By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 2009
UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. Two years ago Ted Haggard vanished into the gap that separates righteous, evangelical America from righteous, liberal America. By chance this cultural divide was defined to a large extent by attitudes about gay sex even before a male prostitute announced he had been sleeping with the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and had sold him some methamphetamine.
Now Haggard, 52, is back in the public eye, his lanky frame leaning forward on an easy chair in a penthouse suite of the Universal City Hilton as he flogs "The Trials of Ted Haggard," a documentary by Alexandra Pelosi that debuts on HBO Thursday. The striking woman on the couch to his right is his wife, Gayle, still with the pastor despite everything -- the scandal, their exile to the desert, and the continuing mystery of her husband's sexuality -- because she found in the teachings of Jesus the grace to forgive, vs. the "downward spiral" of judgment and hate.
Haggard came to the same place by an alternate route.
"My spiritual life was wonderfully empowering for me in the midst of the struggle. But it wasn't the solution," he says.
"I needed a therapist."
Decades in the ministry failed to prepare him for this.
"I thought, 'I don't need to go to a therapist!' I mean I didn't even understand therapy. 'Jesus is the solution to everything!' " he says. "And I personally believe now that this process has occurred so that I would get the therapy I needed. I believe my therapy is the answer to 30 years of prayer about this subject. And so I am very grateful for the decision of the overseers and the restorers and I'm so thrilled about the way my life is now. I'm the man now that -- no, no, no, that's not true. I am becoming the man now that everybody thought I was then."
The "overseers" ran the 14,000 member New Life Church that Haggard founded in 1984 in Colorado Springs, Colo., the city and state the Haggards were required to leave as a condition of a $100,000-plus severance package hammered out with the church in the global glare of scandal. He went to Arizona for secular counseling because the supervising clerics required -- who'd have seen this coming, after the shunning? -- that he get therapy.
The family will be on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" Wednesday to talk about it.
They wandered in the wilderness for more than a year. For the first four months the family lived in a spacious suburban manse lent by a friend. When the Haggards and their U-Haul moved on, as they always did, it was to steadily less capacious quarters. The final scene of the documentary finds the pastor hiking into the sagebrush behind a cramped short-term rental, searching for the peace and quiet to read the Bible that he still clutches. But a secular book also lent him strength.
"Up until the book 'The Speed of Trust,' I so deeply wanted to be a man that thoroughly reflected Scripture, I just buried the struggle in my heart," Haggard says, referring to the self-help book on building relationships. "And it was 'The Speed of Trust' that set me free in that." He says he finished reading it the Monday after a public confession of his wrongdoings was read aloud in the arena nave of New Life just after the scandal broke in November 2006. He turned to Gayle and said: "I'm going to tell you everything that's been going on inside of me. Because I've been going through hell."
Two years later, everyone seems comfortable with everyone else, including the two of their five kids taking part in the publicity tour for a film about Dad's sex life.
"Yeah, no kiddin'," says Marcus Haggard, 25. "Spare the details, certainly."
Details are what people want, of course. You get only some. To avoid further mortification, the pastor says he talks only to Gayle and his therapist about the homosexual activity that occurred between his born-again experience at age 16 and the dramatic emergence of Mike Jones, a masseur and escort who described sexual encounters with the pastor, exposing his double life.
Haggard will say his first sexual encounter ever occurred in second grade, with a man who worked for his father, an Indiana veterinarian and founder of a charismatic ministry.
"But I don't blame that for my behavior," he says of the encounter. "A therapist would have to say whether that's relevant or not. I am just saying that that happened. I know the thoughts associated with it are relevant, but I don't know if that's compelling or not.
"Then there was a little bit of sex play with seventh-grade buddies. Then I became a Christian at 16, when I was told that everything pre-repentance is washed away, is gone, you never have to think about it again, you're born again."
In his new, saved life, lines between the permitted and forbidden grew perhaps unnaturally bright. Many of the evangelicals around him saw virtue in absolutes. In college Haggard owned an eight-track tape of B.J. Thomas's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" and his girlfriend dropped him "because that was so worldly."
Of sex with men, Haggard won't specify when in his adult life the encounters began, and with how many people he shared those encounters. He does say that "when anything would come to my mind I would try to dismiss it, when I should have in fact processed it. That's what I learned in the last two years. And it was major error for me. And that isolated it, and according to some of my therapists that's what created some of my problem as an adult, and that's what I've been able to work through."
Before he worked it through, however, Haggard toed the evangelical line on gay sex. He supported Amendment 2, a Colorado referendum nullifying civil protections for gays and lesbians (passed, but later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court). He advised youngsters to look to the Scripture that describes homosexuality as an abomination.
Meanwhile, his own secret behavior proved a source of incessant torment.
"There were a few times when I talked to other people about it, but they were always within the religious leadership community, and they always gave me bad advice," Haggard says, with what only sounds like a laugh. "I talked to one old man of God, told him about it, and he said, 'You just need to be busier in the church.'
"And talked to another about it, and he said, 'Have you memorized Romans 6?' "
The one that ends: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Haggard offers "the incongruity of my life" as evidence of the limits of belief in absolutes.
"I would say I am a heterosexual," he begins, when asked his sexual preference. "But I have had to deal with issues, other issues associated with sexuality, and with the complexity of homosexuality and bisexuality and questions and feelings and thoughts and all that kind of thing.
