Sunday, November 05, 2006
Sympathy for the Reverend
A few years back, my wife and I, and one of our closest friends, undertook an adventure which wound up becoming one of the seminal events in each of our lives: we went on a three-week, cross-country road trip. We started in Miami, drove all the way out to Los Angeles, then back. During our journey, we stopped in several major cities -- New Orleans, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Vegas -- but also in the tiniest of tiny towns. It was during the time spent taking-in the smaller blips on the map that most of our fondest memories were created. From an unforgettable conversation with a teenage check-out girl in Erick, Oklahoma -- one that involved my inability to understand the concept of grasshoppers stuck in the grill of our SUV, to stumbling upon an impromptu dance by a group of Native American children in Holbrook, Arizona, to the purchase of a souvenir coconut head in Ocala, Florida, to a drunken 4th-of-July celebration in Odessa, Texas -- the entire experience opened my eyes to the astonishing beauty of my homeland. It's something I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.
We saw so many strikingly different kinds of terrain -- met so many wonderfully different kinds of people.
As we pushed inward from the coast, into the heartland of America, we did however notice one particular image which seemed to assert itself inescapably everywhere we traveled (aside from Elvis, whose face -- thin or bloated -- adorns every kind of memoribilia imaginable from sea to shining sea).
That image, is the cross.
You don't fully comprehend or appreciate America's unquestioning adoption of the Christian faith until you realize that a whole lot of people obviously believe there is no landscape so pristine or flawless in its own right as to avoid being improved upon by the insinuation of the ancient torture device on which Jesus was supposedly executed. Whether on a major highway or a lone, isolated road, crosses can be seen everywhere -- in all variations of shape and size. They are made of wood and stabbed into otherwise empty fields; they adorn the tops of steeples which dot the topography; and in the otherwise unremarkable roadside town of Britten, Texas -- they are made of corrugated steel, and literally pierce the sky at a height of 190 feet.
Needless to say, we had to stop.
My friend would later perfectly articulate the overwhelming sense that each of us had while standing in the shadow of a cross the size of a building. "The effect is fearsome and oppressive, a symbol not of love and acceptance and forgiveness, but of domination. Looking up at it, you expect to see a zeppelin moored to its top, illuminated by giant search lights," he'd write. My mind, on the other hand, couldn't shake a much more succinct term for what we were witnessing in the middle of the expansive Texas plains: Industrialized Jesus. We'd witnessed hundreds of franchises of Christianity throughout our journey, and would no doubt witness many more still; this one just happened to be the biggest -- the Jesus Christ Super-Center.
After the requisite time necessary to fully document the giant cross on film -- on the chance that someone back home might not believe the existence of such an object -- we pressed on, continuing our southwestern route through the United States. This course, took us nowhere near Colorado Springs, Colorado -- a place which might have been a required destination should we for any reason have desired to see the true fulmination of the Industrialized Jesus concept. It's there that we would have found the New Life Church, a mammoth structure dubbed, with all possible lack-of-subtlety, a "Mega-Church." It seats thousands and could be mistaken for a shopping mall were it not for that ubiquitous cross making it perfectly clear that what's being sold inside is salvation. Up until yesterday, it was also the religious seat of arguably the single most powerful Evangelical Christian in the country: Reverend Ted Haggard.
Haggard is a man who has spent the past thirty-four years of his life preaching the gospel of Jesus, and the unerrant truth of every aspect of the Bible. Recently, he was the leader of the 30-million-strong National Evangelical Association, and a personal friend and advisor to President Bush -- even participating in weekly conference calls with the White House. He's also been, for some time now, a staunch opponent of gay-marriage, and has worked tirelessly to support ballot amendments which would ban it in eight states this election day.
And that's exactly why, last Thursday, an openly-gay male escort publicly destroyed Reverend Ted Haggard.
What 49-year-old Mike Jones did, was the figurative equivalent of an assassination: he calculated his actions perfectly and timed his shot to inflict maximum damage not simply to Haggard, but to his cause. He claimed to have proof of a three-year affair with the reverend that included not just sex, but regular use of methamphetamines. Before those who would certainly jump to the defense of Haggard could even get their talking points in order -- before the Rush Limbaughs of the world could power up a mic to cry election-year foul -- Jones disarmed them by admitting that political consideration was indeed integral to the timing of his attack; he wanted to expose the hypocrisy of Haggard and the demagogues on the right and specifically chose the moment that would hurt and disillusion them the most. The truth was -- and is -- simply staggering: the leader of America's Evangelical Christians, exposed as a gay drug-user.
Haggard initially denied the accusations -- insisting that he hired Jones for a massage but never had sex with him, and that he bought meth from him but threw it away; although not quite as catchy, both retorts seem destined to become the new "I didn't inhale." Since then however, Haggard has admitted to having a "lifelong sexual problem" -- telling his followers in a letter that he's a "deceiver and a liar," "sexually immoral," and that there is a part of his life which he calls "repulsive and dark."
That sound you hear right now is a whole lot of people gloating with satisfaction.
While the level of hypocrisy and arrogance involved in Haggard's private life versus his self-righteous public crusading is indeed sickening and indefensible -- and there is certainly plenty of legitimate nose-rubbing to be done to Haggard's many intolerant minions -- for some reason, after a reflexive moment of giddy Schadenfreude, the news of this man's downfall and his own reaction to it began to stir a different emotion in me entirely.
Ted Haggard has spent most if not all of his existence living a lie, and he's done so for only one reason: because his unwavering belief in the literal teachings of a 2000-year-old book has taught him that he must. There's a distinct possibility that the reason Haggard found Christ to begin with was because he sincerely hoped that through him, all things were indeed possible -- the suppression of his true feelings and urges being the most pertintent of those things. There are thousands if not millions of Christians out there who hope for the same transformative power of religion. The enrollment in schools which the church claims can "straighten-out" homosexuals is proof of that hope; the success-rate of those schools is proof of its futility.
Many claim that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, does more good than harm; it gives meaning to life and provides its believers a moral compass with which to navigate the world.
Ted Haggard is married, and has five children -- all of whom don't need to concern themselves with angry threats of an impending hell, because they're going through it right now. The person they love and admire the most has devastated them, simply because he could never admit who or what he truly was and is -- because Ted Haggard the fire-and-brimstone preacher has always believed that the true nature of Ted Haggard the man is "immoral, repulsive and dark," when in fact, it is nothing of the kind; it's only the dishonesty that's immoral. A man's relentless submission to superstition has destroyed himself, the family he loves, and more than likely a small part of those who have respected him and held him up as an example.
The biggest tragedy however, might be that Ted Haggard has wasted the one life he was given.
He's done it by lying to himself, and by trying to convince others that they should do likewise.
For that I blame not the believer, but the belief -- the same belief that would lead someone to plant a giant metal cross in the middle of a place that was so beautiful just the way it was.