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. John

    Has Haggard gone back into the closet?

    June 13, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  2. Wayne

    I don't believe him. Haggard is one confused person.

    June 13, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
  3. Gene Brady

    I'm sure he is just better at what he does secretly.... coached by Karl Rove maybe ???

    June 13, 2010 at 2:57 pm |

    They are all snakes. When will people realize that if God wants to talk to you, he's powerful enough to do it himself, he doesn't need to channel through these money-grabbing idiots?

    June 13, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
  5. savjic

    The most difficult thing for REV. TED to do, was leave his church!! He hated leaving his buddies BEHIND!!!!!!!

    June 12, 2010 at 11:09 pm |
  6. wls

    There have been more people murdered in the name of God and organized religion than any other single reason on earth. It is still going on today. The three major religions originated in the middle east. The descendants of these people live in that region today. Take a good look at them, they are still killing each other. Religion is an insult to intelligence. There is no historical evidence to support any character in the bible. There is not historical evidence to support any claim of a supernatural event……..EVER. Far better to believe in mankind and work together to better the world. Do not waste your resources on organized scams that claim they represent God or know what God wants.
    God does not need your money or your resources.

    June 12, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
    • John C


      Under what pretense can you say there is no evidence of the existence of a biblical character. Take a look at any history book and see if King David was real. Have you ever studied archeology? Everyday more an more findings occur showing evidence of biblical existence. In fact name one "fact" that proves one of the biblical characters do not exist.

      In regards to religion killing more than any other issue- let's think, Stalin, Hitler, Lennin, North Korea, Rwanda etc... 100s of millions killed.

      June 12, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
    • john_is_a_kool_aid_drinker

      John C, unfortunately, you know nothing about science! 😦

      June 13, 2010 at 2:39 am |
    • Scudrunner

      I disagree, Biblical characters are often based on actual people. Archeology has shown this many times. However, the supernatual events portrayed in the Bible are what have no scientific basis, except when they are the misinterpretation of natural events.

      The Bible is known for taking older myths and re-telling them with their own characters. For example, several pagan mystery religions had their leading figure born of a virgin, at the winter solstice, killed, raised from the dead, and winding up in the heavins. This was copied, possibly to immortalize a minor jewish revolutionary, which was gradually expanded into Christianity.

      June 13, 2010 at 11:56 am |
    • John C

      @Jon coolaid
      So where is the scientific proof? It is easy to have a generic answer but what reference do you have?

      June 14, 2010 at 10:57 am |
  7. WVgirl

    I was a bit disappointed to see that Ms. Bauer did not seem to think that Haggard should stay out of the ministry forever. Ministers are supposed to be "blameless"; not sinless, but having nothing against them to which the outside world can use against them. Simply not resuming a leadership role at his former church is not enough. And what really gets me about creeps like this is that they are the ones who want to be up in front of everybody as if they can lead. Sin is forgivable, certainly, but once a person is disqualified, forgiveness doesn't negate the ministerial qulaifications mandated in God's Word, and that's part of the end results of sin.

    June 12, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
  8. BG Al

    I'm worried that if Rev Ted hops right back into the pulpit that he won't have time for his badly needed gay dalliances.
    I'm worried that Rev Ted may be spreading himself too thin. So to speak

    June 12, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  9. davec

    To paraphrase an old song...Ted, get off the bed the quarter's for the beer.

    June 12, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  10. Ponduhthis

    I'm speaking of REAL desires – Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Humility, and Self-control.
    For ALL people ... not just your circle of...

    Teddy – I haven't seen any of your work... but trust me, you are an artist my friend.

    June 12, 2010 at 10:14 am |
    • bvilleyellowdog

      As in CON-ARTIST.

      June 12, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
  11. TEDDY

    Sheesh I painted 20 pictures in my life and nobody called me an artist but sook just one kak, and .......

    June 12, 2010 at 9:55 am |
  12. jonds

    Goes to show how miserable some people are to follow these con men.

