I’ve been mainlining Ted Haggard of late. He’s on the stump to promote Alexandra Pelosi’s The Trials of Ted Haggard, now playing in power rotation on HBO. Our appetite for spiritual leaders with a downlow sexual side has been around at least since Aimee Semple McPherson.
Sister Aimee was the talk of the nation in the 20s when she claimed she’d been drugged, kidnapped and held in Mexico for ransom. But it was far more likely that she was having an affair with her radio engineer in Carmel-By-The-Sea. Nearly ninety years later, you need to kick it up a notch. Substitute same-sex gigolo for radio engineer so the affair goes gay, and make the preacher ask for and pay for the drugs, and its 21st Century ready.
In concentrating on the salaciousness of evangelicals partying down in ways they condemn from the pulpit, we’re asking the wrong questions, and maybe that’s why Haggard’s description of his therapy seems like he hasn’t really done much deep thinking about it.
Perhaps that’s because some of his counselors were of the ex-gay type that typically get tossed out of the APA (the HBO doc suggests there were more than one). Or maybe it was because Ted Haggard’s needs are vastly different and a real documentary about him wouldn’t be very enthralling.
Ted Haggard talks about same-sex relationships using addiction words, and that has pissed off the gay community that sees him as disingenuous and someone who should know better. But consider the latest revelation: Haggard had sex with others, at least one of whom came forward and told the story of the preacher putting on a masturbation show for him.
When Ted Haggard talks about being who he is, and doing what his god intended for him, consider, instead of Ted Haggard as evangelical, Ted Haggard as media whore. He’s doing what he’s always done: performing. The only thing that’s changed is that Time/Warner (which controls CNN & HBO) has replaced the four old white men who legitimize New Life Church in Colorado Springs.
When Sister Aimee took us from Billy Sunday style tent revival to Azusa Street Pentecostal broadcast-enhanced ministry she created a new job description. Somebody who is so much larger than life that when squeezed through a radio transmitter or TV camera, they still emerge life-sized. She was someone a lot more like a Clara Bow “It Girl” than itinerant preacher. As anybody who’s been around media knows, people who jump off the screen often are a little hard to take in real life.
And that may be the real questions Ted Haggard has been asking himself. Its why he asked to show off having sex with himself instead of asking someone to join him. And its why the most perceptive thing he said wasn’t about sex but about how the evangelicals are missing out on leveraging his real assets. But to do that they’d have to get over themselves. In fact we’d all have to get over ourselves, me included, and start asking the right questions, not the ones that titilate.