Misery Longs for Company
The Trials of Ted Haggard, a documentary film that debuts tonight on HBO (click here for full listings), opens with a scene of the megachurch pastor toasting marshmallows over an open fire. He tells filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, "Some people make poor decisions, other people make better decisions." Sadly, Haggard seems to be the poster boy for poor decisions.
In November 2006, the founding pastor of Colorado Springs' New Life Church (NLC) and then-president of the National Association of Evangelicals was the focus of news reports that he had bought sex and drugs from a Denver-based male prostitute. In a matter of days, he went from denial to disgrace and from national prominence to obscurity.
What has obscurity been like for Haggard? "We're miserable," he says in the film. "In this stage of my life, I'm a loser. First … class … loser."
Filmmaker Pelosi developed a friendship with Haggard and his family while making Friends with God, a 2007 documentary on Christian activism, political and otherwise. Of all the Christian leaders she interviewed, Ted Haggard opened up the most and welcomed her into his home. So when she discovered that Haggard's exile put him literally around the corner from her sister's house in Scottsdale, Arizona, Pelosi took the video camera she uses to document family events — not a camera crew — to look in on the Haggards and see how they were doing.The home movies she took over the next year and a half became this new documentary.
Pelosi asserts that she didn't originally intend to make an "official" documentary about Haggard; it simply evolved out of those home videos. Only later in the process did she approach Haggard about giving her a release to pitch the film to HBO. Haggard was not paid in any way for the shooting of the film. His only revenue from the film came from HBO asking him to make time for various media ops to help promote the film — such as Wednesday's appearance on Oprah and a Thursday night appearance on Larry King Live.
A man in misery
The Trials of Ted Haggard reveals a man in misery. In some early scenes, his trademark neon smile still defines his persona, but as the film progresses, his discouragement becomes increasingly visible. He can't afford housing, so the family moves from borrowed house to hotel room to apartment, storing their possessions in a rented U-Haul truck in the parking lot. He can't find a job, so he ends up trying to sell health insurance door-to-door on commission and earning less income than his outgo. He is cut off from his friends. The combination of poverty and being shunned by his former church members becomes almost more than he can bear.
The film records Mike Ware, member of the New Life's board of overseers, saying: "We instructed him … he just needs to disappear."
And that's what Haggard can hardly bear: disappearing from the lives of the parishioners he once nurtured in the faith. In the film, he says he was willing to be removed from pastoral office, but not to be cut off from his people.
"The church has said, 'Go to hell.' The church chose not to forgive me, but instead to exile me," he says.
As a young man, Haggard founded New Life in his basement. He never held any other job. Professionally speaking, NLC was his entire life. Relationally speaking, the NLC congregation was his extended family. He found the shunning almost unbearable.
I say almost because the picture that emerges from this film is a profile in determination. Haggard, as sexually and psychologically conflicted as he may be, remains a firm believer in what he always taught: Husbands are responsible for fostering the spiritual and material well-being of their families. Men are called to live out God's sexual ideal as the husband of one wife for life. Christians who struggle with temptation can find victory over the Devil through reliance on God through prayer and Bible study. Haggard still doggedly lives by those things.