    June 12, 2010 at 9:52 am |
  13. Ponduhthis

    There is NO problem here... our human nature has caused all of us to have fallen short of the things we really desire in our hearts. I'm certain that YOU don't want to be the way you are.
    Be careful... you could be next.

    June 12, 2010 at 9:41 am |
  14. Nicky J

    You GO, Rainer08! He's wanting to redeem himself and his million$.

    June 12, 2010 at 9:36 am |
  15. Forgiven

    1 John 1:9 "If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." I pray that Ted has experienced that full forgiveness and cleansing of our Father in heaven. I pray that he will have a spirit of humility and brokenness as he returns to a ministerial capacity. I pray that he will rightly handle the word of God in his teaching, preaching, and counseling function. I pray that he will speak the truth in love. I pray that his marriage will be strengthened. Thank you, Lord, for his wife that exhibits the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ, by staying with her husband even in light of serious moral failure. Even though she had Biblical grounds to divorce she decided to say "No." Fill them with your Spirit, God of the Universe. We love you! We praise you! You are the God of redemption. We the redeemed will spend eternity loving you, praising you and serving you. We will behold the scars of crucifixion on your hands, your feet and your side. We will cry Hallelujah to the Lamb of God, who was sinless, and who took away the sin of the world. To God be the glory, both now and forever! Amen.

    June 12, 2010 at 8:55 am |
    • rainier08

      This is the problem. Using scripture as a crutch and using GOD rhetoric to insulate your self from being human is really disturbinmg. . Ted Haggard has nothing to be forgiven for beyond adultry. He's gay. Pretending he's been liberated...Hallaluyah....is really cult like mind numbing.

      June 12, 2010 at 9:20 am |
    • brian

      Forgiven is right. Christ came to earth to save SINNERS. Jesus Himself said, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.' If the scriptures are a 'crutch' then I'm in a full body cast and completely dependent on God! Amen.

      June 12, 2010 at 10:19 am |
    • bvilleyellowdog

      So the lesson is fairy tales protect hypocrites? Get over it. Teddy boy liked getting the big bucks from the little old ladies and wants back in on the take.

      June 12, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
  16. David

    Just listening to the banter itself is proof enough both God and Satan (the god of this world) exist and mankind is enslaved to one or the other so he dosen't do even what he wants to do.

    June 12, 2010 at 8:35 am |
  17. rainier08

    No...I couldn't be next. First. Im not gay. second..Im not lying to myself and selling myself to everyone else as something Im not.

    About apology and redemption. Take with a grain of salt any supposed contrition when people go this route AFTER theryve been exposed. It's nothing but damage control. Nothing else.

    June 12, 2010 at 8:32 am |
  18. Ponduhthis

    To all of you finger pointers – how about stepping from behind your self-rightous curtain and ask yourself this question, What have I done lately that could bring me to the spot that Ted is in?
    Be careful with your comments, you could be next.

    June 12, 2010 at 8:16 am |
  19. abbier

    Personally, I'd take Merle Haggard any day over Ted Haggard.

    June 12, 2010 at 7:03 am |
  20. Gerry

    The "good" self appointed non-demoninational minister is getting back into the game because the money is too good. Tax free donations. It is easy money. Religion is big money if he is able to rebuild another mega church with a new band of suckers. Ted Haggard probably does not want to get a real job because the pay is not good enough. How else to get a tax free "donated" Lexus or Mercedees or even better! People like Ted Haggard is why I suspect all non-denominational churches period. Each of these churches is led by a self-appointed guru. It is personality cult that attracts well meaning people who are seeking something real. Then these wolves in sheep's clothing fleeces them of the money in the name of godliness. Robert Tilton and Benny Hinn are other examples of "religious learders" who fleece their flock to live the life of ease. DISTRUST ALL NON-DENOMINATIONAL CHURCHES!

    June 12, 2010 at 6:00 am |
    • abbier

      And the Catholic Church doesn't do this?

      June 12, 2010 at 7:06 am |
    • bvilleyellowdog

      Keep your wallet in your pocket and distrust ALL CHURCHES.

      June 12, 2010 at 1:15 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.