BOSTON—I suppose it’s hard to count Ted Haggard as a direct casualty of the 2006 election, since his name wasn’t on any ballot. But if the evangelist had not been a prime supporter of a Colorado amendment banning gay marriage, Mike Jones might never have seen him on TV and said, “Oh, my God, it’s Art.” The gay prostitute might never have outed the minister of the New Life Church as a customer of rentaboy or a referral for methamphetamine.
So the Sunday before the election, Pastor Ted resigned, labeling himself a “deceiver and a liar.” He no longer heads the National Association of Evangelicals, nor does he field calls from the president. He’s embarked on religious rehab, more properly known as “spiritual restoration,” an odd name that seems to combine New Age steps and fundamentalist beliefs.
Still, what strikes me in the aftermath is not just the hypocrisy of Pastor Ted. I keep flashing back onto this sentence in his confession: “There is part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life.” Haggard was not referring to marital infidelity or drugs, but to his gayness.
Haggard seemed like a kinder, gentler and greener evangelical than many on the religious right. Yet he once equated Gay Pride Day with Murderer’s Pride Day and looked to the Bible for the last word in science as well as religion. This was not just a man split between his walk and his talk. This was a man repulsed by himself.
How do we think about this repulsion? In the aftermath of his revelation, reactions were as bifurcated as our culture. Sympathy came in two varieties.
On the one hand, there were congregants, fellow ministers and letters-to-the-editor writers who heard a man wrestling with real demons. Their sympathy was for a sinner.
On the other hand, there were people who heard a man wounded by the culture of demonization. Their sympathy was for a man primed for repression and deception by the teaching of homosexuality as a sin.
We’ve heard echoes of this duality before. When “Brokeback Mountain” was presented as the ultimate gay cowboy story, the religious right found its own moral message in the movie: Look at the damage done by the evil of homosexuality. But other moviegoers saw the culprit of the tragedy in the repressive atmosphere that hung over these two men and the landscape.
Haggard’s deception and repulsion are, in some ways, lagging indicators of changing attitudes and science. Thirty years ago, only 13 percent of Americans thought homosexuality was inborn, while 56 percent thought it came from the way people were raised. This year, for the first time, more Americans believe that homosexuality is inborn (42 percent) than due to upbringing (37 percent). More gays, more friends, families, co-workers have come to believe that gayness is not a choice, let alone a sin.
Nevertheless, this week Catholic bishops meeting in Baltimore offered guidelines for ministering to gays that might have been—indeed were—from the distant past. The tone, said one bishop, was meant to be “positive, pastoral and welcoming” to gay Catholics. But the message was that “homosexual inclinations” are “disordered,” that gays should live in chastity, and that they are banned from marrying or adopting. In short, gays are welcome with open arms into the church as long as they declare themselves sinners and reject—repel?—their own sexuality.
Writing for the conservative National Review, David Frum compared Haggard with Jones, the one who outed him. Surely, Frum wrote, Haggard was the more moral of the two for fighting his impulses, raising a family and a church. But are those the two choices? The gay prostitute and the gay closeteer? Aren’t they the flip side of the same coin?
In many places we are witnessing another way out of the repulsion—the creation of open heterosexual unions, the establishment of gay families with all their ordinary, imperfect, daily struggles. We are watching the incremental acceptance of same-sex benefits and civil unions, and, at least in Massachusetts, gay marriage.
I suspect that Haggard’s idea of “spiritual restoration” is the restoration of the closet. “From time to time,” he wrote, “the dirt that I thought was gone would resurface.” If anything, he seems to want more tools to fight the “dirt.” This charismatic man may well reappear, “cured,” as a poster boy for the ex-gay movement enlisted to preach “hope” for the homosexual.
But those whose families and workplaces and neighborhoods include openly gay men and women will always see this lost soul as a poster boy for the real damage caused by the old-time ministry of self-hate.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.