Rev. Ted Haggard and the Eclipse of Evangelical Fury

“Pastor Ted was a symbolically important figure and a very public figure, so I think the ramifications could be enormous,” opined Randall Balmer, a Barnard professor of religious history. By ramifications he meant, of course, the consequences of the drug and sex scandal enveloping Ted Haggard, the Evangelical pastor. Balmer was most worried about how this latest revelation of sexual hypocrisy would impact on the 2006 election.

One can only wonder if the ramifications might go much further than the good professor anticipated, further than the sad pastor, his family, parishioners and fellow leaders within the evangelical movement could have ever imagined. Perhaps, this act marks the eclipse of the current fourth wave of American evangelical fury.

A week or so before the election, Haggard, a devoutly married father of five children, was caught with his proverbial pants down in a homosexual scandal. Mike Jones, a former male prostitute from Denver, claimed that he had many drug-fueled trysts with Haggard during the previous three years. Haggard, initially adhering to the oldest defense, denied ever having met Jones, taking illegal drugs or having a homosexual liaison. He insisted, he “[n]ever had a gay relationship with anybody, and I’m steady with my wife, I’m faithful to my wife. So, I don’t know if this is election year politics or if this has to do with the [gay] marriage amendment or what it is.”

Over the following few days, his story unraveled. First, he acknowledged meeting Jones, but only as a masseuse. As for the drugs, “I was tempted, but I never used it,” he admitted, insisting that he had bought methamphetamine only to flush it down the drain. Finally, the ugly truth came out: “There is part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life.” In a letter to his congregation, Haggard confessed that he was “a deceiver and a liar” and begged for forgiveness.

Haggard was a leading light of the evangelical movement and, ironically, was considered a moderate. He was the founder and head of 14,000-member New Life Church, based in Colorado Springs, CO, and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a group that claims thirty million members. He advocated against global warming, poverty and the genocide in Darfur. He enjoyed considerable influence on Capitol Hill and was a regular participant in the Monday-morning White House conference call to religious leaders. He condemned both gay marriage and homosexuality, insisting, on a scary YouTube video, “We don’t have to debate about what we should think about homosexual activity, it’s written in the Bible.”

In disgrace, Haggard joins a growing list of conservatives who exemplify the moral hypocrisy that distinguishes the Bush era. Much has been made of the sex scandals involving Mark Foley (R-FL) and Don Sherwood (R-PA). Foley, following an allegation that he sent improper messages to adolescent pages (if not engaging in worse behavior), had been safely secluded in an alcohol recovery program to keep him out of sight until after the election; his House seat went to a Democrat. Don Sherwood (R-PA), swept up in a five-year long adulterous relation with a woman half his age, and who he allegedly tried to strangle, lost his seat to Democratic challenger Chris Carney, a Navy Reserve officer.

These moral lapses join the financial misdeeds pioneered by Jack Abramoff and his K Street lobbying cronies. So far, this scandal has led to the defeat and/or resignations of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT), who received $137,000 from Abramoff, and former Congressmen Tom DeLay (R-TX), Robert Ney (R-OH) and Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA); John Doolittle (R-CA), whose wife received payments from Abramoff, held on to his seat. Many post-election surveys found that one of the important reasons voters went to the polls was outrage over such scandalous, if not criminal, behavior.

Finally, we have the example of William Bennett, the self-serving, self-righteous hypocrite who turned “virtue” into a dirty word. This devout Catholic, former drug czar under Bush 1st and outspoken critic of drinking, gay marriage and wife swapping, was one of Bill Clinton’s most unrelenting detractors during his impeachment hearings. However, as reported in The Washington Monthly and other sources, over the last decade Bennett made dozens of trips to casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas where, as a “preferred customer,” his total losses topped $8 million. He is also reported to have maintained a clandestine liaison with a buff Las Vegas dominatrix, Mistress Lee, his “beautiful domme muse mistress.” In his best seller, The Book of Virtues, Bennett wrote: “We should know that too much of anything, even a good thing, may prove to be our undoing… [We] need … to set definite boundaries on our appetites.” In the face of such self-serving hypocrisy, one should never forget Mae West’s memorable words: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” (While an on-screen election commentator, no one mentioned Bennett’s past sins.)

Sin came to North America with the first colonists four centuries ago. In the words of the prominent Puritan minister Samuel Willard, ” in nothing doth the raging power of original sin more discover itself than in the ungoverned exorbitancy of fleshly lust.” This terror of “ungoverned fleshly lust” continues till today, finding its most fervent expression in the waves of evangelical revivalism that have repeatedly swept the nation.

The Haggard scandal is more significant than the end-of-century unravelings of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Those individual scandals were just that ­ failings of particular individuals. Today’s scandals resonate far more deeply because they are enmeshed into a tapestry of social and political crisis, a nation being restructured by globalization, empire and growing economic inequality. Today, all scandals, all ethical corruptions, all media manipulations, all political opportunism, all illegal payoffs, all displays of ill-gotten gain, all moral hypocrisy are increasingly seen as part of a culture of greed and selfish acquisitiveness not seen since the Robber Barons.