"But what was so incredibly confusing to me about it was the way I enjoyed my relationship with my wife."
Gayle nods. She says one of the things that confused her was how well their marriage had been going when the scandal broke.
"I think it was because I was fighting for it," Haggard says. "See, I had that other thing going on, and I was going back, it was a love-hate thing going on with my sin.
"And I call it my sin," he says. "That's my sin. I'm not saying everybody is a sinner that does it. I'm just saying with my standards and my values, it was a sin against me and God. For me."
Gayle gives it a moment, then shoots him a look and points to herself.
"And me," she says.
When Jones went public with his accusations, he told reporters he knew Haggard as "Art," his middle name. He said they met monthly over the course of three years, always for sex. Jones said Haggard used meth to enhance sex, an accusation that Haggard -- when asked -- confirms with a hurried nod.
"There was a drug piece," he says, then describes himself as a novice in "that whole world." He says a blood test taken when he arrived for counseling showed the drugs had already flushed from his system.
None of this might have come to light, however, but for Haggard's opposition to same-sex marriage. Jones has said he went public only after learning Haggard's full identity and politics.
Those politics appear to have grown more nuanced.
"Prior to this scandal, I felt as though the definition of marriage was an important issue to be reflected in law," Haggard said. "I now believe that the Gospel is so wonderful, that the New Testament is so wonderful, the grace of God is so wonderful that that word might not be so significant that it should define publicly evangelicalism."
As Haggard explains his change of heart, hawks careen on thermals over the Hollywood Hills behind him. It wasn't only what was happening inside him in recent years that provoked this change, he says. It was also what others said about him.
"I don't think I'd ever experienced hate before."
And he got it from both sides, a situation that put Haggard "in a unique position to carry on a discussion about that whole issue, and bring some light of reason to it" says Greg Walta, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who left New Life Church over Amendment 2, but credits Haggard for supporting a later effort at compromise. "It's kind of high time for that anyway."
Haggard said the hatred directed his way arrived with equal force from across the cultural spectrum.
"The difference is that when it comes from church people who promote love, forgiveness, understanding and grace, it penetrates one more deeply," he said.
"Although, on the homosexual political side, their theme is tolerance, diversity, hope, 'no judgment!' " Haggard points out. He settles back in the chair. "So I guess it's pretty equal then."
Not to Pelosi. The daughter of the House speaker fashioned "The Trials" as the latest in a series of low-tech, videotaped documentaries that began on the 2000 campaign trail with "Journeys With George," and brought her into contact with Haggard for last year's "Friends of God," about evangelicals.
Pelosi's next project, "Right America: Feeling Wronged," scheduled to air on HBO in February, gives voice to the hard-core Republicans who showed up most faithfully at John McCain rallies. Their anger is rooted in feeling ignored, a resentment that appears justified to Pelosi, who in discussing the overlooked population exhibits the enthusiasm of Leni Riefenstahl after coming upon the Nuba.
"We liberals are so intolerant of anybody who doesn't share our worldview," Pelosi said.
Pelosi found Haggard early in his exile in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he was living around the corner from her sister. She offered to help him move, showed up with a camera and came back routinely. Her husband, Michiel Vos, helped out, filming Haggard as he compared himself to hapless George Costanza on the way to a job interview ("If they don't Google me, I'll get the job"), as he hung fliers on doorknobs, and as he peddled health insurance to strangers. Near his nadir, Haggard awakens wreathed in the nubby brown blanket of a Super 8. He pulls a Treo close to his face, reads Scripture aloud, lays his head on the pillow, and, reflecting on his sexuality, announces that his therapy has made him "healthy enough I can make a choice about those types of things."
"The first thing I asked the head psychologist was, just, 'Can you tell me that my husband is who I believe he is?' " Gayle says. "Because I believe he's still that man. I believe that our marriage is real, all that we have gone through and grown through is real, that our family is real, that the church that he planted and that we've grown up over the last 22 years is real."
She continues, "So this whole idea of sexuality being complex: I can see that it is so wrong of us to compartmentalize us and to label people. I am hoping that through all of this we'll learn how to, instead of label people and put them in categories, that we'll learn to really listen to each other and really see each other and have compassion for each other. Because the last thing we need to do is burden people who are just trying to work out their lives."
A few years ago, that view would have gotten nowhere in the evangelical community, says Wendy Murray Zoba, author of "The Beliefnet Guide to Evangelical Christianity." Now, though, there may be a bit more room in that world.
"The movement is maturing, and there is a very solid and grounded segment that would rally around that statement," says Zoba, whose latest book is on Saint Francis of Assisi, who was a playboy before becoming a saint. "Many others wouldn't. They'd say you'd have to draw the line somewhere. They'd use the word 'sin.' . . . Ted Haggard is a test case. He's a very defining example of the complications that are challenging evangelicals."
They are all selling life insurance now: Ted, Gayle and daughter Christy. Life sells far faster than health, he says, because it's easier to tell if someone is alive than to tell what's going on inside.
The overseers let them return to Colorado last year. Haggard doesn't go to church these days; he prays at home. He says he probably carries too much baggage to ever return to the pulpit full time, but last Sunday morning he did wake up in his own bed. He said could hear his children moving around the house, some preparing for church, others for a party that night.
"I just laid there and listened to the noises in the house," he says, "and was just so grateful I wasn't waking up in a little garage apartment by myself."