Pastor Ted, Bob Dylan, And the True Face of the Devil

Don't underestimate evangelicals. Bob Dylan was one for a few years, and they don't come smarter than Bob. As Dylan moved out of his fundamentalist phase he wrote some cutting lines than came to mind as Ted Haggard's downfall began to unfold. Maybe something he saw or heard among the evangelicals inspired these words:

Look out your window, baby, there's a scene you'd like to catch,
The band is playing "Dixie," a man got his hand outstretched.
Could be the Fuehrer
Could be the local priest.
You know sometimes
Satan comes as a man of peace.

As you probably know by now, Pastor Ted is George W. Bush's personal advisor, and the problem with so many of these politicized preachers is that they've forgotten Jesus' admonition not to confuse God and Caesar.

Not only have they successfully pursued worldly power, but they've made so much money along the way that they've become just another rich Republican constituency. As for sexual repression, it seems to have reached epidemic proportions among the Religious Right. What are the lessons here?

One lesson is: the Religious Right is extremely smart. The left tends to dismiss this movement's leaders as ignorant and confused -- and now, as sexual hypocrites too. Well, sexual hypocrites they may be, but you don't amass the power and wealth these men have by being fools. Dismiss them at your own peril.

Ted Haggard may strike some people as naive, but he's nevertheless the leader of a politicized religious movement with 25 million adherents. (That's less than half the number represented by the highly liberal National Council of Churches - a fact often overlooked by the media - but it's still a lot.)

This article by Jeff Sharlet in Harper's provides a lot of background on Pastor Ted. Sharlet ties Haggard's work to the theories of "religious economics" developed by Prof. Rodney Stark, who posits a kind of competitive "free-market" among competing religious styles.

The brilliance of Haggard's approach is that he offers a wide variety of religious experiences under one organizational umbrella, through subgroups based on shared interests. It's a shopping-mall kind of faith, with something for everyone - and it works.

"He's got a sweet gift of gab," writes Dylan, "he's got a harmonious tongue." Ted Haggard is brilliant at what he does, as the size and power of his movement attests. He says his only difference with the President is in their taste in cars. (And, as we now know, perhaps their taste in sex partners.)

Underlying it all, however, is an extremely fundamentalist and intolerant socio-religious philosophy. As leader of the evangelical church movement, Haggard has designed an approach that draws in large numbers of people with the illusion of flexibility and choice. Then he hits them with a strongly repressive message. If we are to combat the anti-human message of rightwing religionists, we need to study and understand what has made them so successful.

Not only did Pastor Ted offer many varieties of religious experience, but he offered something else that provides a powerful unifier: an enemy. He claims that his most serious fear is that the United States will eventually live under radical Islamic rule. That's hardly the likeliest sociological trend we're facing, but it does provide a handy threat to motivate the faithful.

He also provides another enemy, in the form of a personalized Satan he calls "Control." Writes Sharlet:

Sometimes, he says, Control would call him late on Saturday night, threatening to kill him. "Any more impertinence out of you, Ted Haggard," he claims Control once told him, "and there will be unrelenting pandemonium in this city." No kidding! Pastor Ted hadn't come to Colorado Springs for his health; he had come to wage "spiritual war."

Sharlet adds that he put up a sign outside his church that said "Siege This City For Me" and signed it, "Jesus."

The image of a war between Good and Evil has been with us since Zoroaster preached that this world is an eternal battleground between Light and Dark. It's been passed down through the Manicheans and Cathars and is echoed in the divisiveness of many faiths' fundamentalist sects.

One way to unify a tribe is to inflame their hatred of the Other. Every religion preaches love for the stranger, and each one also promotes conflict and separation among people. Believers can embrace one side of faith or the other. Those who emphasize the latter tend to be more successful in gaining adherents, which may be a sad statement about human nature.

"He's following a star," says the song, "the same one them three men followed from the east." The other secret of the Religious Right's success is their ability to harness the yearning for spirituality and meaning that seems universal to the human experience. They've perverted this drive for worldly ends, but those who would counter their influence need to recognize and respect the innermost needs they're meeting.

I've been on a Dylan kick lately, having stopped listening closely when he moved into his evangelical phase. Now I'm discovering a great body of work there. Dylan, like William Blake and many others, found rich food for inspiration and poetic truth in the books of the Bible. Then he, like many who embrace evangelism, eventually drifted away.

Mystics, prophets, and dreamers don't do well in the over-organized confines of traditional religion. That, and not anti-semitism, is the real meaning behind the story of Jesus as a rebel in the Temple. That's why I call Haggard and his kind the New American Sanhedrin. They're the ones who, like their Biblical predecessors, have traded their spiritual calling for political influence.

There's an odd foreshadowing of Pastor Ted's downfall in the Sharlet piece. "He staked out gay bars," writes Sharlet, "inviting men to come to his church." Gay bars were the battleground for Ted Haggard's psyche, and Haggard's soul itself was the prize. Too often, people who suppress their desires must externalize their inner battle by fighting it in public.

In that sense, Haggard could have benefited from looking past his anti-Muslim bias long enough to consider the Islamic characterization of Satan as "the whisperer." To many Muslims, the devil is that voice within us that tells us to do that which harms us and others. Something's been whispering in Pastor Ted's head for a long time.

Satan - the Ego - whispers to preachers that they don't have enough power yet, that they and they alone are fighting the forces of darkness. Satan tells preachers that they, and only they, hold the key to heaven. Satan sits between preachers and politicians and whispers to them both. Satan renders unto Caesar that which is God's.

The evil that Haggard has done doesn't involve gay sex. Homosexuality occurs naturally in creation, and is a natural human state. His sin is self-hatred, and the projection of that self-hatred onto society. He isn't the most virulently anti-gay preacher out there, but he's proselytized for a deviated religious vision that's based on suppression rather than insight, darkness rather than light.

He needs to repent his lust for power, not his lust for sex. It is that power lust that represents that side of reality some call Satan, that whispering shadow in the human spirit that often - all too often - "comes as a man of peace."