Is This a Face You Can Trust?
BY Andrew Harmon
February 07 2011 4:00 AM ET
But Haggard isn’t out to change anyone’s sexual orientation. He thinks gay people can thrive at his church, which he believes has the power to change Colorado Springs: “No, I don’t believe you can pray the gay away,” he says. I saw the NO STONE ZONE rule duly enforced — at least within the walls of St. James. Outside that zone Haggard lobs plenty of criticism at the evangelical powers-that-be, those who he has always thought were out to get him. “They’ll always think I’m a closet homosexual. And they hate homosexuals, that crew,” Haggard says of conservative para-church ministries. He readily names a list of culprits, including the Christian Broadcasting Network and Focus on the Family: “The number 1 way they can raise funds is not to encourage people to be more loving, not to encourage people to be less greedy, or to encourage people to be more kind. It’s to say there’s a secret homosexual agenda to siege America, and fund us so we can battle this agenda, to save the family.”
Is his message being heard? Or has Haggard lost all credibility? Whatever his impact, there are subtle signs of change within the evangelical world, though nothing close to widespread support for marriage equality: A 2010 Pew Research Center poll showed that 74% percent of evangelicals oppose civil marriage rights for gay couples. While the Family Research Council continues to take a hard-line stance against equal rights for gay people, Focus on the Family president and CEO Jim Daly has soft-pedaled the group’s antigay rhetoric, once trumpeted by Focus founder James Dobson, who resigned as chairman in 2009. Where Dobson attacked the political left and was eager to take on socially charged issues such as homosexuality, Daly has praised President Obama as a model family man and prefers less incendiary topics: how to raise kids who will behave, for example, or how to build a solid marriage when one’s partner is of a different faith.
“That’s not to say that Focus and groups like it are changing their views on same-sex marriage,” says David Masci, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (indeed, Daly criticized Obama in June for recognizing gay dads as part of a Father’s Day proclamation). “Instead, I think Focus has placed a little less emphasis than it once did on this fight.”
As for the Haggards’ ministry, “If there’s progress, it’s probably more for them than for anybody in the LGBTQ community,” says Jay Bakker, a pastor and son of Jim Bakker and the late Tammy Faye Bakker Messner. Like Haggard, Bakker has a beef with evangelical opportunism when it comes to gay issues. Where they part ways is in Bakker’s wholehearted embracing of gay relationships as spiritually equal at Revolution Church NYC, his Brooklyn, N.Y., ministry. “Ted having this fall and being restored is pretty amazing,” Bakker says. “And I think what we’re seeing is part of a slow process of the church coming around. Unfortunately, I don’t think [St. James] would be a healthy place for someone whose sexual orientation can’t be accepted. I mean, it’s common: ‘We’ll welcome anybody — until they want to be on staff or have a commitment ceremony.’ To me, oppression is oppression.”
Mike Jones, the former masseur and escort who took down Haggard, goes it a step further: “To me, the gay community should still be outraged. When you look back at some of the things [Haggard] said, that he considered [homosexual acts] to be his dark side, how does that make you feel as a gay man?”
Haggard’s resurrection has garnered no shortage of ink or film footage. He tells me he is loath to speak to the media now. But his multiple cable news appearances — most notably last fall, after Georgia megachurch leader Eddie Long was accused of coercing four young men into sexual relationships — tell a different story. I find out from Jones that another national magazine is working on a piece about Haggard, and as this article went to press in January, cable network TLC announced it would premiere a one-hour special on St. James as the Haggards launch “a new ministry unlike any other church ever seen.”
As Jones sees it, he’s become a forgotten part of Haggard’s story. When he tried to appear on Oprah to tell his side of things, he says, the show’s producers told him he was irrelevant. Many of his family members no longer speak to him. His 2007 memoir, I Had to Say Something: The Art of Ted Haggard’s Fall, drew only two people to a book-signing event.
“When my world was collapsing, when the media was knocking at my door, I really felt abandoned by the gay community,” Jones says, though he also says he’s not looking for pity. “I have fought for gay rights all my adult life. People said I did this for the notoriety and money. What money? I’ve been dirt-poor since this happened. I regret I ever said anything. It has simply not been worth it.”
Jones now works in Denver with the elderly, many in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. “I have to wipe some butts and clean up vomit once in a while,” he says. “But this is my way to give back to humanity.”
