Pastor Ted, in trouble again, on HBO again

[28 January 2009]

By Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The premise for the first one was strange enough: Alexandra Pelosi, filmmaker, daughter of the Speaker of the House, not much of a believer by her own admission, palling around with fundagelicals while making a HBO documentary about them called “Friends of God.”

Her secret weapon in making that film - and its sequel, airing this week on HBO - was the Rev. Ted Haggard, a hugely successful pastor in Colorado and president of the National Association of Evangelicals. While another film, “Jesus Camp,” depicted Haggard as a kinda creepy fire-and-brimstone type, Pelosi found him to be helpful, accommodating and, well, fun.

“If ‘Friends of God’ is able to overcome the doubters and become a useful document of today’s Bible Belt, much of the credit must go to Haggard,” I wrote in 2007. “Pelosi said he took her into his family and on trips through the evangelical world; opened doors to Jerry Falwell, who allowed her to film inside his Thomas Road Baptist Church; and turned her on to subculture phenomena like Christian wrestling, which looks just like the blood-and-guts version on cable TV, except there’s an altar call at the end.”

But just as she was putting the finishing touches on that film, a scandal brought down Pastor Ted. He admitted to having sex with a male escort (and church volunteer) and purchasing crystal meth from him. One of those will get you kicked out of your pulpit. The other, apparently, gets you kicked out of Colorado.

“The Trials of Ted Haggard,” Pelosi’s new documentary airing at 8 p.m. EST Thursday on HBO, offers glimpses into the ex-pastor’s new life since leaving New Life, the megachurch he built. At about 40 minutes running time, “Trials” cannot offer a comprehensive overview of Haggard’s nearly two years of exile since losing his pastorate.

Pelosi’s film is long on sympathy and short on insight. We learn that Haggard agreed to leave the state, along with his wife Gayle and two teenage sons, even though it would require them to shuffle from one supporter’s spare bedroom to the next. We learn that the gay escort, Mike Jones, is milking his fame for what it’s worth.

Word of the impending documentary’s telecast, however, seems to be the impetus for a second man to come forward alleging that Haggard, while still pastor of New Life, had an inappropriate relationship with him. The Gazette of Colorado Springs reports that the victim, who received a generous cash payout from the church (which is calling it “compassionate assistance”), plans to hold a news conference next Monday. Meanwhile, an HBO spokesman tells me that there will be a graphic tacked onto the end of “The Trials of Ted Haggard” explaining “that since the completion of the film, additional allegations have surfaced about Ted Haggard’s inapproproriate sexual behavior.”

Pelosi’s film is notable for what it doesn’t tell us, either: that Haggard received cash and parting gifts worth nearly $1 million, if you count the house he left behind but still owns. (In the real world, an asset you can’t enjoy for a few years is known as “retirement.”) And only at the very end of the documentary are we told that the Haggards were cleared to reoccupy their house, if not their old church home.

On the other hand, it was clearly degrading for Ex-Pastor Ted to be carting around his worldly effects in the back of a minivan and interview for menial jobs. And I’m sure the humiliations of being dragged through the news cycle a few times - not to mention explaining to one’s children why their comfortable lives have suddenly turned into the movie “Running on Empty” - are genuine.

But none of that is really what this film is about. “The Trials of Ted Haggard,” at its core, is about denial. Strip away all the particulars of his subculture and Haggard’s response to his ordeal is a very American one. It’s a bump in the road, a speck in his eye, a New Testament thorn in his Old Testament side. He’s not letting it get him down, even as he calls himself a “loser” and berates himself for not developing a just-in-case second career along the way. He’s still in a great marriage; he’s not underqualified, he’s overqualified; and as for this health insurance he’s selling door-to-door - well, it just might be the best policy he’s ever seen.

Haggard is not letting his struggles shake his faith in God, nor is Gayle the least regretful about her decision to marry Ted. I find this wholly admirable. Less admirable is the worldview they cling to, one that sees homosexuality as something to be avoided at all costs.

Though it’s clear that his much-publicized attempt to “pray the gay away” was less than a resounding success for Haggard, and he now considers his sexuality to be a complex matter, nothing he says to Pelosi challenges the conservative evangelical credo of hetero today, hetero tomorrow, hetero forever.

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