Is This a Face You Can Trust?
BY Andrew Harmon
February 07 2011 5:00 AM ET
A few weeks after the Rekers story broke, Haggard held a press conference to unveil the new church, speaking to reporters outside the barn in front of a real lectern. It was part expert self-promotion, part olive branch to the gay community — or at least that’s how it seemed. Whether you are “gay, straight, bi, tall, short, whether you’re an addict, a recovering addict, or you have an addict in your family,” you have a home at St. James, he said. After all, who’s in a worse position to judge others on sexual matters than Ted Haggard? But sexuality and addiction spoken in the same breath is always troubling. And reporters needled Haggard about whether he would affirm same-sex marriages. “God’s ideal plan for a marriage is the union of a man and a woman,” he responded.
His position on marriage equality is a little more nuanced than he let on at the press conference — and, like President Obama’s, it seems to be “evolving.” Many people remember Haggard’s cameo in the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp, where he said, “We don’t have to debate about what we should think about homosexual activity. It’s written in the Bible.” Today, he says his words were taken out of context, that he was speaking to a group of believers about Scripture, not making a statement on what should or should not be inculcated into law. In 2006 he supported Colorado’s Amendment 43, which banned gay marriage under the state constitution, though he also supported a failed proposition that would have granted domestic-partnership rights to gays and lesbians.
Now Haggard wants to be clear: He supports civil marriage rights for gay couples. “The word marriage is a big deal to people of faith,” he says. “We’ve made it sacred. That’s why I believe that churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples should have total freedom to have whatever types of unions they believe as godly. But I think that we as a democratic society, as a constitutional republic — if we don’t respect individual civil liberties, then we’re making a horrific mistake. The church is in the early stages of another ‘the earth is flat’ crisis. I say to all religious people that we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry on the subject. Or we’re going to be embarrassed in another 10 or 20 years.”
At the table behind him, a middle-aged couple wearing polar fleece jackets audibly tsk at that remark. They hadn’t spoken a word to each other while waiting for deep-fried jumbo shrimp and are now stealing glances and whispering. Gayle has just called Haggard’s cell to check in, and he doesn’t seem to notice the couple as I wonder what it’s like to be despised on so many fronts.
Many who have joined Haggard at St. James face similar tsks among the Colorado Springs faithful. “The religious community can be very unaccepting in my view. I think he’s considered a threat to them, to be honest,” says Randy Welsh, a former lead elder at New Life who joined the church in 1993. “But he’s reaching an audience of people who largely don’t go to church, who may be hurting and in need of some help. They don’t have anything to lose. Most people who have something to lose have difficulty relating to Ted.”
Welsh, a former CEO for a software company, now attends St. James as well as other area churches. He says he’s seen a definite change in how Haggard operates. “He was a little too full of himself, a little arrogant, a little overconfident in his own abilities back then [at New Life],” he says. “He was more apt to use people for his own purposes rather than to help people. But the walls are down now. Now he’s more of a real person, more humble, there’s no question about it. Best I can tell — and I probably know him as well as anyone — there’s nothing else in his closet.”
Haggard’s closet is a popular topic of conversation. In 2007 a New Life overseer who was in communication with Haggard during his post-scandal “restoration” declared him to be “completely heterosexual” after a few weeks of intensive therapy (not “reparative” therapy). Haggard tempered that assessment in 2009, saying through therapy he discovered that he is “heterosexual but with issues.” He underwent eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, a common form of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. EMDR has been championed by some ex-gay therapists, though the EMDR Institute is agnostic on such uses. Haggard says that through EMDR he was able to deal with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse and says he hasn’t since engaged in any same-sex sexual activity.
“I’ve had the thoughts and the desires sometimes — but never something compulsive since,” he says. Probe further, and Haggard retreats a bit. He has firm talking points about Grant Haas, the former New Life volunteer who came forward as the Haggards were doing press interviews for The Trials of Ted Haggard in 2009. Ted had sent “inappropriate” text messages to the young man and masturbated in a Cripple Creek, Colo., hotel room that they shared during a field trip. “I’d appreciate it,” he says, “if you remember that there was never any sexual contact between us, nor was their any contemplation of sexual contact on either of our parts.” The sexual details of his life are now a matter between him and his wife, he says. He prompts a final scowl from the couple behind him when he adds that his marital intimacy is “vibrant, very satisfying.”
It’s easy to see why people conflate Haggard with leaders of the ex-gay movement, such as Exodus International’s Alan Chambers, who describes himself as a “former homosexual” who still has same-sex attraction but keeps it in check and is happily married with children. “We’re all going to struggle with something,” Chambers told me last year, in a manner reminiscent of the “heterosexual but with issues” idea. “You come to Jesus and all of it doesn’t get taken away 100%. Whatever ‘all of it’ is. We’re a group of people who, regardless of the level of those attractions that we have, regardless of the temptations that we have, regardless of where we find ourselves in that struggle, we’re a type of Christians who believe the traditional view of sexuality.”
Nevertheless, the ex-gay movement has faced some embarrassing setbacks over the past year or so. The Rekers scandal made national headlines. (As Frank Rich wrote in a May op-ed for The New York Times: “Thanks to Rekers’s clownish public exposure, we now know that his professional judgments are windows into his cracked psyche, not gay people’s.”) There was also the story of Ryan Kendall, a 27-year-old NCIC agent for the Denver Police Department and Colorado Springs native who testified in the high-profile Proposition 8 trial about his past experience under the care of National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality cofounder Joseph Nicolosi — how ex-gay therapy compounded his already dire circumstances as a vulnerable teenager living with a family who renounced him for his sexual orientation. All the while, Nicolosi’s “model” client, a man named Kelly said to be “cured” of homosexuality, frequented gay bars, Kendall testified. In the summer of 2009 the American Psychological Association adopted an updated resolution calling reparative therapy potentially harmful and lacking in evidence as to its purported benefits. Michael Bussee, an Exodus cofounder who ultimately left the group, echoed as much in an April video. “I never saw one of our members or other Exodus leaders or other Exodus members become heterosexual,” he said.
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