A couple of months ago, my husband and I went to see the documentary Jesus Camp. I’m not sure why I chose this behind-the-scenes look at a zealot-run Bible camp. Not to get new information: I worked for conservative religious organizations for years and, as a girl, went to day camps not entirely unlike the one in the film. I shouldn’t have been shocked. But I was. The kids prayed facing a cardboard cutout of President George W. Bush. They danced to Christian music, wearing camouflage pants and war paint, the choreography reframing life as a religious war. Their leaders taped their mouths shut and wrote “LIFE” on the tape while dropping tiny plastic fetuses in the children’s outstretched hands.
Oddly, what upset me most was when 12-year-old wanna-be preacher Levi visits Reverend Ted Haggard’s 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs. In the face of Levi’s hero worship, Haggard wonders to the boy’s adoring face whether people listen to Levi’s sermons because they have merit or because he is a “cute kid.” As Levi struggles to answer, Haggard dismissively advises: “Use your cute kid thing until you’re thirty and then you’ll have good content.” As a parent, I immediately imagined the six ways from Sunday I would hurt any person who disrespected and insulted my child like that.
Having worked for religious organizations in the past, I knew who Haggard was. I knew that as president of the National Association of Evangelicals he was a surprising champion of the environment and a lone voice of reason regarding global warming within the larger community of evangelical leaders; but I knew also that he and his wife had written things that I saw as harmful, particularly to women. I knew that he was one of a group of anti-gay evangelical leaders who advised George W. Bush on national policy via weekly conference calls. I’d seen Haggard’s televised condemnation of a former Oral Roberts University classmate who had abandoning preaching about hell. Haggard struck me as a particularly powerful — and particularly dangerous — man.
When I first heard reports that he had been paying a gay escort for sex for three years and had been taking methamphetamines during their sexual encounters for at least two, the allegations seemed outrageous, even to me. Then Haggard’s denials unraveled in the face of voice mails saved by Jones. When a reporter interviewed Haggard at the steering wheel of his car, his admission that he’d purchased meth came out in the same cheerful voice with which he’d delivered his sermons. He obviously didn’t know how to respond. His eyes looked incredibly scared and sad.
Of course, there are many lessons to be learned from this religious scandal, not the least of which is DON’T PUT PASTORS UP ON A PEDESTAL. The pieces of the story I find especially problematic, however, involve Haggard’s wife, Gayle, who wrote in a letter to the New Life Church, after Haggard had been removed from leadership of the church:
“For those of you who have been concerned that my marriage was so perfect I could not possibly relate to the women who are facing great difficulties, know that this will never again be the case. My test has begun; watch me. I will try to prove myself faithful.”
I can understand, empathize, and even admire trying to look strong under the media spotlight. What’s heartbreaking to me is the “watch me.” Watch me. This is the very thing that got her husband into trouble. Ted Haggard writes in his own statement:
“Through the years, I’ve sought assistance in a variety of ways, with none of them proving to be effective in me. Then, because of pride, I began deceiving those I love the most because I didn’t want to hurt or disappoint them….When I stopped communicating about my problems, the darkness increased and finally dominated me.”
Knowing that he was being “watched,” Ted Haggard resorted to living a double life.
I don’t want to “watch” Gayle Haggard — whether she succeeds or stumbles in her desired response. If she proves herself “faithful,” does that mean that weakness isn’t acceptable, for her or for any of us? And if she doesn’t — whatever that looks like — what does that prove, other than the fact that, like all the rest of us, she’s human?
In the Quaker meeting we attend, our family calls our pastor by his first name, and my husband and I are teaching our children to see him and other church leaders as friends, not as authorities. As far as I’m concerned, the only spiritual authority my kids need is the voiceless nudging of God — of Spirit, of the numinous — in their own hearts.
I don’t know that my children will always “hear” that sacred Other clearly — who among us does? But I do trust that voice not to ever condemn them, whatever my children do. It’s a voice I wish Ted Haggard had been listening to when he was denouncing gays and his former classmate, a voice I hope that he and his family are listening to right now. A voice that truly “remains faithful” to us even when we — as individuals, as parents and children, as wives and husbands — fail to stand with one another, forget to believe in ourselves. A voice that says, “You are loved. No matter what.”