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Misery Longs for Company

Ted Haggard bemoans his "exile" in a new HBO documentary.

The Trials of Ted Haggard, a documentary film that debuts tonight on HBO (click here for full listings), opens with a scene of the megachurch pastor toasting marshmallows over an open fire. He tells filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, "Some people make poor decisions, other people make better decisions." Sadly, Haggard seems to be the poster boy for poor decisions.

In November 2006, the founding pastor of Colorado Springs' New Life Church (NLC) and then-president of the National Association of Evangelicals was the focus of news reports that he had bought sex and drugs from a Denver-based male prostitute. In a matter of days, he went from denial to disgrace and from national prominence to obscurity.

What has obscurity been like for Haggard? "We're miserable," he says in the film. "In this stage of my life, I'm a loser. First … class … loser."

Filmmaker Pelosi developed a friendship with Haggard and his family while making Friends with God, a 2007 documentary on Christian activism, political and otherwise. Of all the Christian leaders she interviewed, Ted Haggard opened up the most and welcomed her into his home. So when she discovered that Haggard's exile put him literally around the corner from her sister's house in Scottsdale, Arizona, Pelosi took the video camera she uses to document family events — not a camera crew — to look in on the Haggards and see how they were doing.The home movies she took over the next year and a half became this new documentary.

Pelosi asserts that she didn't originally intend to make an "official" documentary about Haggard; it simply evolved out of those home videos. Only later in the process did she approach Haggard about giving her a release to pitch the film to HBO. Haggard was not paid in any way for the shooting of the film. His only revenue from the film came from HBO asking him to make time for various media ops to help promote the film — such as Wednesday's appearance on Oprah and a Thursday night appearance on Larry King Live.

A man in misery

The Trials of Ted Haggard reveals a man in misery. In some early scenes, his trademark neon smile still defines his persona, but as the film progresses, his discouragement becomes increasingly visible. He can't afford housing, so the family moves from borrowed house to hotel room to apartment, storing their possessions in a rented U-Haul truck in the parking lot. He can't find a job, so he ends up trying to sell health insurance door-to-door on commission and earning less income than his outgo. He is cut off from his friends. The combination of poverty and being shunned by his former church members becomes almost more than he can bear.

The film records Mike Ware, member of the New Life's board of overseers, saying: "We instructed him … he just needs to disappear."

And that's what Haggard can hardly bear: disappearing from the lives of the parishioners he once nurtured in the faith. In the film, he says he was willing to be removed from pastoral office, but not to be cut off from his people.

"The church has said, 'Go to hell.' The church chose not to forgive me, but instead to exile me," he says.

As a young man, Haggard founded New Life in his basement. He never held any other job. Professionally speaking, NLC was his entire life. Relationally speaking, the NLC congregation was his extended family. He found the shunning almost unbearable.

I say almost because the picture that emerges from this film is a profile in determination. Haggard, as sexually and psychologically conflicted as he may be, remains a firm believer in what he always taught: Husbands are responsible for fostering the spiritual and material well-being of their families. Men are called to live out God's sexual ideal as the husband of one wife for life. Christians who struggle with temptation can find victory over the Devil through reliance on God through prayer and Bible study. Haggard still doggedly lives by those things.

'I am evangelical'

And even though Haggard has disgraced himself, he doesn't try to justify himself. At one point, Pelosi asks him point-blank about whether he had to choose between being gay and being evangelical. Faced with this question, many "gay Christians" have said,"I am who I am. I'm gay." Not Ted Haggard. "I am evangelical," he says. "I am who I am."

His fundamental identity, then, is formed more by his faith than by his sexuality.

The Trials of Ted Haggard portrays a man who cannot be separated from his Bible. He reads Scripture from his mobile phone while stretched out on a motel-room bed. He reads from a black leather Bible while sitting on the Arizona desert sands. He and his wife, Gayle, read from the Sermon on the Mount while sitting in the cab of his truck. "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, pray for them that despitefully use you." That's the sort of passage "that'll get you through the night," he says. Gayle echoes softly: "That's a good line. It will get you through the night."

Gayle, Ted's wife of 29 years, is the real miracle in this movie. If she had left him after the scandal broke, no one would have blamed her. But she stayed with him, forgave him, and says she would marry him all over again. "I stuck with him because I love him," she says. "I believe he's worth it because he's a human being. I don't believe in writing people off because they [make] mistakes. I believe you fight for the good. And I knew to restore honor to our children, the best thing I could do was to restore honor to their father."

Restoring honor to Ted Haggard is going to be difficult. In the past week, new details have emerged of yet another inappropriate sexual relationship, this time between Haggard and a young male volunteer at NLC. His distorted sexuality was not just driving him to visit a prostitute while away from home. He was sexually engaged with a member of his own congregation.Who knows what other revelations may further taint his reputation?

Yet through all of this, Haggard sees the working of Providence. He may never regain the things he once had: career, respect, national prominence, good salary, friends. But something internal has changed through his trials, his therapy, his insights into himself, and his reliance on God: "I'd still [rather] be the way I am now, and broke, and a man of ill-repute, than the way I was and have that horrific internal struggle that I had."

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today also posted an interview with Alexandra Pelosi and an article by Patton Dodd, a former New Life Church staffer. CT has several previous articles on Ted Haggard.

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