Shock of all shocks! How can this possibly be? Ted Haggard, who swore up and down he was reformed and made new again in Jesus after his last huge scandal, has been accused again of something similar–and worse. But this should be impossible. Jesus, you see, changes people. He washes away their sins. Except when he doesn’t, obviously. Let’s take a closer look at this claim–and its many, many asterisked terms and conditions.
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My big project lately was figuring out who my new primary care doctor would be. It’s actually been the past week’s project, but I got really intent about it yesterday.
It turns out that my new hometown is dealing with a whole glut of people needing to establish primary care doctors. They’re scheduling a solid month out!
Back in Boise, I had the same trouble finding a vet for Bother, my cat. I had started searching right when I learned we were moving. She only needs her rabies/etc shots, but the closest appointment I could get for her was the end of September! So, I waited till we got to Oregon. Probably should have gotten moving on making an appointment before we were even there. Eventually, it worked out; she’s getting her shots next week.
It’s not just that people put off vet care during the pandemic, though one clinic told me that was indeed a problem. There’s also starting to be a serious shortage of veterinarians. Tons of people who’d never had pets before adopted during the pandemic. Between the increased demand and vets’ own burnout, the crunch is on. (And prices are rising accordingly.)
I didn’t even consider that human doctor appointments might also be harder to find. But dates were further out than vet appointments had been. Still, I’m fine, and now my appointment is also set. But wow, what a hassle for us both!
Incidentally, if you find yourself needing simple stuff like pet vaccinations, a lot of big chain pet stores seem to offer mobile veterinary clinics. Often, they can get your pets what they need a lot sooner.
And now, let’s check out the latest sex scandal to hit evangelicalism. Again.
The meteoric rise of Ted Haggard
Ted Haggard famously claimed to have converted at 16 years of age in 1972. The agent of that conversion was none other than Bill Bright.
Bright’s a very big name in old-school evangelicalism. As one might expect, he’s got his thumb in just about every evangelical pie imaginable. He helped found Cru (formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ before the idea of “crusades” became iffy) and did a ton of evangelism things. We’ve mentioned him before–he was once thick as thieves with evangelical writer Josh McDowell, but seems to have abandoned him since his fall from grace. Bright himself was greatly influenced by Billy Graham, who found inspiration himself from C.S. Lewis. (Yes, it does kinda look like one of those lineages that Wiccans use!)
So Ted Haggard comes from an august lineage, so to speak. In 1984, he founded New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At first, it met in Haggard’s basement. From there, it grew quickly. By the early 2000s, he was advising high-level politicians and leading the National Association of Evangelicals.
He even gave a thunderous sermon denouncing homosexuality in the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp.
In addition to all of these antics, Haggard actively involved himself in political bigotry in his home state–notably in trying his best to defeat an equal marriage amendment.
In short, if you were evangelical in the 1990s and 2000s, you knew about Ted Haggard. And you probably thought pretty well of him.
The meteoric fall of Ted Haggard
Then, in 2006, we all discovered that Ted Haggard, that paragon of the culture wars, had been paying a male prostitute, Mike Jones, for sexy-times for several years. Haggard had also been purchasing crystal meth from this prostitute (and using the drugs) during these trysts. Jones had a voicemail from Haggard, too, in which Haggard requested Jones bring meth to their meeting.
Jones said he wanted to reveal the truth because Haggard was being hypocritical: homophobic politicking bigot by day, nakie-times meth-fueled gay cowboy at night.
Haggard tried very hard to claim that all he’d gotten from Jones was a massage. The hotel had recommended Jones! Honest! He also claimed that sure, he’d bought the meth, but he’d totally just thrown it away. He’d never actually used any of it. Really. Gosh, he didn’t even drink!
At all times, Haggard simply steadfastly refused to admit he’d had gay sex at all, nor that he’d actually consumed the meth.
But the massage and the drug purchase were all evangelicals really needed to hear. His denials sounded ever so slightly hollow to many of them. (Not all, interestingly. But we’re getting there.)
Of great interest, one person in the CBS story (relink), E.J. Cox, had this to say of her beloved pastor:
“People are always saying stuff about Pastor Ted,” she said. “You just sort of blow it off. He’s just like anyone else in the public eye.”
Oh really. ARE they now, lassie.
Still, Haggard ended up losing a lot of power. Eventually, he even lost his pastor position at New Life.