Today, America may be witnessing the end of the fourth religious “Awakening.” Over the last two-and-a-half centuries, it has been overwhelmed by waves of revivalist fury. Each wave has preceded or accompanied a momentous phase of national development. The initial Great Awakening galvanized the rural citizenry and contributed to the American revolution; the second, the Great Revival, anticipated the Civil War and fueled the abolitionist movement; the third, while not a formal awakening, took the form of the Social Gospel movement that reached its zenith in the wake of the Great War and the rise of the temperance movement; the fourth arose with Cold War anti-communist McCarthyism and the development of the consumer society and took shape with Billy Graham’s crusades that launched the modern evangelical movement ­ it culminated with the inclusion of “In God We Trust” in the national anthem and on our currency.

Today’s awakening, a continuation of the Graham’s evangelicalism and Republican realignment of the national political landscape, floundered during the ’60s and ’70s but gained momentum following the AIDS panic of the ’80s. At its core is the desire not simply for its adherents to live a religiously-inspired “moral” life, but a life that they insist must be embraced by all other people, whether children, neighbors, fellow Americans — even distant Iraqis. And it’s a moral “life” covering all aspects of one’s life, particularly the most intimate aspects of sexual intimacy, reproduction, child rearing and death. Within the matrix of capital’s push for globalization and the neocon’s quest for empire, today’s evangelical movement has come to be defined as much by its conformist religiosity as by its support for patriarchy (e.g., anti-abortion, opposition to sex education), social regression (e.g., anti-evolution, anti-gay marriage), political control (e.g., Patriot Act), economic oppression (e.g., cuts of entitlements) and imperialist (mis)adventure (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan). After nearly two hundred years of incubation, evangelicals finally seized state power.

President Bush is a strong believer in evangelical revivalism. A few weeks before the election, as reported in The Washington Post, he stated: “A lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me. There was a stark change between the culture of the ’50s and the ’60s — boom — and I think there’s change happening here,” and added, “It seems to me that there’s a Third Awakening.” (For a review of just how much of the Bush Administration is under the control of evangelical Christians, see “A Country Ruled by Faith” by Garry Wills in The New York Review of Books.)

Bush, however, failed to acknowledge that as powerful as the current wave of evangelical fury might seem, it is following a pattern common to previous awakenings. The Great Awakening, in part a popular movement against the privileges of the wealthy and powerful, including the clergy (and the colonies had state-sponsored churches), dissipated following the Revolution. The Great Revival, inspired by a belief that everyone could achieve grace and that slavery was immorally, was overwhelmed by the Civil War and the growing social diversity that remade the nation. The Social Gospel movement, which culminated in the enactment of the 19th Amendment to restrict alcohol consumption, collapsed under the corruption of Prohibition, interracial “slumming” and the women’s suffrage movement. And today’s wave might just be cresting.

Does the moral hypocrisy symbolized by Ted Haggard’s sex and drugs scandal indicate the “enormous ramifications” that Professor Balmer worried about? Does it represent an eclipse of the overbearing movement of fundamentalist self-rigorousness? When the Haggard scandal is put in context with the other equally hypocritical conduct represented by Foley, Sherwood, the Abramoff gang and Bennett, it might well indicate that the fourth wave of evangelical fury might be petering out.

In a secular world, each of these conservative “sinners” has the right to maintain their very private secret, be it homosexuality, ephebophilia (i.e., adoration of adolescent youth), extramarital relations, or gambling and masochism. As such, as long as their “sin” neither violates the law (which the Abramoff gang failed to do) nor the ethical basis of interpersonal relations (especially with a wife and children), such sin could well remain a secret. As long as one’s private fantasy doesn’t harm another, we are all entitled to our personal privacy. However, when a private secret contradicts a public declaration, especially when this declaration is offered as a moralistic proscription that all must adhere to and upon which public policy is legislated, one crosses an ethical line. And when this violation of trust is done by a “public” figure, be he or she a preacher, politician or pundit, the public figure, like Haggard, Foley and Bennett, engages in moral hypocrisy.

A revealing indicator of the growing popular revulsion with such moral hypocrisy is suggested by the evangelical vote in recent election. In 2004, white evangelical or born-again Christians made up a quarter of the electorate and 78 percent of them voted Republican; however, according to initial 2006 exit polls, these voters accounted for only 57 percent of the Republican vote. Equally revealing, a quarter of the evangelicals are reported to have supported Democratic candidates.

Now that the election is over and the Democrats have secured both the House and Senate, we can, hopefully, expect a relaxation in the cultural wars. A more tolerant cultural climate might provide a window to examine perhaps the gravest moral hypocrisy that shadows the nation: The great lie that Bush and his co-conspirators perpetrated on the American people to get the nation into the Iraq war. We must open the window further through exhaustive Congressional hearings into the war and, if the truth of the conspiracy finally comes out, impeachment might be the most important of the “enormous ramifications” resulting from the Haggard scandal.

DAVID ROSEN is completing the manuscript for “Perversions: America’s Secret Passion for Deviant Sexual Pleasures.” He is author of, most recently, “130 Parties in 30 Days: Matt Gonzales & Indie Culture,” The Political Edge, a collection on the 2004 San Francisco mayoral election (ed., Chris Carlsson, City Lights, 2005).

He can be reached at drosen@ix.netcom.com.


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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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