November 6, 2006
Considering Ted Haggard's Plight
— Martin E. Marty
Sightings usually avoids stories that are over-reported and commented on, but this is an exception. Here's why:
If Pastor Ted Haggard had not waited until a second query to admit that he bought methamphetamine and a massage from a male prostitute in Denver; were the pastor second in command at the second largest megachurch anywhere; were he second in command of the National Association of Evangelicals, and were the NAE the second largest of such organizations; were he second among the most influential clerics at the White House hook-ups; were he second among NAE leaders in promoting anti-homosexuality measures at Tuesday's elections; were sexual and anti-homosexuality issues the second most focused upon by Christian Right political mobilizers; were his the second most publicized fall of an evangelical clerical leader this year; were he in the second rank among the Christian Right mobilizers of clerical support for the two most recent Supreme Court appointees; were his portrait the second biggest in his New Life Church; were he and Dr. James Dobson the second most powerful duo among evangelical leaders (see Harper's, February 2005); were his second decision as President of the NAE to insist on the "E" people keeping the name "Evangelical"; were he second in anything to which he is close and has competitors, he would not be receiving worldwide attention, he would not have been featured on the BBC the day after the prostitute went public.
However, reporters within, around, and far from the evangelical orbit characteristically list him either "first" or in the "first" and not the "second" rank of such leaders. So his "indiscretion," as supporters call it, puts him on prime time and page one, and makes him an embarrassment to friends and an occasion for enjoying Schadenfreude among those less friendly to him -- many of whom regard themselves as wounded by him, and oppose him now as a front-rank motivator to "get out the troops" to vote on Election Day for measures focused on by the Christian Right.
Several comments: 1) all the media stress that Pastor Haggard is an "evangelical," which he is, but I prefer to speak of the "Christian Right" when it comes to politics, since many evangelicals have more expansive views than the Right's; 2) Haggard himself has been advocating a more expansive agenda, including concern for the natural environment, and has merited fresh evaluations of his stances; 3) his family needs sympathy in this time of crisis; 4) redemption and renewal and revision are open to him as they are to others.
Three more: 1) expressions of Schadenfreude don't go well in the week when Democrats are embarrassed by Senator Kerry's blunder; 2) many in Haggard's congregation and among his supporters, as heard on NPR and in other interviews, can give evangelicalism a bad name, as they make excuses for his behavior and think that "instant forgiveness," a.k.a. "cheap grace," is all that need be offered; 3) the shadow this casts on the Christian Right illustrates how high-risk are some of its political ventures, and how much their disgrace hurts their Christian cause. "Evangelicals" are not alone among the vulnerables on this political front.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.