Ted Haggard came back from humiliation last week with a vengeance. The disgraced mega-church leader did a media blitz — a full hour on “Oprah,” a full episode of “Nightline” and appearances on other news and morning shows as well as meetings with clergy.
The frontal assault was in anticipation of “The Trials of Ted Haggard,” the HBO documentary on Haggard’s exile from his church and banishment from his community.
Haggard is far from alone in being a conservative, outwardly antigay man with a secret gay life. Nor is he the first to be exposed. What makes Haggard different is the way he has opened himself and his family to the world in an effort to explain and explore his own sexual conflicts.
In the period since Haggard has been dealing with being banished from his church and his community (the church forced him and his family to leave not only the church he founded, but also his home and the state), he has clearly discovered what it is like to be marginalized and feel the pain he once inflicted.
The experience has been, it seems, humbling. In the HBO documentary, Haggard and his family live like nomads, going from borrowed house to borrowed apartment to seedy motel. Savings exhausted, Haggard keeps seeking a job but finds none. In one scene from the film, a tired and cranky Haggard goes door-to-door on foot in shorts and T-shirt in Arizona putting hangtags on doorknobs.
What Haggard said repeatedly in his TV blitz was how shocked he was at the harshness of his church. “I thought there would be more compassion and forgiveness,” he told “Nightline’s” Dan Harris, pain etched in his face.
But there was nothing like compassion or forgiveness, except perhaps from his wife, Gayle, and his five children.
The forgiveness of his children seems authentic and even mixed with relief: Prior to his own fall from grace, Ted Haggard the preacher was, as his children describe him, a distant and uncompassionate father with expectations of perfection. Thus for them, seeing the human side of their father, while embarrassing, meant that they too could be imperfect.
Haggard himself tells a complicated tale. The various interviews in tandem with the film depict a man in turmoil who, while loving his wife, has always had overwhelming homosexual desires and continues to fight fantasies of gay sex on a daily basis. Haggard told both Oprah and Harris that he defines himself as a heterosexual with conflicts, but most LGBT viewers will see a gay man trying desperately to hold onto a straight lifestyle. Only his emotions are conflicted.
Oprah suggested that heterosexuals don’t have conflicts over their sexuality, using herself as an example. She asked Haggard if he considered himself bisexual, but he said no.
The talk-show host gave little ground to the Haggards, using words like “hypocrite” and “liar” — words Haggard himself accepted and agreed with.
Since the film was made, another man has accused Haggard of having inappropriate sexual contact with him. The man was a teenager at the church Haggard led and came to Haggard for solace, only to have Haggard masturbate in front of him. Haggard does not deny the allegations and, in fact, says that he thought the young man and he had come to a state of forgiveness over the incident.
Haggard will no doubt be in the news again. Whether he can reconnect with his religious community remains to be seen, but at present, still scalded by the treatment he received from fellow Christians, Haggard is urging a more expansive view of sexuality among religious groups and forgiveness by clergy of congregants with conflicted sexuality. Haggard’s own pain is still visible. Whether his experience will help others remains to be seen.