Ted Haggard, the symbolic centrist

ministries 1371 1Over the past few days, I have been watching the coverage of the Rev. Ted Haggard fiasco carefully to see how many journalists understand one of the most important facts in this story.

What is that fact? Haggard is not a leader of the old Religious Right. For many people, he was the charismatic face of a more moderate brand of evangelicalism that backs the traditional Christian doctrines on the hot issues linked to sex and marriage, but also carries that “Culture of Life” emphasis over into discussions of poverty, the environment, the spread of AIDS, economic justice in the Third World and other issues.

Yet, at the same time, he was one of the new “moderate” evangelicals who had not lost the trust of the old-guard evangelical alpha males symbolized by Dr. James Dobson and Charles Colson. Haggard was a bridge personality, in other words. This made him an important figure for the White House, since he was an evangelical — but not among the old faces that everyone is used to seeing on the cable TV shows (think Pat Robertson) that President Bush has avoided like the plague.

It isn’t hard to find out this fact about the now resigned head of the National Association of Evangelicals. All one has to do is Google “Haggard,” “evanglicals” and “environment” and some pretty obvious links pop up. In fact, the evangelicals-that-the-New-York-Times-can-love template was kind of a cliche there for a few months. Click here to see what I am talking about.

It’s no surprise that there are hints of this reality in coverage by the talented and fair-minded Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times. For example, she wrote:

A father of five who dresses in blue jeans and drives a Chevy pickup, Haggard is well-known, and widely praised, as an energetic, charismatic pastor who has pushed to expand evangelical activism into issues such as global warming and world poverty. But he hasn’t shied away from the traditional culture-war issues of abortion and homosexuality.

A lengthy profile in Harper’s magazine — which is quoted approvingly on Haggard’s website — recounts how he built New Life Church in part by hanging out at gay bars and inviting the patrons to come to his sermons and be saved.

Under Haggard’s leadership, the National Assn. of Evangelicals, which has 30 million members, reaffirmed a policy statement that describes homosexuality as “a deviation from the Creator’s plan” and calls same-sex relations a sin that, “if persisted in … excludes one from the Kingdom of God.”

Note the presence of the words “if persisted in.” That is a fine point that applies to all kinds of activities that traditional Christian believers consider sin.

In addition to Simon, reporter Myung Oak Kim at the Rocky Mountain News has included some references to Haggard’s moderating role in modern evangelicalism. (I am sure there are other articles of this type that I have missed in the deluge. My apologies, in advance.) In an article on Haggard and national politics, Kim uses language that is very similar to that of Simon:

Within the evangelical community, Haggard is considered a moderate. Since becoming president of the 30 million-member evangelical organization in 2003, he has worked to broaden the mission of the NAE beyond hot-button issues like homosexuality and abortion to environmental consciousness, fighting poverty and promoting international human rights. …

BK TH001 250pixelsAnd in her latest story, Simon carries these themes even further. While many focus on the impact of the scandal on Republican politics, it is much more important for journalists to ask how it may or may not affect the fault lines within modern evangelicalism.

Thus, Simon writes:

Jesse Lava, who runs an online community called Faithful Democrats, said he hoped Haggard’s call for more activism on issues like poverty would gain traction in the coming months as his followers confronted “the fact of human fallibility” and remembered that “we need to address people in need with grace and compassion.”

But political scientist John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, predicted the opposite effect. Haggard’s push for action on global warming raised hackles among powerful leaders on the religious right. With Haggard discredited, those leaders may be able to swing the focus back to issues such as abortion. Or the evangelical movement — a solid GOP bloc over several election cycles — could splinter.

“This could have quite profound implications for how evangelicals [affect] politics in the future,” Green said, “long after we’ve forgotten the results of this coming election.”

