Of Meth and Men

1595550526 01 LZZZZZZZWhen I saw the transcripts of the Rev. Ted Haggard’s phone message, my first thought was that it sounded more like a call to his dealer. That would have still been a big story but more of a local affair. You know, “Pastor of Megachurch Bought Meth from Sketchy Guy.”

Without the allegations by gay prostitute Michael Jones that he had turned tricks for Haggard about once a month over a three-year period, it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t have got very far. Or at least I think that’s fair to say. (If you disagree, feel free to make the case in comments.)

In other words, this story traveled as far as it did because of our attitudes about hypocrisy and especially hypocrisy about sex. Type “Haggard” into Google News. You’ll get no fewer than 2,000 results, including dozens of foreign news outlets.

Regardless of the result of Jones’ second polygraph test, the story has now been downgraded. Given his personal history, Jones never had much credibility, and he was pretty frank that he was doing this to damage Haggard and hurt the efforts to ban gay marriage and save the Republicans from certain doom.

Journalists aren’t going to want to get burned again and risk the attendant charges of bias for taking sides in the midterms.

Now an independent board of overseers (note to reporters: they’re not from Haggard’s megachurch) will decide if buying Meth and massages from a gay prostitute and lying about it are cause to fire him. My guess: the board will at least decide that Haggard can’t be head pastor anymore, and they’ll probably fire his ass.

As for the larger implications for this story, well, it’s probably worth looking at what the National Association of Evangelicals will be like without Haggard as its president.

In its earlier form, the scandal could have helped to depress the evangelical vote or get out what Terry Mattingly has written about in the past — the growing “anti-evangelical vote.” But the way the news cycle has sped up has made that less likely. A political consultant friend told me that he would have released a bombshell like this on Friday rather than Wednesday.

And hey, working journalists, the next time you have a story that’s all about hypocrisy, it might not be bad to get a quote from the guy who wrote the book on the subject.

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Rereading that Sharlet piece

harpersReader TK had a fascinating comment on a previous post about the Haggard coverage:

One statement that he has made, repeatedly, concerned me:

Haggard: “Does a Christian need to ask forgiveness each day? No! A mature Christian should not be sinning on a daily basis, so may not need to ask for forgiveness on a daily basis.”

The above quote came from a really interesting 09/12/2005 interview with Ted Haggard on the Issues, Etc. radio program hosted by Pastor Wilken. The interview was later rebroadcast, in two parts (part one and part two), on 9/13/05 with added commentary and listener call-ins.

. . . Now, with the allegations and his admissions of some guilt, I can’t help but question his doctrine, his steadfast belief, that true and mature Christians no longer sin. The “best” Christians I know live in daily repentance and full knowledge of their capability to sin.

It will be very sad to follow this story because of the many, many families who’ve followed him to Colorado Springs. Along with the Wilken interview, I highly recommend a lengthy article, Soldiers of Christ, by Jeff Sharlet of Harper’s Magazine from May 2005. In re-reading the article this morning about Haggard and those families who followed him to the “city of faith,” I found this passage ironic:

“Pastor Ted soon began upsetting the devil’s plans. He staked out gay bars, inviting men to come to his church.”

I don’t know what this says about me, but when I first heard the Haggard story, my thoughts immediately went to Jeff Sharlet. He runs The Revealer, a site that, like ours, analyzes media coverage of religion.

Jeff has written a few long-form reports on religious issues in his day. One, a detailed and insightful look at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, should, as TK says, be reread in light of this news cycle. He’s reposted it with the following introduction:

I’m re-posting my original Harper’s piece below not because I think I got the story right — if Jones’ story is true, I missed it by a mile — but because I hope it’ll help the journalists now on the job get the story right by not making the mistake I did. The downfall of Ted Haggard is not just another tale of hypocrisy, it’s a parable of the paradoxes at the heart of American fundamentalism. I wrote about the role of sex in Ted’s theology, but removed it from the final edit of the story (some of it I refashioned into a short essay on Christian Right’s men’s sex books for Nerve). I made the mistake of viewing Ted’s sex and his religion of free market economics as separate spheres. The truth, I suspect, is that they’re intimately bound in a worldview of “order,” one to which it turns out even Ted cannot conform.

Perhaps some reporters will be able to get the religious angle to this story.