But wait! Jesus wanted Ted Haggard back in the saddle!
I’ve talked before about what an absolute fucking joke evangelical pastor restoration is. Basically, here’s how it works:
- A popular, high-earning pastor gets caught doing something utterly off-limits.
- The crony network still thinks he might be useful to them, so they close ranks around him.
- They put him through a song-and-dance of fake counseling and busy-work penance for a short time.
- After most of the outrage has died down and the pew-warmers have stopped paying so much attention to the scandal, the crony network declares that this pastor has been restored by Jesus. He has been cleared to return to active duty. Jesus loves him again, and the flocks can trust him again.
- The pastor returns to a (much-)diminished ministry, but at least he can hope to build it up again. He’ll owe his “restorers” quite a debt, of course, and it’s one they intend to collect in time.
- I can only guess the last step involves them telling the newly-restored pastor that if he doesn’t clean up his act for real, then they’re never again going to stick their necks out for him.
In the case of Ted Haggard, he went radio silent for a few months after losing his pastor gig.
Then, in February 2006, he resurfaced. He’d gone through three weeks of sex addiction counseling at an “undisclosed Arizona treatment center,” which probably means it conformed to evangelical beliefs and was thus quite substandard. Generally, these faux-rehab places just focus on telling people to Jesus harder, which just doesn’t work.
(In a search engine, I noticed quite a few evangelical-looking counseling centers in Arizona that offer the kind of therapy Haggard wanted.)
Jesus had totally changed him!
Ted Haggard also insisted that he was “completely heterosexual.” He’d only been “acting-out” with Mike Jones. It was just “acting-out,” y’all! But the counseling had made him feel more certain than ever that his orientation 100% conformed to evangelical expectations.
Yes, friends, he now knew for sure that he was 100%, head-to-toe, “completely heterosexual.”
Jesus had sorted his hash right out!
At this point, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the comedy song that resulted from this whole shitshow:
In retrospect, I suppose there really are only so many words that rhyme with “schism.”
Ted Haggard did have to do a little work though; it wasn’t all Jesus Power
The crony network could only do so much for Haggard in the face of these devastating accusations, of course. You know the saying: in conservative politics, the only thing that can well-and-truly sink someone is them getting “caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
They tried, bless their little cotton socks. Jesus might have made Haggard realize he was “completely heterosexual,” but evangelical leaders weren’t completely sure they wanted him back in pastoring again right away. When Haggard publicly released an appeal for donations for his family in August 2007, they got spooked and had to explicitly state that he wasn’t coming back to ministry any time soon.
However, there was no stopping the ambitious ex-pastor. By 2010, he’d be starting another church. Around then, he told his new congregation at a picnic,
Tiger Woods needs to golf. Michael Vick needs to be playing football. Ted Haggard needs to be leading a church.
And Ted Haggard was also, remember, “completely heterosexual.”
But completely heterosexual storm clouds gathered on the horizon
In June 2008, Ted Haggard decided to move his little family from Arizona to back to C-Springs, as some residents call it. That’s around the same time that a second email surfaced. This email, which Haggard had written to one Kurt Serpe in October 2007, told a different story than he’d told to his church leaders and restoration team. At the time, according to Towleroad, Serpe said he’d known Haggard for “more than 20 years,” and that he’d “asked Haggard point-blank for the truth.”
For what it’s worth, that tracks with the social-media posts I’ve seen from Serpe. If I found the right accounts, he is way into stuff like WikiLeaks and wants more transparency from the powerful. I can easily believe Serpe just rolled up to Haggard and asked exactly that, and I can believe that Haggard decided that to hell with it, he’d answer his longtime acquaintance/congregant.
This time around, he told Serpe that he’d met Mike Jones five times. Haggard described the encounters as massages. On three occasions, he bought meth from Jones and used it, while on the two other occasions, he claims he bought the drugs and threw them away in shame. And it sounds like he got a happy handjob-at-least ending from Jones on at least the first occasion, though he’s curiously silent about the other four. You can see the whole email at Towleroad, so feel free to judge for yourself.
Then, in early 2009, Haggard admitted he’d had a second homosexual relationship in 2006. This one involved a 20-year-old man described as a “volunteer,” which means he was probably involved with Haggard’s church somehow.
