[2 February 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I knew I was on a road that was going to kill me.
—Ted Haggard, The Oprah Winfrey Show, 28 January 2009
“Why didn’t you say, in front of that church, ‘I have issues with my sexuality, I have issues with drugs, I have these weaknesses’? Why didn’t you say that back then?” Asked from off-camera, Alexandra Pelosi’s question to Ted Haggard is more than a little loaded. Here he tenders an obvious answer: he feared that confessing his sins publicly would have meant instant rejection and condemnation by his church and community. And indeed, this is exactly what happened when his activities with male masseuse Mike Jones were exposed.
As Haggard walks a golf course, followed by Pelosi and her film crew, the exchange indicates that the titular Trials of Ted Haggard are ongoing, but only hints at their complexities. The sensational outlines of his story are well known: in 2006, when male escort Mike Jones revealed a three-year relationship with the pastor, Haggard was fired by the New Life Church, which he had founded in 1984. Not only that, but the church insisted that he and his wife and five children be exiled from the state of Colorado and that he undergo a “spiritual restoration”—in exchange for one year’s severance pay.
As the film shows it, this exile has so far consisted of Haggard’s movement from “safe house” to “safe house,” homes provided by friends and hotel rooms. Repeatedly, Haggard appears driving a U-Haul, in which the family stores their belongings. Two of his sons appear briefly on camera (“Hey, welcome to my crib,” one jokes, a faux rock star showing off his latest bedroom, complete with pillows sprouting pink feathers) and wife Gayle walks across a desert with her husband, telling Pelosi, “I was not aware of the depth of his struggle.” Now, she explains, she stays with her husband because “I believe you fight for the good, and I knew in order to restore honor to him and to our children—or rather, to restore honor to our children—the best thing I could do was restore honor to their father.”
Gayle Haggard’s careful articulation of her own convoluted choices makes clear the difficulties embodied by Ted. When, back on the golf course, Pelosi suggests that he has been forced by the board of New Life Church to make a choice, “between being gay and being evangelical,” he responds that he sees no option, that he is “an evangelical.” His “dark” side, his homosexual desires and his use of meth is an aberration, but, he insists, he was never an “anti-gay preacher. (Even if, as he says, “God’s best plan for human beings is for men and women to unite together and children’s best opportunity to grow up in a healthy way is to grow up in a home with their biological parents.”) The film includes a Mike Jones’ rejoinder: during a tour to promote his book, I Had to Say Something, he says, “Every gay person is a victim of Ted Haggard, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson, and all the hate that they spew.”
Haggard’s version of spewing is manifest in clips from a 2005 megachurch performance (Pelosi filmed Haggard for her documentary, Friends of God). Inserted before and after his present lamentations, the bits show him seeming smug and hateful (a joke about being mistaken for gay) as well as gaudily rapturous (he proclaims for his thousands of congregants, their hands raised as he has instructed them, “Everybody repeat after me: God is a good God! And the devil is a bad devil! No devil and yes God!”). But as these olden-days scenes are intercut with Haggard’s current lamentations, the film makes its own points. When he says now, “So at this stage in my life, I’m a loser, a first class loser,” the scene cuts to the 2005 Ted Haggard proclaiming, “We can walk in the joy God has for us.”
Aside from suggesting his loss of performative spiritual footing, such juxtapositions underscore Haggard’s fall from commercial grace. They also corroborate his assessment that “Churches are not just spiritual bodies, they are corporations, they are businesses.” When Pelosi notes, “And you were bad for business,” he agrees, then adds, “I think if they would have been chess players instead of checkers players, they would have realized I am their business. Somebody struggling with sin is the purpose that the church is on earth.”
His struggle remains unresolved in Trials, on multiple levels. Even as the film appears “sympathetic” toward Haggard, it never adopts his worldview. Sometimes, it offers overt challenges, joking, as when Haggard emerges from a 2005 area show, giddy: “The stadium’s full of men who want to live a better life and be better with their wives and all that kind of thing,” he gushes.” From out of frame, Pelosi laughs, “Praise the Lord and pass the testosterone!” He nods, not so giddy.
Haggard today is in constant motion: driving his U-Haul, pacing the desert, traipsing through a neighborhood with promotional door-hangers in yet another effort to make money. The movement suggests he’s going forward, toward a new sense of himself. “I am a deceiver and a liar,” he says more than once, “There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and abhorrent that I’ve been warring against it my whole adult life.” The logic seems to be that in making this war public, Haggard might be forgiven. But this forgiveness is hard to come by. Even as he reads passages from his bible extolling the virtues of mercy, his former associates insist he stay out of Colorado (the precise purpose of this punishment is not clear).
His castigation is extended into what Haggard calls “the secular world” as he is unable to find employment: on his way to an interview at the University of Phoenix, where he hopes to find work as an internet consultant, he asserts he has a good chance of being hired. That is, unless his prospective employers do some research: “If they don’t google me,” he smiles, “I’ll get the job. If they google me, you would think I was Adolph Hitler or Idi Amin.” Pelosi adds, “Or worse, gay.” He nods. “That’s worse in some circles.” These circles still hold sway for Haggard, though he has undergone therapy during his “restoration.” “I had to analyze myself,” he says, Pelosi’s camera watching from a low, wide angle. “Am I a heterosexual? A homosexual? Gay? Straight? Bisexual? What are you, Ted Haggard?”
Repeatedly exhibiting his great, if odd, camera-ready charisma, Haggard nonetheless bemoans what he calls “the media,” apparently excluding present company. “Anything that’s in the media becomes bigger than life,” he says, “If I do anything that raises my head above way below the norm, then the media acts like it’s a big deal.” But this “norm” is elusive. As much as social policing mechanisms like the church or the media try to define it, daily experience undermines it.
During one especially weird scene, Haggard lies in his hotel room bed, his cell phone (from which he has just read a bible verse) beside him and the camera close. “I’m not mentally ill,” he says, “However, I did have some things in my mind from childhood that were extremely powerful.” From under the covers, in his underwear and ready for sleep, he looks both vulnerable, sincere, and utterly clueless, performing again for another camera. “But now I know, I’m healthy enough that I can make a choice.” Though he says he chooses not to be “a man of disrepute,” Trials suggests this is not his choice to make.