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My spiritual gift is crystal meth

crystal methI’m rather speechless about this whole Ted Haggard story. I grew up down the road from his New Life megachurch (pop. 14,000) and have followed his ascendancy for years. I’m rather uncertain what can be said about the media coverage, too.

Stories like this are difficult to write about, and we’ve seen some good examples of how to treat it. I’m not sure if this is simply a personal opinion or a journalistic one, but I absolutely loathe this news cycle. I’m not sure if people need to read about the allegations or why they’re reading about them now.

Whether or not the allegations are true, this is a person with a wife and five kids. Whatever else may be said about him, I doubt Haggard claimed he was sinless or without lusts. And public condemnation of sinful behavior does not mean his private life is open season.

Yes, it’s salacious and juicy, but I think that reporters should think ethically about how to handle this story. And I think I might be speaking more to myself — who always experiences a bit ton of schadenfreude at the Elmer Gantry-like downfall of megachurch or televangelist leaders — than anyone else.

Anyway, here’s one thing I’ve picked up from the story. Mr. Jones, the drug-selling male escort, is the only source for the story. He says Haggard a) paid him for sex, b) bought crystal meth and c) used it in front of him. He’s failed a lie-detector test, but the test administrator says it could be because he’s not eaten or slept well.

The evidence, as it were, is an envelope allegedly from Haggard as well as two voice messages allegedly from Haggard that discuss what Jones says is a meth purchase. Haggard has admitted to some of the allegations while vehemently denying the prostitution charges.

Those bits of substantiation don’t support the gay sex charge. They support the drug usage claim. I think it’s interesting that reporters are leading and pushing the gay sex claims rather than the meatier drug claims. I’m not really sure what it means, I just find it interesting.

On this site we look at whether the media do a good job of understanding the religious angles to stories. And that is and will be a concern as this story develops. But reporters on the religion beat or any other beat should make sure to get the facts straight before anything else.

Once those facts are laid out better, Bible Belt Blogger Frank Lockwood asks an interesting question:

But why is it that many of the biggest names in the Pentecostal movement — over and over again — end up disgracing themselves and the church as a whole?

He notes that Haggard describes himself as Southern Baptist but applies some Charismatic practices such as speaking in tongues, the laying on of hands for healing, and prophecy. I think back to Eric Gorski’s excellent series on Bishop Dennis Leonard up I-25 at Heritage Christian Center. He linked the theology of prosperity to the church’s financial dealings.

The bottom line: Newspapers should follow The Denver Post‘s lead by having religion reporters heavily involved in the coverage. It’s bound to pay off.

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“Deceptions” in a lie-detector test

actGrab2Here is the latest from Denver. This does not prove anything one way or the other, of course, it just adds evidence that the truth is somewhere in between the accuser’s pre-election media splash and the Rev. Ted Haggard’s initial denials. In other words, the lie-detector test backs the position already accepted by the leadership of New Life Church.

Ted Haggard’s accuser failed a polygraph test early this morning about the truthfulness of his accusations that he had had a three-year homosexual affair with the influential Colorado Springs minister. The test was given to Michael Jones, 49, an admitted male prostitute, who made the allegations on the Peter Boyles Show on radio station KHOW Thursday morning.

. . . The test administrator, John Kresnik, said Jones’ score indicated “deceptions” in his answers. However, Kresnik said he doubted the accuracy of the test he administered because of the recent stress on Jones and his inability to eat or sleep, according to KHOW producer Greg Hollenback. Kresnik suggested that Jones be re-tested early next week after he was rested.

And for those awaiting the word from on high, here is a New York Times story. Frankly, I would watch the Colorado dailes — here, here and here.

This story is still centered at the local level right now. I would not want to be in charge of media security at the church’s service this Sunday.

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Timing, tapes and Clintonian grammar

062104clintonbill2I assume there will be many posts today on the Rev. Ted Haggard’s fall.

It seems to me that there are still questions about what, precisely, is on the telltale telephone answering-machine tapes. There seem to be quite a few undefined pronouns. Meanwhile, here is the most crucial news breaking this morning in Denver media:

… (The) acting senior pastor at New Life, Ross Parsley, said in an e-mail sent to parishioners late Thursday that Haggard admitted to some of the accusations:

“It is important for you to know that he confessed to the overseers that some of the accusations against him are true,” Parsley said in the e-mail.

