselves. Look at every word we have ever said or anything we have ever done- does that always line up with what we believe? The bottom line is all of the people that get caught up in these situations are just people with a larger sphere of influence. If our private live were publicly displayed I am sure everyone here would have a lot they would be ashamed of.

    June 11, 2010 at 11:33 pm |
    • Martin

      You are missing an important point. These on-the-surface squeaky clean evangelist preachers are so often seething self-hating perverts (that would be their word). They vent the rage and hatred they feel for themselves by trying to villify gays who have accepted themselves and are living happy, normal lives in loving relationships despite all the negative energy they have to deal with. It is hugely important when these hypocrites are exposed-and hugely entertaining as well!

      June 15, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
  8. Huh?

    So will it be a church for g@ys?

    June 11, 2010 at 8:14 pm |
  9. Eire Annalba

    This flop is just fooling himself. I don't have a problem with him having gay tendencies, rather I have a problem with him denying that it is a condition in his genetics and not some learned "sin" or whatever he thinks it is. He is also a hypocrite and a fraud.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  10. brad1001

    I know one shouldn't judge a book by its' cover, but the guy just looked creepy to me back when he was exposed for the fraud he is.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:26 pm |
  11. Bob C

    What we fear in ourselves, we hate in others. Loving others is much easier when we have healed our own imperfections. Jesus continually taught us to love one another. God is love.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
    • Christopher Hitchens

      "God is love?" What sniveling drool. Go take your "Happiness is a warm puppy" tripe back to the playpen and stop interfering with adult conversation.

      June 13, 2010 at 3:40 am |
    • Kyle from MS

      Its a shame so many christians then decide to try and fix other people, while they are the hypocrites and liars. Fix yourself before you try and preach to me.

      June 14, 2010 at 9:19 am |
  12. Iconoclast

    I actually met Ted Haggard many years ago ('92) very briefly in my work while living in Colorado Springs. I knew at the time he was a hypocrite and a phony but when I expressed this to a religious conservative work associate of mine I was met with shock and disbelief. Oh well, never ignore your gut feelings about people, but if you happen to be "born again" always ignore your intuition and the facts.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  13. Wday

    Well, he feels the time is ripe to return to fleecing the flock! It is hard to resist that pot of gold at the end of that Religious rainbow.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
  14. Linda in Los Angeles

    Religion can be a crock ... but true discipleship in Christ in God testifies of the redeeming power and righteous relationship with God that is available to all who truly wish to know God in Christ. It is improper to mention names of those who have fallen because only God knows the true nature of their heart. However, two points: 1) put a man or woman on a pedastal (which is to say, above God) and they will surely fall. 2) we are to take what some one tells us and go to the Bible to see if it is of the Spirit and of Truth. That is our responsibility. Obviously, since we have the names of so many who have fallen, it is apparent we have not done our part: for instead of lessening the influence of such ungodliness, we have allowed it to flourish until a fall stopped the growth. Bottomline: the followers of these fallen idols are as much to blame as the idols themselves.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:38 pm |
    • Gary

      Truth in science only ...religion is faith and brainwashing...Earth is billions of years old proof in fossils,fossil fuels,Pangia escarpment,mid oceanic ridges,and plate tectonics to name a few...Bible,quoran and most other religious texts are less than 3k years old....But Linda you have a safe weekend and may God bless you every day!!!!

      June 11, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
    • Calvin

      There is no truth in science- you are fooling only yourself. Science's so called truths change every few months; and all of it -all of it is merely speculation and theory. What you now worship is truth in science will be light years different 10 years from now, as it was light years different ten years ago. There is truth out there, but it is not found in man.....

      June 11, 2010 at 9:50 pm |
    • Ituri

      Calvin- Excuse me one moment.

      HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

      *ahem* Scuse me, I had to let that out. People who mistake "belief" for a scientific necessity are usually just uneducated themselves, and jealous of those who are. Science changes over time, but the vast majority of it stays the same month to month, because tested natural processes don't randomly go into PMS time. Some details change, and the whole of our knowledge grows. Note the word "knowledge," from "to know." We KNOW science. No belief... or in your case, disbelief... required.

      June 11, 2010 at 10:43 pm |
    • Andrew

      No Ituri, Calvin is right, there is no "truth" in science. Yet Calvin says that as though it's a bad thing, it's not. There's no "truth" because the scientific method is about evidence, it's about facts and support, not asserting "truth". ANYTHING within science can be falsified, that's why what science says can be believed, as opposed to "truth". I'd rather side with evidence, than anyone claiming "truth".

