Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Trials of Ted Haggard: It could have gotten better

The Trials of Ted Haggard is not a particularly good documentary. It's underdeveloped, glib, and uneven, with the filmmaker's voice swinging wildly between overly intrusive and abruptly absent. But it still got under my skin.

Ted Haggard, as I hope documentarian Alexandra Pelosi covered in her first film on the evangelical preacher, Friends of God, was a reliable spewer of grade-A fundamentalist vitriol, with a particular focus on anti-gay rhetoric while running his New Life Church in Colorado Springs. As many of you probably know, Haggard was accused of buying meth and soliciting a male prostitute in 2006, charges he did not dispute. The church he founded exiled him and his family from Colorado, and Trials picks up with Haggard searching for work and redemption in Arizona.

I won't pretend there wasn't a degree of schadenfreude on my part when I learned of Haggard's admission. But revisiting him now, especially after watching Brokeback Mountain, just made me sad. Haggard recalls how "same-sex play" as a boy inaugurated a "lifelong struggle" against homosexual impulses. Watching Haggard's defeated and shame-filled expression during an interview when his wife admits their marriage lacked the intimacy that she would have hoped for, seeing his family of four inhabit a series of strangers' homes since Haggard refused to sell their home in Colorado, and witnessing his increasingly desperate and unsuccessful attempts to find entry-level work was a frustrating reminder of how wasteful and toxic an inauthentic life can be.

Brokeback chronicles two men who meet and fall in love in 1960s rural Wyoming. It's heartbreaking that they can't enjoy and nurture their relationship in freedom, but it's understandable--even covert expressions of homosexual love could have been lethal. Haggard, born in the 50s in Indiana, might have felt similarly threatened and unable to explore the sexual identity he admits was his earliest impulse. It's hard not to assume that he constructed his entire life, including his ultra-conservative ministry, as a shield against the feelings that were part of his deepest interior self. And the drugs and solicitation might have been the explosive acting out of a wounded and thwarted heart.

Of course, we can't know if any of those things are true because if Haggard himself knows, he's not saying. He remains committed to his marriage and to the school of biblical interpretation that condemns homosexuality, even as his own experience seems to contradict the precepts that bind him to both. Haggard says that it's hard to believe that his prior sexual conduct was a "choice" since it was so desperately hard for him to deny those desires, but he believes he can choose against it now. I can't help but imagine a different scenario, where once his "secret" was revealed, Haggard had felt liberated to imagine a life that wasn't shackled by shame and fear. And I desperately hope that the twenty-first century becomes a place where the ability to create such an unfettered and love-filled life is the default legal and social right of every human being.

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