Ted Haggard ramps up his hypocrisy
When I hear about evangelical sex scandals, I’m usually just relieved if everyone involved is of-age. Certainly, these scandals often involve power differentials that make the situation predatory and abusive. Just, at least there aren’t any kids involved.
Thus far, everyone’s been of-age.
But that’s about to change.
So yes, Ted Haggard started his new church in 2010. He called it Saint James Church. Though he’d been Southern Baptist for years, he switched in 2015, becoming a Free Methodist. He mentions that switch in a blog post announcing his church’s brand-new gap-year intensive program. Yes, indeed! Turns out Free Methodists have a very high opinion of higher education. As a result, he found a way he could contribute to his new denomination and get involved in higher education at the same time. That very summer, Saint James Church expected loads of “18-24 year-olds” to arrive for three weeks of summer fun and “life-giving Christian discipleship.”
When I saw that post, my heart sank. I already knew the end of this story, as do most of you. What could possibly go wrong with having Pastor Ted Haggard around loads of college kids hailing from evangelical homes, which traditionally aren’t super-great with teaching kids about sexual boundaries and consent? Did he seriously think he was just untouchable by then?
This is a worrisome escalation.
The completely heterosexual storm clouds burst
Fast forward to this past April, when Ted Haggard had to sell the new church’s building and leave ministry. Again. And it wasn’t because he wanted a fresh start somewhere else. It was because of a new round of accusations.
This time, the accusations came from two young men in his congregation. One was underage at the time these incidents allegedly occurred. A minister at Saint James Church, Kirk Sethman, had recorded these young men’s descriptions of the abuse in 2020, and then he’d approached the church’s elders about it.
(Elders, defined: A pastor often has a team of advisors to help him. They’re called elders. As the term indicates, they tend to be older married men with spotless reputations, since the Bible demands that of deacons, and elders are sorta the rank above deacons. In many churches, elders can actually pull rank on a pastor–and even fire him if necessary. In really dysfunctional authoritarian groups, though, they’re simply yes-men. Either way, they can be ordained pastors and paid staff themselves, or they can just be laymen volunteers.)
Denver Gazette reports that the allegations also include meth use. And they say that the accusers have proof of both the unwanted touching and the meth.
This was one leopard who hadn’t changed his
stripes spots at all. In fact, he’d only gotten worse.
Jesus couldn’t save him this time, I suppose
When Kirk Sethman approached the elders in 2020, some of them wanted Ted Haggard to step down from pastoring the church. But one elder thinks he persuaded the other elders to refuse to join that call. She said:
“He’s such a powerful, influential, persuasive and manipulative source,” she said. “But silver-tongued. A snake in many ways, who makes excuses and lies.”
Obviously, Haggard refused to step down.
Over the next couple of years, though, he became radioactive. I couldn’t figure out if that E.J. Cox lady was still in his congregation. I don’t know if she’d stayed at New Life after he left, or if she still thinks those “people always saying stuff about Pastor Ted” were all just lying. Hopefully, she feels really stung by those words nowadays. That’s the kind of thing that’d sure keep me up late at night for years.
Either which way, the crony network was done with him. There’d be no saving him from himself this time.
Slowly, the congregation dwindled. People didn’t want to belong to a Ted Haggard church after all, not after all these allegations. Sethman himself left as well. Haggard himself, of course, spins the decline on the pandemic.
But Ted Haggard refused to quit pastoring. After selling Saint James’ building, he moved the congregation back to being a home church. They meet at his home now, and they call themselves Storyhouse Church. Religion News couldn’t figure out if it’s a Free Methodist church. Haggard claims he’s totally overjoyed to be meeting as a home church again. But Sethman, for his part, worries that Haggard’s putting himself in a position to potentially abuse other minors.
Like many others before him, Ted Haggard found out that the standard advice just doesn’t work
What a sad, sordid story, eh? A serial liar and weak-willed narcissist finds his dream job: pastoring a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) church. Somehow, he picks up a meth habit and realizes he’s actually extremely attracted to other men.
I’m sure Haggard did all the normal things that evangelical leaders suggest to men in his position. Any bigoted evangelical pastor would already know this stuff, as it’d be stuff they’d suggest to congregants confessing the same kind of illicit attraction.
For example, Focus on the
Bigotry Family suggests Jesus-ing harder:
Do you consider yourself a Christian? If so, you will want to examine your faith convictions with great care and give them priority over every other consideration. Remember that it is never wise to give more weight to feelings than to rational conclusions and clear biblical teachings. Feelings don’t make you who you are. Beliefs, values, and conscious commitments do.
