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Reflections on Christian Celebrity-ism and Ted Haggard

November 6th, 2006 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Readers of Mere-O almost assuredly know the story by now. It is far too common and predictable, and the details do not need repeating here. Most readers, after all, do not read Mere-O for stories, but for comments. Which generally saves us a lot of typing.

Justin Taylor, one of the best Christian bloggers on the web, has obtained a copy of the letters read to Haggard’s church this morning. They are important reading. Haggard sounds sincere and honest in his confession. I have no doubt he will be further discredited for lying to reporters earlier in the week, but in some ways it is to be expected. A habit of hiding sins for years and years would, I think, cause someone to try desperate measures to prevent them from being revealed. He had much to lose, and attempted to keep it.

I should also point out that I have never heard Ted Haggard preach or read anything he has written. I knew who he was, but that was about it.

To my point: Haggard’s letter reveals, I think, far more about the culture at New Life (Haggard’s church) and within evangelical Christianity than it does about Haggard per se. Andrew Jackson points out that Haggard’s sin reveals a lack of discernment by the staff at New Life. I think that is close to right. But there seems to be a deeper problem in New Life: they have elevated their leader to “uber-Christian” status. More precisely, it seems like the leadership at New Life views Ted Haggard as living on a spiritual plane above anyone within the Church–a plane occupied by the likes of “Dr. James Dobson, Pastor Jack Hayford, and Pastor Tommy Barnett.” I am obviously no insider at New Life, nor have I ever visited the Church. My reflections are drawn entirely from the fact that this has happened and from the list of people New Life appointed to give soul care to Haggard. Christian celebrities, all.
This “Christian celebrity-ism” is not particular to the (no doubt) earnest and devout people at New Life. It has a long and rich history within evangelicalism, stemming back to the great revivalists at the beginning of American evangelicalism. Unfortunately, we occasionally see the ugly fruits of it: leaders who become disconnected from their parishoners in such a way that they are able to hide their sin. The central question for me in this issue is whether Haggard had any close friends within or without the New Life community, or whether New Life had any policies or practices established to keep Haggard accountable. My guess is no and no. When pastors such as Haggard allow pastoring to become a lonely job, they begin to lose the ability to stand up to the challenges and temptations of sin.

What Haggard’s actions remind us, of course, is that if the Church chooses leaders who are adept at the methods and practices of mass-communication–“smooth” preaching, perfect hygiene, stylish clothing, “nice” personalities–then our leaders will never be our saints. “Polish” is not purity. Again, the point is not specific to Haggard. He may, for all I know, have proclaimed the Gospel faithfully and deeply during his ministry. But it is typical of our evangelical culture to favor those who preach the gospel with a good looking smile and Italian leather shoes. As long as we do, we can expect more Haggard like stories to come out.
I’ve been asked to comment (by once-blogger Naomi)on the political and strategic impact of this story for the Christian right. My thoughts: in the immediate future, this damages the chances of Colorado’s amendment banning homosexual marriage, which says more about the voters than it does about the merits of the case. One man’s hypocrisy on an issue does not an argument make, and would that the voters of Colorado vote on the merits of the arguments rather than the media. I have no proof for this damaging the case, of course, but it seems unlikely that bad publicity around one of the main proponents for the measure is definitely not going to help.
In the long-term, though, this changes very little for those who argue against homosexual marriage. Haggard, though now the darling of the media, will probably be forgotten on a national level shortly after the election. He did not have the national presence Swaggart did, even within evangelicalism. So I think this will change very little.