      However, that said, what Calvin is omitting is something Asimov covered quite well in his Relativity of Wrong, that science is a constantly IMPROVING process. What science says one day might very well be wrong 10 years down the line, but it's less wrong than it formerly was. They once said the world was flat (pre-ancient greeks), they were wrong. They then said it was spherical, they were still wrong. They then said it's an oblate spheroidal shape, and they were STILL wrong. We now say that it's pear shaped, which might one day be shown to be wrong yet again.

      So what we say now might be wrong 10 years down the line, and yet it's less wrong than it ever was. There's no question that "the earth is flat" is far more wrong than "the earth is spherical". There's no question that "the earth is spherical" is more wrong than "the earth is an oblate spheroid". Saying what we know may shown to be wrong down the line is forgetting that each time we show ourselves to be wrong within science, we do so by understanding systems even better.

      Aristotelian physics is wrong. It's far more wrong than Newtonian physics. Yet Newtonian physics is also wrong, and relativity is far more correct than Newtonian physics. Does that mean relativity will never be invalidated? No, but it does mean that relativity is still far more correct than Aristotelian physics. Science improves, it doesn't assert "truth", but it is the closest way to get to any abstract notion of "truth" available. That is what people like Calvin omit.

      June 12, 2010 at 3:51 am |
    • bvilleyellowdog

      There still is a good market for snake oil. Step right up.

      June 12, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
    • Q

      Andrew- Well said!

      June 13, 2010 at 12:58 am |
  15. Gary

    Ted Haggerd,Benny Hinn,David koresh,Jimmy Swaggert,TD Jakes, Oral Roberts,Osama bin ladin, Pat 700 club guy,Jim Jones ,Jimmy bakker all religious leaders all proof religion is a crock of crap...

    June 11, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
    • John C

      Gary,
      Is religion crap because of people? IF something can be flawed because of people than perhaps it could be good because of people as well. So is religion bad~ I know plenty of people in all different walks of life and there are good people that work with shady people. There is always a right and wrong way to behave. These men you listed do not reflect the majority of men and women I know that are Christians. In fact they do not represent the vast majority of things I know they believe about Christianity. But just because there are popular examples that are not good there are a ton of behind the scenes and glamour of media attention of devout and diligent seekers and servants of Christ and people.

      June 11, 2010 at 11:42 pm |
    • Selfish Gene

      Sorry, but religion is man made to control the uneducated masses. And it will be destroyed in the same fashion.

      June 15, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
  16. davec

    Not only has he formed a new church, it'd in Colorado Springs where his old church is.

    He is a huckster. A con man. He has a personality problem. He is evil. He is of the devil.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
    • Gary

      No sir he is a typical religious leader

      June 11, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
    • Ituri

      Gary's got it, hands down. Go into reformation, repent, rinse, repeat. He'll be "sinning" again as soon as people stop paying attention. Poor, poor little sinners, with those human failures. Funny how the rest of us call that "being human." If only people could just stop guilitng themselves into thinking everything they do and think is somehow bad or evil. The human race would be a lot better off for it.

      June 11, 2010 at 10:41 pm |
  17. Simvast

    All these evangelical preachers had better hope that God is not vengeful like they preach.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
  18. Ron Nospam

    Jesus must be very proud.

    June 11, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
  19. DaveC

    Ted is only lying to himself. He may be repressing those feelings he has towards men, but they will always be there. One doesn't choose to be Gay or Straight or brown or white or have blue eyes or hazel. We are what we are, and according to religious people we are made in God's image so what does that tell you?

    June 11, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
    • Gary

      DaveC ...good point i agree 100%....

      June 11, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
    • whitman

      Yes, we are made in God's image, but our spirit is not. At creation, man was sinless; however, human nature is weak and we desire that which we are not supposed to have. Once sin entered into the equation, humanity was forever changed and was separated from God by our sin. Christianity at its simplest level is not a series of ceremonies or acts that we believers can do to be forgiven. Christianity is a RELATIONSHIP of SACRIFICE. We are all drawn towards things that, while pleasurable, are ultimately bad for our body and soul. As followers of Christ, we are required to give those things up. Galatians 5 warns us not to use the freedom from sin that we have been granted as believers to sin; and yet many Christians continue to try to walk a tight rope between salvation and sin. It just doesn't work.

      June 13, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
  20. Joe

    Ted is a gay tweeker. Anyone who ever listens to another word that comes out of his mouth is a complete idiot.

    June 11, 2010 at 9:31 am |
    • VegasRage

      I'll give that an amen

      June 11, 2010 at 11:37 pm |
    • Chris

      Totally agree! Look at those lips..they look like they've been quite active.

      June 12, 2010 at 5:21 am |
    • Spiker716

      Nail on the head, Joe! He is so gay. It's very sad though that he just can' come out and live his life.

      June 12, 2010 at 9:17 am |
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About this blog

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.