“(Haggard) has willingly and humbly submitted to the authority of the board of overseers, and will remain on administrative leave during the course of the investigation,” the e-mail continued.

In terms of media coverage, the most interesting angle to this story is the timing.

Here is the crucial question, one that echoes questions about media coverage of the fall of former Rep. Mark Foley: Just how long did KUSA-TV and/or others sit on this story before breaking it mere days before a crucial election? Why did journalists do this? At the request of the accuser?

You can expect this to be discussed at length in evangelical circles today and, perhaps, on talk radio. If there is silence on the conservative talk-radio shows, that will say a lot.

Meanwhile, conservative Democrat Mark Stricherz — a friend of this blog — is sure to ruffle some feathers in the comment pages with this take on the story:

Evangelical Leader Takes a Page, Or Two, from Bill Clinton

As a rule, I am not inclined to believe a male escort who, less than a week before an election, claims on a local TV station that the head of the National Association of Evangelicals paid him for sex. … But check out the denial from the accused, the Rev. Ted Haggard:

I did not have a homosexual relationship with a man in Denver,” said Haggard. “I am steady with my wife. I’m faithful to my wife.”

Note the use of the present tense. The Rev. Haggard didn’t say he has never had a homosexual relationship, nor that he has always been steady or faithful to his wife. He said he is steady and is faithful. That is exactly the language that Bill Clinton used in his first national interview, with Jim Lehrer, after L’Affaire Lewinsky broke.

Maybe Rev. Haggard misspoke. Maybe he once cheated on his wife, just not with a male escort. But I suspect he’s guilty of some sexual misconduct. Which if true probably sinks the Republicans’ chances of holding onto the Senate.

I’m not sure about that last line, because I am not sure that this story will have much of an impact in red-zip-code zones in Tennessee, Virginia and Missouri.

More later, I am sure, from all the gang here at GetReligion.

UPDATE: Here is a link that claims to have the text of the semi-confession email sent to members of New Life Church. Here is part of the text from the Rev. Ross Parsley:

As you’ve likely heard by now, Pastor Ted has voluntarily placed himself on administrative leave as New Life’s senior pastor to allow our external board of overseers to work effectively. … Since that time, the board of overseers has met with Pastor Ted. It is important for you to know that he confessed to the overseers that some of the accusations against him are true. He has willingly and humbly submitted to the authority of the board of overseers, and will remain on administrative leave during the course of the investigation.

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When less isn’t more

evangelicals for mittGosh, once we get through Tuesday, it’s only two years until the next presidential election. And unless Tom Cruise throws his hat in the ring, it looks like Mitt Romney will be the candidate whose religion will get the most media attention.

In that vein, Scott Helman of The Boston Globe filed a report yesterday about meetings Romney is holding with evangelical leaders. Romney has met with Southern Baptist Richard Land and conservative activist Gary Bauer, as well as local pastors in South Carolina.

The meetings have touched on several themes, participants say, but two topics being discussed are Romney’s religious beliefs and how he should address his faith as the campaign progresses.

The story also says that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which Romney belongs, is meeting with newspapers and other media outlets in an attempt to explain its beliefs and practices. It’s a very interesting story, but for a story about religion, there is very little in it. For instance:

Polls indicate that the religion is widely misunderstood and viewed skeptically by many in the United States.

This is a great thing to mention, but I wonder why there are no details.

What polls? How is the religion misunderstood? What does widely mean? This is sort of the whole point of the story, so it would be nice to have some details about the situation on the ground.

The story discusses a group that was formed to demystify Mormonism called RunMittRun.org. The group runs focus groups that have found voters’ views of the Mormon religion could affect election results. What are those views? How are those views wrong? How does RunMittRun.org shape voter opinions? No details. Helman does speak with one of the 2,000 supporters of RunMittRun.org, Kris Murphy, a stay-at-home father who lives in Alabama.

“I was born and raised in the church and served a mission, and frankly I am sick and tired of the mischaracterization of Mormons not being Christians,” Murphy said, citing a belief held by some evangelicals. “Whenever there’s an opportunity to talk about what Mormonism is, . . . we are ready and willing and able to talk about it.”