Megapastor J.D. Greear, who was recently the president of the SBC itself, advises such men that Jesus might or might not help them resist their temptations and stay celibate forever, but don’t worry! Jesus will definitely “give [them] the empowerment to do it joyfully.” As long as they Jesus hard, of course!
A Christian counseling group offers a post full of what they promise will be advice. Naturally, it contains no actual advice beyond seeking TRUE CHRISTIAN™ counseling. It does, however, contain a promise that Jesus will totally make it possible for anyone facing “same-sex attraction” to “live overcoming lives despite the brokenness.” They don’t talk about what happens when that turns out to be 100% false.
In short, we see a lot of rah-rah around the notion that Jesus will give people the strength to resist their desires, and that he’ll make them contented with life in other ways if marriage and children aren’t in their future. All they have to do is Jesus harder.
I’m sure Haggard tried that. And I’m sure he discovered, just as countless other evangelicals have over the years, that it just doesn’t work.
But wait: Doesn’t Jesus magically change people?
At least nobody seems to be suggesting that Jesus-ing harder will take the gay entirely away. That was the conventional evangelical-bigot advice 20 or 30 years ago. For real, all kinds of evangelical culture warriors told those poor souls that Jesus would totally sprinkle Jesus powder on them, activate it through Jesus Power, and all those off-limits desires would just melt away! They’d never feel those desires ever again! Hooray Team Jesus!
It’s so weird to see how that onetime promise just faded away, only to be replaced by a far-grimmer suggestion of what really awaits the people receiving this advice. Men who desire other men will totally still desire them. That’s not getting taken away. They’ll still want marriage and children. That’ll still be there, too. But they’ll be able to live the lives Jesus ordained for them if they just Jesus as hard as they possibly can Jesus.
I mean, J.D. Greear hinted (only hinted, because not even he dared go further than hinting) that he’d totally heard people claim that Jesus had magicked their gay away. It’s still nothing more than a claim about other claims, though. At most, someone might have made that claim, then realized later that it was just their euphoria talking.
That’s how it went in my evangelical circles as well. People often claimed Jesus had cured their depression or whatever. Every single time, the problem came back.
It really made me wonder back then, and it just makes me sigh now.
The new goalpost for people like Ted Haggard
So yes, indeed, Jesus doesn’t change anybody. But intriguingly, evangelicals have implicitly conceded that point and moved their goalposts.
No, Jesus doesn’t change people with off-limits sexual desires or orientations.
But Jesus does totally give people thus afflicted the strength to resist their desires and reject their orientations, so they can live like evangelical bigots think they should: alone and celibate forever.
If it turns out that someone can’t do that, well, the problem is obvious: they didn’t Jesus hard enough.
The tribe has defined the failure to live the evangelical-bigot ideal as a failure to Jesus. Therefore, the only way anyone can possibly fail to conform to that ideal is to skip leg day with their Jesus-ing:
Don’t skip Jesus-leg-day!
And Ted Haggard still completely blew it
Okay, that was possibly a bad choice of words. Still.
The simple truth is this:
Jesus doesn’t change anyone. Nor does he magically give anyone the strength and fortitude to resist sex with someone they really, really want to have sex with.
If the opportunity, so to speak, arises, and the other person’s of-age and willing, then life, uh, finds a way.
It works for evangelicals in bigoted groups just like it works for anyone else who ever wants to have sex, just with a few more layers of trouble, rationalization, and self-loathing.
And for a serial liar and weak-willed narcissist in a leadership position in a dysfunctional, tribalistic, authoritarian group that already has a lot of trouble with boundaries and consent, those “willing” and “of-age” requirements aren’t even really a dealbreaker.
The goalposts will inevitably move again, of course
I wonder how evangelical bigots’ goalposts will move in another few years, once they get enough criticism for pushing the current completely-false talking point? It can’t drop that much further.
Maybe they’ll keep the bit about Jesus totally caring about his followers’ struggles, but they’re completely on their own to deal with it. And by the way, Jesus will still expect total compliance or they’re going to Hell for using their genitals in unapproved ways.
Then, a few years later, evangelicals can drop the bit about Jesus giving a single fuck about anyone’s struggles.
That’ll be a lot closer to the truth, at least.
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