Sunday, December 21, 2008

Feeling Sorry for Ted Haggard

Most everyone knows the story about Ted Haggard's fall from power. He got outed by a former gay prostitute he had paid for sex and with whom he had allegedly used methamphetamine. He lost his mega-church, his fame, and his income. He did not lose his family, however, which says a lot about his wife.

He has recently re-emerged in a couple of sermons he gave in Illinois. Turns out he is also the subject of a documentary film.

But first, here is an ABC story on his return to the pulpit:

Now here is the AP story on the HBO documentary about his life - The Trials of Ted Haggard - made by Alexandra Pelosi, the daughter of Nancy Pelosi.

He seems a broken man.

First of all, he says here that he never claimed to be heterosexual, but one of surrogates did make that claim [emphasis added]:
According to a report published by Associated Press, Tim Ralph of the counseling team stated that evidence suggested that Haggard is "completely heterosexual" and that his only extramarital sexual contacts have been with former prostitute Mike Jones. Ralph said, "It was the acting-out situations where things took place. It wasn't a constant thing."[64]
He also admits, just in this small clip, that he had long struggled with his attraction to men, and still struggles with those feelings. He says he never came out because he was afraid of judgment by his friends and being fired by his church. Looks like both things happened, so his fears were well-founded.

I found the AP story at Warren Throckmorton's blog - he's a psychology professor with a prominent conservative religious bias. This was his response to the piece:
I hope to find a way to see the documentary without getting HBO. What Mr. Haggard is doing by striving to maintain his marriage vows is an honorable effort. He is giving voice to many who remain same-sex attracted while in heterosexual marriages. There are many marriages like this which fail but others remain intact.
I posted a series of comments trying to suggest that Haggard is likely doing himself and his family more harm by trying to deny who he is. But I was persuaded that I was wasting my time by Throckmorton and his readers - don't want to be a troll.

Here is a sample response from Throckmorton to someone else's comment:

jayhuck -

the message is suppress your true feelings for what society or religion says you should be - the oldest and most debilitating message to give to gay people -

Yes, the message is deny self and follow Christ. All people have natural desires which are very strong which are to be denied. You may not like that teaching but it is a teaching of Christianity. Evan beat me to it but the parallel to males being monogamous is a good one. It may debatable but males seem to be wired to desire multiple partners. Should males do what is natural? Surely, self-denial and suppression are harmful, right?

I'm not sure where to begin in breaking on this down, so let's start with the imposition of social and cultural values over biology and psycho-sexual experience.

Haggard is being more honest lately about his feelings that he ever has - he is a gay man, feeling ashamed of his gayness because his religion and his friends tell him it is wrong. I feel terrible for him, and I never thought I would say that. Here is a passage from one of the stories about the HBO film:

“As cameras follow him on a job interview, golfing, doing his laundry, moving into a house, selling insurance and dining in a restaurant, Haggard is extremely forthcoming.

He rattles on about his same-sex attraction, bitterness toward New Life, revised view of the Bible (he relates more to the stories of strife and sorrow) and difficulty in his new career as an insurance salesman.

Throughout the film, he swings from self-loathing to self-aggrandizement to self-pity, yet only once does he seem to express real emotion. That occurs as he drives down a lonely highway to make stops to sell insurance. Close to tearing up, the 52-year-old former pastor says, ”At this stage of my life, I am a loser.””

Any time the collective strives to repress the personal, the individual involved is going to suffer in multiple ways, as he clearly is now - he thinks he is a loser. He seems depressed, and rightly so. He is living a lie because his religion (or at least his fundamentalist version of it) tells him that loving a member of the same sex will get him tossed into hell, along with murderers, rapists, and all the other horrible human beings.

One wonders: How would Jesus relate to gay men or lesbians? Would he find them to be worthy companions as he did with others who society had rejected in his times? That's my guess. And I also think he would not look kindly on those who judge others in his name.
“The church has said go to hell,” Haggard says in the documentary. “The church chose not to forgive me.”
However, I want to look at the other element that seemed to show up in the comments over there - essentially that just because Haggard is attracted to men does not mean his is gay, or that he needs to act on those feelings.

My response? Good luck with that.

The argument seems to be that he no more has to act on his sexual interests than a married man needs to have sex with every women he is attracted to. In both cases, the argument suggests that men can know what they feel and choose to act otherwise. It further argues that Haggard is not living a lie any more than a man who chooses not to hump the secretary because he is married is living a lie. Both are denying their fundamental nature (which assumes that males by nature want to hump everything that they can get their hands on).

I reject the premise. It is not my nature to want to have sex with every attractive woman I see. It never even occurs to me, even when I have been single for extended periods. I admire attractive bodies, both male and female, but that does not mean I want to have sex with them.

I would argue that men are no longer subject to that biological drive in the same way we once were. But rather, the culture tells men that this is who we are and how we should act if we are truly masculine. And the media pushes this false image of masculinity in films, TV, music and everywhere else.

The men who I have talked to about this admit that they feel pressure to live up to this image, but what they really want is an intimate, monogamous relationship where they feel safe to be themselves. Women often expect men to be certain ways, based on the cultural and social images they see, and so many men don't even feel safe with their partners to be themselves, but feel they have to live up to the images their wives or girlfriends hold of how men are. [I'm lucky to be in a relationship with a compassionate woman who is also a therapist, with a background in gender studies, so she is more aware of these hidden biases.]

I admire Haggard's desire to be a good father to his children by making the best marriage he can with his wife. However, I worry about the message he is giving their children by choosing to deny his true nature because of pressure by others.

If I were counselling him, the first thing I would tell is that a loving God only cares that he be able to love, too; that a loving God would not judge who he loves; that any church that makes those judgments is not doing so in the spirit of God's love.

He knows what they feel when they judge him, because he used to do the same thing to other gay people. Rather than humility for his mistakes, he seems to be broken. I think he feels that he lost God's love, but that never will happen.

I would advise him to leave his wife, but stay in his children's lives on a daily basis. I would advise him to seek counselling for the abuse that he attriubutes his homosexual feelings to. Most likely, a great deal of his self-loathinmg comes from that trauma.

And I would advise him to seek a church that accepts him as he is - all of who he is. A father. A former preacher. An insurance salesman. A homosexual.

But first, Ted needs to accept himself. This is the lesson for all of us.

1 comment:

Booster said...

Ugh... wow. Kudos for picking this subject. It's a doozy. Much like you stated, I'm not sure which thread to pull at first... but one of the things that impacted me most was when Ted says (paraphrased): Every now and then God gives us opportunities to practice the Gospel... when a man fails himself, that's the time.

He is of course, referring to the opportunity we have to show compassion for others when they fail. That such a person represents our own fallibility, and so by showing compassion for them, we practice compassion for ourselves.

But what I think Ted is missing, and this may be the biggest tradgedy of all, is that when a man fails, it's also the time for HIM to practice the Gospel. And by Gospel, I'm really refering to a kind of "coming to Truth" about himself. When our self-made house of cards comes down around us, it's an opportunity to become who we really are. We have nothing left to lose at that point, no expectations to fill, no one left to disappoint. We are unraveled and this gives us the precious freedom to re-ravel in a new way.

Ted is still wrapped up in the idea that he can "beat the game", that he can win if he plays his cards right. Amazingly, he hasn't hit bottom yet.