Me, too! But unfortunately, there is no talking about it in this article.

Murphy’s claim that the view is a mischaracterization is just left hanging there. At some point, some reports are going to have to cover some of these issues in more detail.

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Missing Mayor O’Malley’s faith

martin o'malleyThe Washington Post‘s 2,300-word profile of Martin O’Malley left me in a state of confusion. How does one write about a talkative Irish guy who speaks of his “Jesuit ideal of being ‘a man for others’” without mentioning his religious affiliation or exploring how this shaped his political philosophy?

Every indication in the article suggests that O’Malley is a Catholic, but reporter Paul Duggan seems content writing around the edges of this aspect of O’Malley’s life.

Consider the article’s opening:

In the synagogue meeting hall, the candidate’s rhetoric has taken flight. “If there is a motto to the O’Malley-Brown campaign,” says the Baltimore mayor, the poet-pol who would be governor, “then it is found in the eyes and faces of the people we seek to serve.”

The congregants of B’nai Israel in Rockville came to the Sunday morning forum with earnest questions on the issues, and Martin O’Malley, the great hope of Maryland’s Democratic Party, gave them answers, on roads and schools, crime and health care.

Now, in closing, as often happens, he’s into oratory.

“While concepts of healing the world — tikkun olam, tzedakah, justice — are clearly Judeo concepts, they are also human concepts,” says O’Malley, a singer-songwriter of Irish folk music. “They are guardians of the freedom of the human spirit and the proof of what our human frailty can achieve.”

o'malleyThe closest we get to exploring O’Malley’s religious beliefs is that in his campaign he has cited his Jesuit ideals, which were formed while at Gonzaga College High School. There are also a couple of vague references to “faith.” We also learn that O’Malley was a Catholic University student. His website says that he, his wife and four kids attend St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.

O’Malley’s religious convictions seem to run deep, but we’re not told that. Do they affect his political philosophy? All we have to work with are his vague notions of ideals and being a man for all people.

Now this may seem like a relatively trivial issue outside of Maryland, but O’Malley has been one of the most visible mayors in the country. If he gains the bully pulpit of leading a state adjacent to the massive media scrum that is Washington, D.C., we should expect to hear a lot more from him.

His friends have suggested a potential 2012 presidential campaign could be in the works (yes, I know it’s too early for that kind of talk). No doubt if O’Malley rises to that level, his rebellious Irish streak and “Jesuit ideals” will receive more than a passing notice.

Top photo courtesy of O’Malley’s campaign website, taken at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Cambridge, Md.

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Katie Couric speaks her mind on modesty

Katie Couric speaks out!

“Plunging necklines and navel-bearing tops” are not appropriate for Halloween, says Couric. In her “Katie Couric’s Notebook” segment Monday night, the CBS Evening News anchor lashed out against the “$5 billion Halloween industry” for marketing “sleazy” costumes to girls. What’s interesting is that this came from an “Only On the Web” videocast. As far as I know, this segment never made it on over-the-air television.

Embedded in this post is the YouTube version of this clip. Apologies for the 15-second ad that comes before Couric’s 60-second musing. If you don’t want to watch the clip, here is the heart of Couric’s message about sleazy Halloween costumes:

Some will say these getups are a sign of women’s confidence about their bodies, but what message are we sending our girls when today’s costumes only reinforce a larger cultural message that they already see in magazines and in ads: that women get more attention by wearing less?

Couric cites the New York Times piece that tmatt blogged about Sunday as the source of her frustrations (her source could also be this NYT piece, but it’s hard to say since they are both behind the money wall).

Couric’s rebellion against the “larger cultural message” is an interesting development. I am not a regular viewer of the evening news, so I would not know if she has directed her news crew to do real news stories on this subject of female modesty. But note the target of Couric’s wrath. It’s not the individuals who dress up as sex witches, it’s those darn marketers and advertisers. Oh, and it’s also the industry’s fault.

But last time I checked, the industry and the marketers will offer what sells. And these sleazy costumes are certainly selling. And it goes beyond Halloween. So who is really at fault for what Couric says is an inappropriate cultural development? And why is this only a Halloween issue? We know you are serious about this subject, Katie, but could you get your notebook out again and do a more serious, in-depth report on what is happening to the self-image of American girls and women?

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