Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ted Haggard, Augustine and the problem of sin

No. 43, 6 December 2006

by Jon Pahl

Now that some of the dust has settled from the unfortunate fall of evangelical leader Ted Haggard – who has confessed to being a “sinner” to his congregation – we can achieve some longer-range perspective on what it all means.

I agree with Martin Marty’s comment in the November 6 issue of Sightings that Rev. Haggard, along with his family and all those involved in this scandal, deserves compassion, and one wishes him peace. But Haggard’s letter to his church reveals a truncated understanding of sin and a failure to recognize how the movement he led as President of the National Association of Evangelicals is in part responsible for his plight.

Like most evangelicals, Haggard is the theological heir of Saint Augustine, finding sin in pride and lust. Unlike Augustine, however, Haggard sees pride and lust as personal attributes. “I alone am responsible,” he asserts in his letter. “I created this entire situation,” he reiterates. And yet a third time he says, “It was created 100 percent by me.”

Augustine has a more sophisticated understanding of the origins of sinful desire. In his Confessions, he reveals how sin arises from within a social nexus. In the famous account in Book 2, he describes stealing a bunch of pears with a gang of his friends. He did this not because he was hungry, but because it was transgressive. He and his friends constructed a foul desire and then he acted on it.

A similar dynamic can be observed among many conservative evangelicals with regard to homosexuality. By targeting gay sex as “sin,” the religious right has mobilized “values voters.” But by scapegoating homosexuality, they draw attention to it as “temptation.”

As Haggard puts it: “There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life.” It is as if the religious right’s culture war has played out in Ted Haggard’s soul. As an individual willing to carry the blame as a “sinner,” he acted out the scapegoating that has in part organized power for the movement he led.

In its mild form, this scapegoating of homosexuals has been expressed in “Defense of Marriage” laws, one of which passed in the recent elections in Colorado. Haggard was a vocal supporter of these laws. Such tension between his public person and his private behavior must have been excruciating.

A more extreme form of this logic has led to movements like that of the Rev. Fred Phelps’s “God Hates Fags” campaign. Passion for “purity” against homosexual desire has been used to rally evangelical righteousness, and to round up voters.

Consequently, those who feel homosexual desire and who are also persuaded by the logic of a Phelps will likely bear a degree of self-hatred that leads to isolation and repression. Haggard would appear to be in such a position. “For extended periods of time,” Haggard writes, “I would enjoy victory and rejoice in freedom. Then, from time to time, the dirt that I thought was gone would resurface, and I would find myself thinking thoughts and experiencing desires that were contrary to everything I believe and teach.”

But what Haggard does not seem to recognize, as Augustine did, is how his desires were in part the result of what he believed and taught. Augustine demonstrates that a dirty desire is desirable precisely because it is dirty. Similarly, Haggard, I believe, was actually possessed by the social constructions of the very movement he led. He suggests as much when he reveals that “when I stopped communicating about my problems, the darkness increased and finally dominated me.”

But a problem can only dominate one in this way when it is constructed as a problem. If, say, gay sex were considered good within a committed, loving, and publicly recognized relationship, it would not pose a moral threat.

According to Augustine, an individual either participates in God, who is gracious and life-fulfilling love, or one falls into lust, which is prideful assertion of one’s desires to dominate. The religious right has had plentyof experience with domination lately. It is more than a little disturbing, then, that Haggard, in his letter, imagines that he will be “healed” when his “sins” are “dealt with harshly,” and when, with the “oversight” of leading anti-gay pastors Dr. James Dobson, Jack Hayford, and Tommy Barnett, he is “disciplined.” (Dobson has since withdrawn from the counseling team.)

It is unlikely that those in this group will actually confess their collective responsibility for Haggard’s sins. To do so, they would have to acknowledge the systemic violence they have accepted and promoted by scapegoating homosexuals.

Policies produce practices, and when a taboo is constructed, it invariably becomes a temptation. Prior to his fall, Haggard had been an admirably clear voice for broadening evangelical activism to include support for environmental causes and attention to poverty as a religious issue.

One might now hope that evangelicals and others continue to learn through his example – by recognizing with Augustine how desire is rooted in a social nexus.


The full text of Ted Haggard’s letter is available at the Colorado Springs Gazette:

Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and a Fellow in the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. This article first appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of up to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.

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