Of course, there is no need to “swing the focus” back to abortion. That is the issue that never, ever, goes away in American politics — in either party. Ask the Democrats who are biting their tongues while a few culturally conservative Democrats in key red zip codes try to win some Hill seats that may return the party to power. The issue is whether the evangelical agenda narrows and narrows and narrows, while the old guard lose trust in the leaders who are trying to take their place.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ron Leech

    He who has no sin, let him cast the first stone. Be careful your sin could be exposed next…

  • Al Carrillo

    It’s unfortunate about Ted. From what tmatt says it seems that he was one of the modern evangelists that was begining to see Green, to go beyond abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage as their primary issues. However the fact remains that for most Americans today being labeled an evangelist is the same as being an ignorant right-wing nut job. At this time, he makes an excellent scapegoat. One cannot deny that for years the Republican party has fooled todays Christians into believing that they can solve their most important issues. If one is a true Christian nothing could be further from the truth. American Christians have been duped into believing that the ways of the late 19th and early 20th century robber barons is the path to the Kingdom of Heaven. Haggard’s plight has helped to expose the fallacy in this type of thinking. I sincerely hope that this incident has cost the Republicans the Senate in addition to, hopefully the House. Perhaps we’ll see a unilateral end to this ignorant crusade in Iraq that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives that never should have happend. If that horrifying Christian occupying the Whitehouse today could truly live by Christian values, hundreds of thousands would be alive today.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Folks, please remember that the goal is to discuss the quality of the coverage, which papers manage to uncover which new angles, reporters who are doing an exceptional job, etc.

    This is a journalism blog. Thanks.

  • Andy Crouch

    Terry, this is first-rate analysis. Thanks.

  • Dominic Glisinski

    Funny how different circles focus on different personalities. Right now with elections looming for you Yankees it is all politics oriented. Justifiably so in this case. The coverage of this ongoing saga of Haggard’s fall is minimal to nonexistent here in Canada, an acquaintance of mine in the Southwest US had not heard of Haggard…
    It certainly takes the spotlight off ECUSA and Jefferts-Schori’s accession to the throne of her new realm…

    Having read the Harpers article that Mollie linked to in her post, I can see how fatally flawed the whole charismatic/fundamentalist evangelical mindset and ethos is. What we see are the outworkings of this deficient worldview in their calamitous reality.

    Like a dull thud. CTV did actually post an article stating that Haggard was officially toast, the Board had decided the matter, and a letter was to be read out this Sunday.

  • Dominic Glisinski

    Here’s a link that might work:
    http://news.sympatico.msn.ctv.ca/TopStories/

  • L Robinson

    Well, I have watched this unfold, but was not shocked. It is unfortunate in this day and age that if a person prefers a “homosexual” relationship, he is just about chastied by the church. Obviously, this man did prefer this and hide it under the “cloak of the church”.

    How can one not look at this man and think him, hypocritical? Especially, for touting the mandate of being against same sex marriage, when he is married with five children and prefer gay sex? I know this is hard to take, but it is the truth.

    Hopefully, he can move on, as well as his family and hopefully there will not be much damage done to his family for what he did to them emotionally.

  • Dominic Glisinski

    Here’s a link that might work:
    http://news.sympatico.msn.ctv.ca/TopStories/

    As of this posting it’s the feature story, but that could change.

  • John Prohazka

    How does the illusionist work? He moves his left hand and makes you watch it, while he does the trick with his right hand.
    The same way Evangelical Christians are tricked by the republicans and by their leaders like Haggard. The charismatic leader turns their attention to gays and abortion, and when they are absolutely convinced that these are the most important things on earth, they are led to the voting booths to endorse the republican administration with its Iraq agenda.

  • Disciple

    This man’s story could, in my opinion, be a turning point in American history for how homosexuals are regarded and treated. The above article stated that Haggard is a bridge figure. Because he is so well-thought of in evangelical circles, he can continue to be a bridge, but now between the Christian right and the homosexual community. I hope the press does not try to burn this man, and turn him into a fopish character. I would like to hate him for his incredible hypocrisy, but I think a real opportunity exists for him to turn people around with his personal story.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Sorry, but based on current accusations and his life story, isn’t it more accurate to say that Haggard is bisexual and that he has been struggling with homosexual temptations that he may or may not have resisted. We simply do not know that.

    But who has said that he IS A homosexual or that this is even his dominant orientation. Right?

    Bisexuality is the reality that never seems to be mentioned in reports of this kind.

    I wonder why the news media do not mention this?

  • Michael

    Bisexuality is the reality that never seems to be mentioned in reports of this kind.

    Because it may not be a reality in these kinds of stories. McGreevey identifies as gay, even though he has two wives and kids. Many gay men and lesbians have relationships with people of the opposite sex, but don’t consider themselves bisexual because they were never really sexually oriented towards people of the opposite sex.

