It’s Time to Talk
Ted Haggard’s downfall should force the church to rethink its stance on homosexuality.
By Robert Cornwall
Are we really surprised anymore by reports that religious leaders have been charged with sexual or financial misconduct? From the good old days of Jim and Tammy Faye to the ongoing scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, such shenanigans have become so commonplace that news about clerics who live by what they preach is actually far more startling.
And yet, the news of Ted Haggard being outed by a gay male prostitute did come as something of a surprise. That the pastor of a Colorado Springs megachurch, president of National Association of Evangelicals, friend of powerful politicians, and one of the leading voices against gay marriage in America might himself be gay, or at least bi-sexual, raises questions that most of us in the religious world would just as soon not deal with. With few exceptions, even mainline Protestant denominations have embraced the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies of the American military.
By resigning in disgrace, Pastor Ted Haggard has once again opened Pandora’s box. We’re busy trying to put the demons back in, but it may be too late. The dirty secret is out (excuse the pun): gays are in the Senate, the House, the military, our churches, everywhere. So what else is new?
While there is an important political angle to this story, largely because Haggard was actively involved in conservative politics, the more important issue is why this happened in the first place. This isn’t a matter of a pastor in an unhappy marriage looking for a more fulfilling relationship with another woman. This is the revelation of the inner struggle to suppress urges considered sinful and ungodly. Ultimately, this is a story about who we are as human beings.
No entity plays a bigger role in the current debates over sexuality than the religious community, and this not just a Christian issue. Our entire society’s sexual mores are influenced, if not determined, by sacred texts of all denominations, most of which appear to frown upon homosexuality. Our debates and our conversations seem to center around how we view and interpret these texts. And it’s far more than an academic exercise, because human lives are at stake.
Pastor Ted initially took the ill-fated Bill Clinton approach, denying the allegations and insisting that everything was just fine at home. But as the evidence against him mounted, he was forced to admit that maybe some of the accusations were true. What he found difficult to confront was his lifelong struggle with homosexual tendencies that he’d tried to suppress. I’ve read recently that at least a few of his friends had an inkling that something was amiss, but I’m sure the revelations came as a shock to everyone near him, particularly his family and his church.
I completely understand why Haggard chose to resist the urges that would be his undoing. He felt called by God to serve the church. Should he admit to what was going on inside, he would have to leave behind what he honestly considered his true vocation. Thus, he was a man of contradictions. Even as he campaigned against gay marriage and spoke out about the sinfulness of homosexuality, it’s been reported that he could also be welcoming and supportive to gays and lesbians. He was, essentially, defined by his inner turmoil, and his unsuccessful attempt to control that turmoil.
Almost as soon as Haggard had resigned, an effort was set in motion by conservative Evangelical leaders to “heal” him of his homosexuality. That he chose to go this route should not be surprising, as he really has no choice if he is to remain within his chosen community. My sense is that this will be a largely unsuccessful venture, but I wish him the best. The rest of us, however, mustn’t let this window of opportunity close without making an effort to come to some understanding about what homosexuality is and how the church should deal with it.
On the one hand, there is a growing acceptance of homosexuality in our culture. When Ellen Degeneres came out as a lesbian, America was scandalized, but now everybody loves her. Gay characters were regulars on sitcom and series hits like “Roseanne” and “NYPD Blue”; “Will and Grace” captured the public’s heart; and even Doogie Howser (Neil Patrick Harris) recently felt comfortable enough to announce that he was gay.
Despite this seeming openness, however, there remains significant resistance to homosexuality, especially within the church. At our most judgmental, we decry gays as sinners. At our most tolerant, we rely on the old double bind: it’s okay to be gay, but it’s not okay to practice it. I feel that, for the sake of the country and the church, it’s time to find the middle ground, and to finally have this difficult conversation about the true place of gays and lesbians in church and society.
There seems to be a growing consensus that whatever our personal views of homosexuality may be, gays and lesbians should be granted their legal right to things we all take for granted like housing, employment, and visitation of loved ones. Many corporations are even granting gay partners health insurance benefits. Issues like gay marriage and ordination, however, are deeply rooted in our religious culture. They are caught up in our understandings of sin and salvation, ordination, and one’s standing before God. Ultimately this is a question of what it means to be created in the image of God. As pastor of a moderate mainline Protestant congregation in a fairly conservative community, I know how painful it is for people to face these issues with honesty and compassion. I’m hopeful that my little community is ready for the conversation—they seem to be. For us as a congregation, this issue is wrapped up in our commitment to being a place of welcome.
So, where do we start this dialogue? Whether we like it or not, it will involve careful interpretation of our sacred texts. In order to disabuse ourselves of the idea that we’re traversing uncharted waters, it would be good to remember that a century and half ago, devout Christians in America were aligned on both sides of the slavery issue, with both sides arguing their point from Scripture. Although few Christians today would argue that slavery has divine approval, it’s quite likely that the supporters of slavery had the upper hand, at least if you read the texts at face value. Even today, the issue of the role of women in church and society is wrapped up in questions of biblical interpretation.
But Scripture is not the only resource at our disposal. As my more restrictive views of women in the church have been softened by personal relationships, the same is true of my views of homosexuality. As friendships with gifted and called women have forced me to re-examine Scripture, so my discovery that my own brother is gay forced me to wrestle with Scripture and with the traditions of the church in a way I’d never done before.
What had once been an academic question now became a very personal one for this evangelically inclined mainliner. I used to believe that homosexuality was a choice, but further study, including my reading of the Rev. Dr. Mel White’s autobiography, “Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America,” has suggested otherwise. Overwhelming scientific evidence has shown that homosexuals are born, not made. Now I had to face the question: if the science is right, how should I as a Christian respond to my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters? I must confess I’ve not figured everything out yet, but I know that I can no longer believe as I once did.
This is a difficult time for Ted Haggard, his family, and his church. They have agonizing decisions to face, and this scandal has left a lot of collateral damage. But if the expose of Haggard leads to a broader view of sexuality within the church, then all is not lost. I may be an idealist, but I believe we may have come to one of those important turning points in history, and that we are big enough to learn from our mistakes, discover the real meaning of compassion and brotherhood, and finally have that big discussion that could transform the church, the nation, and the world.
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