Ted Haggard's New Life

by John G. Turner

Worth reading in part because of commentary from two incisive historians (Michael Hamilton and Larry Eskridge) of American evangelicalism, the Los Angeles Times observes Ted Haggard preaching to overflow crowds, albeit in his living room instead of at his former megachurch.

In American popular and political culture, we love both sin (this year's stars include Mark Ensign, Mark Sanford, and Tiger Woods) and redemption (Eliot Spitzer), thus I'm sure no one is surprised that Haggard is making a comeback. I didn't think he'd keep selling insurance for very long.

The article suggests that Haggard's prayer meetings are the beginning of a new church and includes a Focus on the Family official's criticism that Haggard would start a new fellowship or church so close to the one that he betrayed several years ago. Considering he has been attracting many current or former New Life members to the prayer meetings, the criticism seems fair.

Historians often complain about the quality of religious journalism, and the way that major newspapers write about evangelicalism often bugs me. I think it's a very encouraging sign that the Los Angeles Times found Hamilton and Eskridge, and their observations provide very helpful context:

"Sin, sorrow, repentance, conversion and trying to live out your new faith -- that's the standard evangelical way to look at one's life," he said.

But whether Haggard can achieve his previous success is questionable, said Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois. "The larger question is the inability to put himself under someone else's authority and whether it shows true repentance," Eskridge said.Another issue is the nature of the scandal itself.

"Even though evangelical theology doesn't make distinctions between sins," Hamilton said, "homosexuality is a hard one for evangelicals to cope with."

We'll have to send Harvey to investigate futher. Surely he can fit a prayer meeting into his advent schedule after papers and exams are graded.

UPDATE: Thanks to Chris Jones, see this more detailed portrait of the redeemed Haggard in Religion Dispatches. I particularly like the following nugget:

He [Haggard] talks now of modeling his prayer sessions on the glory days of Billy Graham and Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright before the evangelical movement took on the oppressive moralism of the 1980s and ’90s when Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson and their media empires came to power.


Paul Harvey said…
John: The local media has been covering this quite a bit; and yes, the "comeback" and redemption trajectory is about as predictable as can be. Still amazing to me that meth use is more forgivable than gay sex.

After the end of the playoffs in the "consolation bracket" (i.e. loser's bracket) of my fantasy football league, I'll see if I can fit that prayer meeting in. Judging by my team's record, I'm in need of some serious prayer time.
John G. Turner said…
Paul, you can always redeem yourself next year.
Brad Hart said…
I actually have a friend who has been attending Haggard's meetings. She's told me that Haggard has been playing up (understandably so) the "Good Samaritan" and "Apostle Paul facing an unjust condemnation" angle in all of his sermons.

You know, I thought that was Dr. Harvey in the front row at Haggard's meeting, getting his religious freak on!
Christopher said…
Religion Dispatches ran an article on this last week, too. I haven't read the LA Times article, yet, but the RD piece made this observation, which I found especially interesting.

Haggard credits his therapists, The Trials of Ted Haggard director Alexandra Pelosi, Oprah, and the secular media with offering the compassion and respect his family needed to rebuild their lives.

Manlius said…
In Haggard's world, it's still apparently all about himself. That's the principal sin of which he needs to repent, but will he ever realize it?

As J. W. Nevin said so long ago, revivalist preachers become themselves a sort of sacrament to their following. In Haggard's twisted thinking, how could he deny his following the opportunity to connect to God through his ministry? It's a pathetic and dangerous idolatry indeed.