The first day of 2011 brought near-zero-degree temperatures and bitterly cold winds to Colorado Springs, but January 2 is a little warmer. Road salt melts the snowpack on the streets as the faithful drive to Sunday services. The sun is blinding, and the view west toward Pikes Peak is resplendent. One can easily see why Ted Haggard, camping by himself on the 14,115-foot-tall mountain in 1984, divined that a year later he would build his church nearby.
New Life is abuzz. The hexagonal worship center is filled to near capacity for the 9 a.m. service, with a few front rows reserved for families with newborns waiting to be blessed. A dozen musicians energize the crowd with 30 minutes of nonstop Christian rock, the lyrics projected onto a gigantic screen. It’s the kind of music you might find grating when you’re stuck with it while driving an isolated stretch of highway, but here it’s hard not to at least tap your foot. There are no overt signs that the Haggards once belonged here. Why I Stayed is nowhere to be found in the church bookstore among titles on Sarah Palin and a memoir by Tim Tebow. I ask a man at the espresso bar whether Haggard ever visits and he briefly looks at me as though I’ve requested Eucharist wafers to go with my decaf. Then he softens. “You know, we do wish Ted the best,” he says.
Scott Miller, a local chiropractor, used to attend New Life with his wife and two children, but now finds himself at St. James’s 10 a.m. service at Timberview Middle School, where there are no snakes to be found on the vinyl tile floor, just spills of coffee and Haggard’s famous spiced apple cider. Scott is 39, divorced, openly gay, and here with two gay friends, Osie Barkley and Jean Mortensen. New Life is a little too slick for his spiritual tastes now, Miller says. The service is beautifully produced, the music is great, but it lacks a certain heart and an honesty that St. James has. He’s now working on creating a national project called the Reconciliation Conversation to build dialogue between Christian leaders and the gay community, and he’s hoping Haggard will be an integral part of that.
“I believe there was a shift in the city when all of this happened,” Miller says of the scandal. “When Ted became human to us, then I think many people began to realize there is no perfect place to be, that we need to make amends with those we’ve hurt. I kept seeing people change their hearts. So I don’t know on a big political level, but I know that for a lot of people the walls began to crumble and forgiveness began to happen.… I do believe that a gay person whose ultimate goal is not to become straight can grow and be welcomed at Ted’s church.”
Today, in lieu of a sermon, Haggard and his wife sit for a Q&A with churchgoers, who wrote questions down on index cards and passed them to the front. Even the fairly innocuous queries elicit humorous responses from the couple:
“How long have you been married?”
Gayle: “32 years.”
Haggard [smirking at Gayle]: “And it’s been a perfect marriage. We’ve never had any problems. It’s perfect.”
Gayle [smiling back]: “I’ve said this before: When Ted asked me to marry him, he promised me adventure. And he has delivered.”
They make a good team. Haggard the showman, the consummate preacher; Gayle the keen nurturer. They may still be cultural punch lines, but if they were your neighbors, you wouldn’t hesitate to invite them over for a backyard barbecue. Later Haggard goes on to rail against evangelicals using their power to oppress those who are not like them, imploring instead that Christians must advocate for “equality, constitutionality, and law.” He points at a Caucasian man sitting with his Asian wife in one of the back rows. “People argued for years using the Bible that folks like yourself, a Vietnamese man and a Caucasian man, shouldn’t be allowed to marry. It’s ridiculous!”
The crowd laughs and murmurs. “ ‘Woman!’ You mean ‘woman’!”
Haggard stops and grins. “Never, ever, ever quote what I say. Quote what I mean.”
After the service there are enchiladas, refried beans, tortilla chips, Dr. Pepper and Coca-Cola. Haggard sits with Scott, Osie, Jean, and me for lunch, and I ask whether he thought he might come to embrace gay marriage within his own church, to perhaps one day sermonize about a gay couple the same way he had just spoken, however fumblingly, about an interracial couple. Haggard mulls it over for a second. “I’m a bit timid in that respect. It’s my job to teach people to be responsible, without me being the center of it. And it’s all our responsibility to protect the rights of people who are not like us.”
Later that afternoon I text Haggard and thank him for having me at his service. It was as he promised: an exuberant Sunday morning for an imperfect group, led by an imperfect man. And the spiced apple cider was excellent.
A few minutes later he responds. “Come on, Andrew, move to Colorado Springs and help me with St. James. That would be so much fun. You can help because of social concern, and I can beat the Bible thing. It would probably be good for both of us. :) Love you my friend! Ted”