Ted Haggard and Saint James Church

by Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Ted Haggard, whose ministerial career seemingly ended amidst a gay sex scandal is 2006, is back in the news. The former minister of New Life Church, and former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, announced today that he and his family have organized a new congregation in Colorado Springs: Saint James Church. It is likely the church takes its name from the New Testament epistle of James, a book that encourages perseverance in the midst of trials.

Despite the cynicism and surprise Haggard's announcement engenders, it is also worth engaging in a bit of historical reflection and offering some historical perspective.

There’s nothing new about pastors and sex scandals in American evangelical history. From colonial times to the present, pastoral dalliances have occurred with some frequency, both in the context of heterosexual and homosexual encounters. Those interested might consult the newly published letters of John Cotton, Jr., for example, the namesake of a famous American Puritan and a minister and missionary whose career witnessed such occurrences. Readers might also explore Kathryn Lofton’s award-winning article “Queering Fundamentalism” to read about the same-sex relationships of early twentieth-century Protestant minister John Balcolm Shaw. Sister Aimee, as Matthew Sutton chronicles in his award-winning book about Aimee Semple McPherson, also went through her own sordid trial. And of course in more recent memory who can forget Jimmy Swaggart’s February 21, 1988, sermon in the midst of his own scandal: “I have sinned,” Swaggart tearfully stated more than 5 times on that Sunday morning. Many will also recall Jim Bakker’s 1988 fall from grace, both financial and sexual in nature. “I was wrong,” Bakker would go on to admit after a prison stint and repudiation of the prosperity gospel.

If there’s nothing new about sex and religion in American evangelicalism, there’s also nothing new about the ways that fallen evangelical ministers sometimes attempt to resurrect their careers. After all, Jimmy Swaggart returned to his Baton Rouge pulpit only a few months after admitting he sinned. One can still hear Swaggart sermons in his Baton Rouge church today. Jim Bakker is preaching again as well, this time from Missouri instead of South Carolina. (Interested readers should check out Darren Grem’s essay on Bakker.)

The American public, it seems, often relish the juicy details of a fall from grace. But those same persons often find inspiration from the stories of those who survive scandals or escape difficulty. Put another way, as much as Americans pay attention to the implosion of public reputations, they seem equally intrigued with accounts of redemption. With regard to sexual misdeeds, cultural historian Susan Wise Bauer identifies the relative ubiquity of an evangelical-style of confession—what she terms “the art of the public grovel”—that can sometimes lead to forgiveness and restoration.

While sex scandals involving evangelical ministers do in fact make news and become the subject of gossip columns, television specials, or documentaries, in one sense perhaps the real story of the scandals is the multiple ways that the disgraced clergy work to resurrect their careers. “Success,” then, for Swaggart, Bakker, and now Haggard, cannot be measured in numbers—none has the following they once had—but maybe by their renewed, enduring presence in American religious culture and by their own narratives of redemption. And these sorts of “success” stories, as psychologist Dan McAdams writes, follow the pattern of what he calls “the redemptive self”—a classically American trope with both religious and secular connotations. But only Swaggart, Bakker, and Haggard can know if they’ve found their true “redemptive self.”

In today’s press conference Haggard acknowledged that many question his credibility and qualifications to pastor. But he met the criticism by saying that his own struggles left him less judgmental and more empathetic to those who are going through trials. Haggard admitted that he’s not concerned about numbers or membership rolls. Rather, he envisions Saint James Church as a place where he intends to help people, and to encourage people. “Everybody is welcome,” Haggard said, “Democrats, Republican[s], Independents, gays, straights, tall, short, addicts and recovering addicts.” With its open door policy, perhaps Saint James Church might welcome Mike Jones, the Denver male escort with whom Haggard was sexually engaged. (Incidentally, Saint James Church is apparently an independent church with no denominational affiliation; thus one wonders if a board of overseers will oversee church affairs--no pun intended--as did the overseers at New Life Church.)

If the New Testament book of James is an epistle about human trials and human suffering, it is also a text that demands a higher standard for religious teachers. “Not many of you should presume to be teachers,” the third chapter begins, “because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

No doubt many have judged Haggard already. And rightly so. But stay tuned, Haggard is a work in progress as he continues to make (American religious) history.


Thoughtful post, Phil -- good point about the schadenfreude-inspiration dynamic in public responses to evangelical scandals-redemption stories.
deg said…
Great post, Phil. I think Amy Derogatis has a book coming out about sex and sexuality in Protestant culture (Her Church History piece on postwar Protestant sex manuals is a must read). It should be published fairly soon and will unpack a lot of the issues you raise as well as connect the complexities of Protestant discourse on sex to a broader history of American uncertainty about how to handle "sex in public," so to speak.
Phil said…
Thanks, Steven. Thanks for the reminder about Derogatis's work, Darren. Looking forward to the book.
Kelly Baker said…
Phil, I can't help but wonder about how Ted Haggard's wife, Gayle, fits into this. Her book, _Why I Stayed_ came out several months ago, and I wonder how her very active role in Ted's redemption. Do you have any thoughts on this?
AMBurgess said…
Chaplain Mike over at the Internet Monk site pretty much sums up my view of this.


There's a definite strain within evangelicalism that's obsessed with charismatic personalities and dramatic testimonies. Haggard fits the mold perfectly. Unfortunately, the Christian faith is cheapened in the process.
Laurent said…
It is interesting in that Haggard's career ending in a gay sex scandal. I wonder whether just adultery was not enough to end his career. As if the fact that it was a gay scandal made it that much more unpalatable to his followers. If I remember right, he admitted to substance abuse, but never to an affair. Perhaps this is indicative of a deeper situation in the American psyche concerning what is the worst thing. With this mindset, for example, Baker was an adulterer, but at least he wasn't a homosexual adulterer.
Laurent said…
It would be interesting if the evangelical community ever got to the point were just the act of infidelity was the issue (and rightly so) and not the variety of the infidelity.