Some Sympathy for Ted Haggard

I just watched the HBO documentary film, The Trials of Ted Haggard, produced by Alexandra Pelosi (which the media seem curiously intent on identifying not as a filmmaker but as the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House). The film is a follow-up to her 2007 film Friends of God, in which Haggard was prominently featured just before his downfall from revelations that he had homosexual relations with a male prostitute, with whom he also did methamphetamine. And all this happened right in the middle of the political debate about gay marriage, in which Haggard condemned homosexuality as an abomination and gay marriage as a sin that should never be legalized.

Now, I enjoy roasting a hypocrite as much as the next person, and I sat down to watch Pelosi's film sharpening my typing fingers in preparation for slicing this evangelical hypocrite to pieces, especially after just watching him on Larry King Live, in which he failed to apologize to gays for condemning the very "lifestyle choice" he also presumably made. (In his Christian worldview homosexuality is a choice--a bad choice, a sinful choice, but a choice nonetheless). But I came away feeling some compassion for Ted Haggard, sympathy for the devil as it were. I don't know if Pelosi intended her film to have this effect--I suspect not from her off-camera comments in the film as she follows the fallen preacher around Phoenix selling insurance door-to-door and bumming rooms off friends at which his family can live. But given what we know about the power of belief, and the fact that this man devoted his entire life and essence to being an Evangelical Christian and all that stands for--which is a lot when you are the titular head of the 30 million-strong National Association of Evangelicals--what a striking conflict his life has been (and by all accounts still is).

By now, most of us know that homosexuality is not a "choice," any more than heterosexuality is a choice. Asking a gay person "When did you choose to become gay?" makes about as much sense as asking a straight person "When did you choose to become straight?" The answer is the same: "Uh? I didn't choose. I've always felt this way." Right, and all the evidence from biology, psychology, and behavior genetics (twin studies) points to the fact that most people are born straight, some people are born gay, and some are even born bisexual, and that's just the way it is. In a large population (and six billion members of a large mammalian species certainly counts) with considerable variation in most characteristics, it is inevitable that even something as seemingly straightforward (if you'll pardon the pun) as sexuality will likely show variations on that central theme.

To find peace and happiness in life you have to be true to yourself, and herein lies Pastor Ted's conflict: Being true to himself meant being in absolute conflict with his religion, which was, at the time, not just his faith but his livelihood and the only means he had of supporting his family. As Upton Sinclair observed: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it."

The only resolution for Haggard was to live a secret life, and when that secret was revealed there was no way for him to peacefully resolve his conflict. And from what was shown in the film and in his public interviews of late, that conflict is still not resolved for the simple reason that if you are gay or bi you cannot simply choose to feel differently, even if you are given such bizarre diagnoses as these suggested by his Christian counselors: "heterosexual with homosexual attachments" and "heterosexual with complications." Haggard's response was refreshingly honest: "I wasn't sure what that meant."

Me neither Ted, because it's a bullshit diagnosis by people who don't understand the psychology of sexuality because their religion is driving the science, and that's a recipe for quackery. Yes, you can choose (or at least try to choose) not to act on your feelings (don't go to gay bars, don't watch gay porn, etc.), but short of a Clockwork Orange scenario of extreme behavior modification protocols (and even this is unlikely to do the trick), Ted Haggard cannot and never will be able to square the circle of his sexual essence with his religion. Something has to go, and that something is his religion, or at least his religion's attitudes about homosexuality.

Christianity needs to change its beliefs about homosexuality and to quit condemning those--even those in its own flock--to a life of guilt, self-loathing, and conflict. Not only does Ted Haggard need to publicly apologize to the gay and lesbian community for condemning them, his Colorado Springs New Life Church--and Christianity in general--needs to apologize to Ted Haggard for ruining his life, not only by exiling him from his home, community and friends, but by forcing him to live a lie. The data are in: homosexuality is not a choice. Christianity needs to follow the data instead of forcing the data to fit its religious dogmas.

In the film you can hear the guilt in Ted Haggard's voice and see the self-loathing in his face. Ted Haggard is a broken man, broken not by his biology but by his religion. You cannot "fix" people's biology, but you can change their religion, and it's time for Ted Haggard to give up on his religion--and perhaps religion altogether. Short of that, perhaps one of the most charismatic religious movers and shakers of our time can change his religion from within by standing up to his fellow Evangelical leaders and saying to them (and to everyone else) something like this:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I was wrong. When I preached that homosexuality is a sin, I was wrong. When I proclaimed from the pulpit that being gay is an abomination, I was wrong. When I dissembled and pronounced that I 'hate the sin but lover the sinner', I was wrong. I say this not because I was a hypocrite in denouncing the acts that I myself was committing, but because our beliefs about and actions toward homosexuals is un-Christian. I make no excuses for my actions or pronouncements, but I will remind you that I was mirroring what was taught to me by my Evangelical mentors, whose beliefs about gays led them to comb the scriptures for passages that best suit their prejudices--much like the slave-owning Christians of centuries past justified with holy writ their abominable beliefs and actions toward their fellow humans by treating them as chattel. My mentors were wrong. My teachers were wrong. The church is wrong and I am wrong. Homosexuality is no more a choice than heterosexuality is a choice. People are born with their sexuality, and so to condemn a person to a life of guilt and shame over something they have no control, is to do violence to the very nature of human nature and to contradict truth and deny reality. So, in the words of the great Anglican defender of the faith and champion of religious tolerance, Oliver Cromwell: 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.'"

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine (, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University, and the author of Why People Believe Weird Things and The Mind of the Market.