Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi first met megachurch pastor Ted Haggard while making Friends of God, a documentary about evangelicals, some five years ago. Self-described as "not a really religious person," Pelosi met many Christian leaders at the time, but found Haggard to be the most cordial of them all; she and her husband ended up as friends with Haggard and his wife, Gayle.
When the news broke about Haggard's sex-and-drugs scandal in late 2006, Pelosi was stunned: "It was just a total disconnect from the Ted that we knew," she told CT. But Pelosi also said that considering the severity of the offense, Haggard, forced to resign as pastor of Colorado Springs' New Life Church, "deserves what he got."
Pelosi, daughter of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, hung out with Haggard quite a bit in the last couple of years … with the camera rolling for a documentary about a broken man and his family trying to find hope and healing amid the ashes of self-destruction. Pelosi says the Haggards have mostly found healing — primarily through the power of Scripture, a development that genuinely impressed the filmmaker.
Her new documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, debuts on HBO Thursday night (8 p.m. Eastern). CT editor David Neff spoke with Pelosi about the film — and Haggard's trials — earlier this week.
You included Ted Haggard in your earlier film Friends of God. What gave you the idea to do this follow-up documentary?
It's a long story. When Bush got reelected in 2004, there was a lot of talk about how powerful evangelicals were at the ballot box. As someone who had done political documentaries, I was fascinated by this, so I thought I should go meet some evangelicals. I went out and I met Jerry Falwell, Joel Osteen, and others. And then I met Pastor Ted [Haggard], and he was totally different from the rest of them. He was really friendly, someone you could talk to.
This is about the time he was on the cover of Christianity Today [November 2005]. He was becoming famous in the evangelical world. He said, "I'm going to Promise Keepers. I'm going to Acquire the Fire. You should come." He took us to a lot of places. He was like our tour guide [in] the evangelical world. We thought he was a real leader in the community, so we trusted his take on a lot of things.
So when I heard [about the scandal], it was just stunning. I was shocked and confused. We knew Ted. We trusted Ted. It was just a total disconnect from the Ted that we knew.
Later, we were visiting my sister in Scottsdale, Arizona, and she told me that Ted lived right around the corner. So my husband calls him up, and Ted answers and says, "Why don't you come over for lunch?" So we went to lunch. We didn't film anything, but we ended up staying nine hours, just talking.
We went back a few months later and called him up. He said, "I'm moving today." We went over, and he didn't have anyone to help him move. It was really ironic because he had this huge church with 12,000 adoring fans, and no one was there to help him move. My husband helped him fill up some boxes, and that's when I pulled out my camera.
A few months later we went back and filmed some more. Ted never seemed to really care that I was filming. He probably never thought anything of it because he didn't really think anybody would care to watch him. Over a year and a half, we filmed him from time to time.
When he moved back to Colorado Springs, I called him up and said, "Ted, I really feel like what you went through in your exile — that's what he called it, exile — we should make something about that." So we put a film together.
Near the beginning of your film, Haggard's famous grin is constant, but through the film we see it less and less. Do you think he was getting progressively more discouraged?
Or was it just being more open with you and the camera?
I think he was being really open with us. I think he had nothing left.
Now that the film is coming out, people have been saying, "He's got a movie coming out. He's trying to redeem himself." I feel sort of bad for him, because in a way I put him in this position, because he never thought that anyone was ever going to listen him ever again. He was so down and out when I knew him.
The big moment for me in the movie was when he was moving into this little second-floor tiny apartment with his kids. It was October 5, 2007. I said, "How do you feel moving to your new house?" And he gives me this look like, "Just be quiet and leave me alone. Let me just die in peace." And then he walks away, and he turns around and says, "I just don't want my family to be poor."
You showed some of those sad moments when he was selling health insurance door to door.
Yes, like when he goes to that guy's house and he says, "I recognize you from the news. You're that fallen guy." And you can tell Ted's not amused that I'm filming. He's sort of like, "Why won't anybody just let me live happily ever after, unhappily ever after?"
What's most interesting to me is watching his family and his wife make peace with him. The Bible says forgive, and it's really hard. You go to church on Sunday and you hear these messages and you think it's easy until it happens to you. Gayle [Haggard's wife] is the unsung hero in this story. She's the one who actually lives the Bible and her beliefs and forgives him. She's not in the film much because I don't think she was that comfortable sharing all her personal pain with me, with the camera rolling.
Strangely now, they're really happy. They've made peace with it. He cheated on her. He deceived her. He destroyed his family. And still, the only ones standing by him are his family. It's so strange. Marcus and Christy, his kids, just have a great sense of humor about it, but they're aware [of what happened].
There was an AP story on Friday about another young man in New Life Church claiming he had an ongoing sexual relationship with Ted.
I'm not surprised. I mean, you never get caught your first time.
Are you going to put a tagline at the end of the film about this news?
It's too late. [The New York Times reports that HBO plans to add a brief statement at the end of the film.] I think that the point [with this news] is that Ted was a deceiver and a liar. But I wasn't so interested in Ted's sexual problems. What I think is interesting is watching the family and watching this man go through this private hell publicly. It's just sad for his family. But somehow he got his life back together.
I'm not a really religious person. We consider ourselves to be Catholics, but we think of it more as a cultural thing. But what I love about Ted's story, at least about Ted's family, is that the Bible got them through. They read the Bible. They would read these passages, and it moved me. I went out and bought a new Bible. When I was making Friends with God, everybody quoted the Bible, but I was never inspired to go buy one. But this experience with Ted turned me onto the Bible in a whole new way, because he would read these passages and it would really inspire me.
People might come away from this movie being a little anti-church, but it makes you really pro-Bible. It makes you really pro-God in a way, because you read these things in the Bible and you're like, wow.
Gayle and the kids read the Bible a lot, and they weren't doing it for me. They got through all of this with the help of the Bible.
The film gives the message that Ted thinks New Life Church treated him harshly. He said he was willing to lose his position but not his friends, that he didn't want to be exiled. Do you see a difference between the way a church should relate to a leader that betrayed them and, say, a big corporation?
That is tricky. You have to question the leadership of the church, but Ted deserves what he got. He shouldn't have been in leadership of a church if he was lying to his congregation. The church is built on principles of forgiveness, but they didn't really forgive Ted, in a way. But then, we don't know everything that happened; that's why this is so tricky. It's like we don't know who to believe.
Many evangelicals are concerned about people who become pastors very young and don't have any other work experience that gives them a broader perspective on life. Ted had never worked any other job; he planted that church. Do you think that that lack of non-pastoral experience in life contributed in some way to these difficulties?
I think he lived in a bubble, and it was an unhealthy bubble. I don't know. I don't want to judge. I just hope that if you write anything about this, that we don't need to blame anyone. He had the sex. He had a scandal. But that's not what this is about. It's the point of how the Bible pulled this man through his darkest hour. Why can't we enjoy the happiness that that brings? That's what we should be celebrating.
I'm going to watch the film again before I write my review, and I'll edit our discussion down to a sidebar interview. And I'm going to …
Just don't make God look bad. Let God win.
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Christianity Today has several previous articles on Ted Haggard.