It used to be when pastors were disgraced, they simply left town, changed occupations and otherwise made sure they were never heard from again.
These days, they get a reality show; specifically Ted Haggard: Scandalous, which aired Sunday.
The last we heard from Haggard, 54, he had founded St. James church in Colorado Springs on June 6. It was his attempt to get a new start in his life and ministry after his November 2006 fall from grace when he was linked to a sexual encounter with a male prostitute from whom he also bought crystal meth.
Haggard has a slightly different take on what happened but we all know that he and his family left Colorado for a time before returning back to their luxurious digs that include a $715,000 home with a pool and barn.
Sunday night he turned up on TLC to tell us of the efforts he and his family put into starting St. James in the barn. (The locale has since switched to a local middle school where it draws about 300 people.) Haggard described his treatment at the hands of the elders at his former New Life Church as “I cannot believe how love can change to hate so quick” and “the 21st century version of burning at the stake;” the latter a bit of an overkill considering the substantial grief he put the 14,000-member church through.
Starting with a press conference in front of a dozen TV crews as he announces the start of St. James, we follow him to various media interviews (where the interviewers and callers-in are fixated on his failings) and to two counseling sessions with a female drug addict and a couple where the pregnant wife admits to downing vast quantities of alcohol. It seems odd that these troubled people would spill their secrets to a pastor with a TV crew following him, but such is reality TV.
Most mega-church pastors never get to minister to the down-and-out — such tasks are left to church staff. And they generally are sheltered from public criticism, which Haggard gets plenty of when he attempts to do a radio interview on KVOR AM radio in Colorado Springs.
“I’ve never been gay,” he tells one caller. “If a homosexual has one sexual incident with a woman, do we say for the rest of his life he is a closet heterosexual?”
Afterward, he philosophizes that his scandal will never die “because of the way the media and the Internet work.” Because one’s past is cached forever in cyberspace, “your sins will never be forgiven,” he concludes.
But Haggard himself has done much to make sure no one forgets. He and his wife, Gayle, have worked this crisis, getting their story out on everything from “Good Morning America” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to “The Divorce Court” as well as being the subject of the 2009 HBO documentary “The Trials of Ted Haggard.” Just last year, Gayle came out with “Why I Stayed,” a book about her travails, and went on a national tour.
Just when you hope that this poor family is going to settle down and lead a happy life and ministry, they come out with another book or TV appearance. Why are they doing this? Is it the money? The need for acceptance? Fame? You tell me.
There are more than a few disconnects in this tale. Even though the TLC show makes a big deal out of the walk-up to the opening of Haggard’s new church, it doesn’t mention that the Haggard family had already had done a dry run in December 2009 by holding prayer meetings in the barn.
Even though the message is supposed to be one about redemption and moving forward, we see interminable old TV clips about Haggard, as if producers are trying to rev up our juices in remembering all the scandalous details from four years ago.
“I went down too easy last time,” Haggard says of his decision to give up leadership at New Life. “I am going to fight for this,” referring to St. James. About his new parish, “We’ll just be the scum of the earth together trying to find a ray of sunshine.”
Like this critic, I too wondered why there was almost no mention of God or Jesus in the entire show.
There’s mainly scorn for the hypocrisy he left behind. Christians, he says, “are sick of being raped by the church, they’re sick of being judged, they’re sick of being asked for money.”
These days he’s just one of us. “Now I like people who cuss, now I like people who drink beer,” he informs viewers. “I’m back, I am ready to live the rest of my life now.”
Maybe so. Cynics have wondered if this show is merely a pilot for an upcoming series. Who knows? The TLC show may be the last we hear from the Haggards for awhile. Last month, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported that since September, the couple have declined nearly all media interviews. Haggard cancelled his Twitter account, changed his e-mail address and has spent time on retreat.
Maybe Haggard finally realizes his sins are forgiven.
Should Ted Haggard have done a reality show? Do you think he has truly changed? Tell us what you think in the comments section.