About Those Now Haggard Evangelicals

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Mr. Balmer is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University. His most recent book is Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament.

The Ted Haggard scandal gave grassroots evangelicals something to ponder as they entered the voting booth on Tuesday, and it will have reverberations for evangelicalism and for the Religious Right far beyond the mid-term elections.

Haggard tendered his resignation as president of the National Association of Evangelicals on the Thursday before the election after a former male prostitute accused him of soliciting gay sex. He was dismissed as pastor of New Life in Colorado Springs after an internal inquiry determined that he had “committed sexually immoral conduct.”

Haggard’s accuser, Mike Jones, has said that he stepped forward when he realized that it was Haggard – whom he knew simply as “Art,” Haggard’s middle name – who was the driving force behind Colorado’s ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage. Jones said he was troubled by Haggard’s duplicity. “Friends have suffered because of our laws,” Jones said. “I felt obligated to get the information out about the hypocrisy of people who make these laws and those who support them.”

Hypocrisy indeed. Aside from his anti-gay rhetoric, Haggard was one of the stars of the Religious Right, who reportedly participated in weekly conference calls with Karl Rove and George W. Bush.

For those looking for evidence of hypocrisy in the Religious Right, however, the Haggard scandal represents merely the tip of the iceberg. Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition had unsavory associations with Jack Abramoff, and at least one prominent leader has had alliances with white supremacist organizations. And the larger hypocrisy is that the people who trumpet their “pro-life” positions have refused unequivocally to denounce the Bush administration’s policies on torture.

Both the White House and the leaders of the Religious Right tried to distance themselves from Haggard in an effort to control the political damage. But for evangelicals, a scandal of this magnitude may be even larger than the pedophilia scandals afflicting the Roman Catholic Church. Without trying to minimize the tragedy or the collateral damage of pedophilia, Roman Catholicism has the ballast of the institution to help it sail through stormy seas, whereas evangelical congregations very often galvanize around a particular charismatic leader, something akin to a cult of personality.

Haggard’s anti-gay rhetoric calls to mind the old saw about people in glass houses, but his indiscretions should provide a lesson for evangelicals and for the Religious Right. Jesus tangled repeatedly with the moralists of his day, who were always tut-tutting about the behavior of others and who were forever confusing morality with moralism. Jesus affirmed his commitment to the law and to morality (although he said nothing whatsoever about either abortion or homosexuality). But when pressed by those who had appointed themselves the arbiters of morality, he counseled compassion above all and allowed that the law and the prophets could be summed up in a simple phrase, love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself, which is far more difficult than merely following the law.

I suspect that when Jesus invited his followers to love their neighbors, and even their enemies, he probably didn’t mean that we should torture or kill them. I suspect that the man who spent most of his time with lepers and paralytics and the outcasts of his time would look askance at the efforts to deny equal rights to anyone – women or Muslims or immigrants or gays. I suspect that the man who warned against pointing out the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the log in your own might have something to say about the moralism so evident among leaders of the Religious Right.

The Haggard scandal may finally prompt rank-and-file evangelicals to reclaim their faith from the leaders of the Religious Right, who have delivered evangelicalism into the captivity of right-wing politics.

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Lucy Sommer - 11/15/2006

I almost feel sorry for the religous right. They are looking for absolutes and perfection in this world. There is no such thing.

Yes, we strive for those things, but we also know we will never attain them. But, that doesn't mean we should stop trying.

But, forcing it on another is not right either. Life will always happen. And, always in the least expected ways.

Thank you.

Paul Noonan - 11/13/2006

Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker were probably better known than Haggard at the times of their sexual scandals and their downfalls don't seem to have had much of a lasting effect on what I call political evangelical Christianity.

I don't think Haggard's problems will hurt evangelical Christianity as much as the pedophilia scandal hurt the Catholic Church. Haggard's failures were simply his own, the Catholic pedophilia problem is an institutional, not merely an individual, failure.