    It would be wrong for a journalist to describe him as bisexual, unless that the label he chooses to use for himself. Describing someone as bisexual because they have had sex with both men and women is misleading and a fairly limited understanding of sexuality.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Michael:

    So you disagree with Kinsey’s concept of a spectrum of human sexuality, with people’s behavior and orientations often changing during their lives?

    So self-identification is the only basis for law, even? It is the only reality?

  • Henry Porter

    The media has been amazingly restrained. None have yet to describe Reverend Haggard as just another example of Republican hypocrisy, or to point out that this is just one more in the endless list of reasons that Christians are not to be trusted: their judgments become faulty in proportion to their gullibility.

  • Michael

    The Kinsey scale is based on self-identification, in part, based on more than sex. While it accommodates shifts over time, the concept of “bisexualty” and where that lands on the Kinsey Scale is much disputed. Without knowing how someone views their own orientation and attraction, it would be wrong to label someone as “bisexual” unless that’s how they identify themselves.

    Using McGreevey, for instance, he was married to two women, had sex with women, and had children with women. Yet he considers himself gay. What that may mean is that he was always oriented towards men and never orienteed to women, despite all evidence to the contrary. Just as men in prison have sex with each other without being gay, people in marriages can have sex without being heterosexual.

    From a press perspective, I just don’t think a reporter has enough information to toss around the bisexual word without much more information about the person involved. It’s a conclusion full of biases and assumptions.

  • Joe

    So, 30 million followers? & we wonder why President Bush courts these sheep?
    Where is GW now that his buddy is in trouble?
    {no disrespect intended for the Mr Haggard, to each their own } The Republicans have been using these folks for years to accomplish their own agenda.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Michael:

    But you approve of journalists and commentators who do their own labeling to call him gay or homosexual?

  • Liz B.

    I check my news at CNN.com, and this is the top story right now. The “so, who is this guy?” link accompanying the story on the front page is headlined “Profile: Accused evangelical tried to broaden agenda”. The article (from the AP) is pretty straightforward– I’d say the characterization of Haggard that this post describes is in fact being prominently addressed in the mainstream press at this point.

  • Michael

    I actually don’t think it would be appropriate to label Haggard gay. It would be appropriate to say he (allegedly) had sex with a gay escort. That’s daming enough when you’ve preached against homosexuality on the pulpit/stage. His acts may have been homosexual, but I’m not sure he is “gay.”

    The complication is that while gay and lesbian folks have often had sex with people of the opposite sex (without considering themselves bisexual), it’s a lot less common for heterosexual people to acknowledge same-sex relations and still identify as heterosexual.

    I noticed Andrew Sullivan called Haggard “gay.” I think that’s a leap.

    Here’s some things NLGJA and the Poynter people have said. It’s not completely applicable, but it gives a perspective.

    http://www.nlgja.org/resources/toolbox_outing.html

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    I think tmatt makes an excellent point about bisexuality and the continuum of sexual orientation. I also think the word “gay” implies a self-acceptance that isn’t present with Rev. Haggard.

    As a gay Episcopalian, the main thing I feel about Rev. Haggard is sadness. If the allegations are true, it means he led a tortured double-life, proclaiming to believe one thing (homosexuality is a sin) while secretly behaving in a totally different way. In psychological terms it’s called “cognitive dissonance.” I know what that’s like, because that’s how I lived from ages 20 to 32 — my closeted “zombie years.” It’s truly a miracle I didn’t end up schizophrenic. I could have very easily fallen into using dangerous drugs, like Haggard did (he has admitted to using crystal meth, a drug which is rampant in the gay community), and I’m very grateful I didn’t.

    Returning to the purpose of this blog (media coverage of religion): Most of the news stories I’ve heard about this are linking the story about Rev. Haggard together with the upcoming ballot initiatives on gay marriage, as if the two stories were somehow related. I’ve especially noticed this on CBS and even (disappointingly) on my beloved NPR.

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    Correction to my post: Rev. Haggard has admitted buying crystal meth from the prostitute; I don’t think he admitted to actually using it.

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  • alison

    Darrell, the press is linking the two stories because the accuser, Mike Jones, linked the two.

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    Ah! Thanks, Alison.

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