Is This a Face You Can Trust?
BY Andrew Harmon
February 07 2011 5:00 AM ET
IT'S ONLY A GARTER SNAKE, dusty brown with rows of black splotches running the length of its slender body. But the faithful who see it writhing on the concrete barn floor of this makeshift church, where snake handling isn’t a part of the service, are justifiably jumpy: A 6-year-old girl was bitten on the foot by a rattlesnake just a few weeks ago, not far from here on the west side of Colorado Springs, Colo., near the United States Air Force Academy. As the snake slithers erratically through the barn, past three large gray buckets stacked waist high to serve as a lectern, past a hand-painted two-by-four reading "no stone zone," and finally past our feet, a young woman yells, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” in rapid fire.
Scenarios like these almost always produce a willing hero: An elderly man with thick glasses bends down and grabs the snake just below its head. Triumphant, he walks it out of the barn and into an adjacent field to relieved applause, followed by a smattering of jokes — variations on a theme of an obvious metaphor just witnessed by the new congregants of St. James Church, led by Pastor Ted Haggard.
We take our seats and wait for Haggard to finish greeting churchgoers as they drive down the circular paved driveway on Old Ranch Road leading to his home. The setting is instantly familiar to anyone who paid attention to Haggard’s scandal, or “crisis,” as he sometimes refers to it, in 2006. Recall Haggard, then head of New Life Church, in the maroon pickup truck, wearing a blue checked shirt and khakis, as he spoke to a 9News Denver reporter, denying his involvement with Mike Jones, a former gay escort in Denver who now works as a nursing assistant. Haggard spoke with conviction: “I did call him…I called him to buy some meth, but I threw it away.… I went there for a massage.” Haggard’s wife, Gayle, sat in the passenger seat, wearing a pale green sweater. She stared at her husband while he dug himself deeper before driving off. Four years later, in her memoir, Why I Stayed: The Choices I Made in My Darkest Hour, she wrote of the moment: “As we approached the traffic light nearest our house, his confident expression melted, and his forehead dropped to the steering wheel. When he spoke again, his voice came out in tatters: ‘What have I just done?’ [Haggard asked.] ‘You just lied,’ I answered, my tone flat. ‘And everybody’s going to know it.’ ”
Everyone did, of course. And yet the man who, fairly or not, has come to embody the evangelical hypocrisy that gay people and their allies rail against daily — whose name comes up every time a man of the cloth or an antigay activist is accused of a same-sex dalliance — has returned to the pulpit.
Perhaps it’s no surprise. Ministry is all Ted Haggard has ever known.
When I first spoke with Haggard, he was on his cell phone, pacing in the barn a few steps from his home, and seething about a story that had just broken in the news. It was May 2010, only a few days after the Miami New Times published an expose on George Rekers, a University of South Carolina emeritus professor, a founding board member of the Family Research Council, and a proponent of “ex-gay” reparative therapy who was caught with a 20-year-old escort from Rentboy.com. The young man, Rekers explained, had been hired to carry luggage for him during a 10-day European trip. The timing was terrible for Haggard, who was in the early stages of opening a new church and once again found himself in the news, as journalists compared him to Rekers. “I know exactly what it feels like to have both sides hating you bitterly,” Haggard said about Rekers. In the background I could hear what sounded like his sneakers squeaking as he paced on the concrete floor. “But I’m not him. I was never hateful.… And let me emphasize: I’ve never been through — what do they call it? Reparative therapy? Restorative? Whatever it is. The thing that they say people who are confused sexually go through. I don’t know anything about it.”
Two months later, at this Sunday service, Haggard’s a completely different man than I heard on the phone. “All right, let’s get started!” he says with his Cheshire-cat grin as he strides into the red barn in a striped button-down shirt. St. James is a far cry from nearby New Life, which Haggard and his wife started in 1985 and which, by the time they left, had grown to include 14,000 members. Today, only a few dozen people are arranged in semicircle rows of folding chairs to hear Haggard’s sermon.