There is no more popularly satisfying tale than the fall of the self-righteous. Politicians, pundits and preachers, how we gasp in horrified delight as their secrets are revealed, their drug addictions and gambling issues, their sordid secret sexual lives.
So it is not surprising that “The Trials of Ted Haggard,” which premieres tonight on HBO, has been publicized within an inch of its life. Made by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it features a formerly wildly popular evangelical preacher undone by a sexual relationship with a male prostitute.(Haggard also admitted to drug use, but that’s nothing compared with being caught with a gay hooker.)
In fact, Haggard’s tireless promotion of the film prompted another man to disclose a past “inappropriate relationship” with then-Pastor Ted. The subsequent news cycle, not to mention the former minister’s appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” threatens to make Pelosi’s film seem beside the point.
Which would be a shame.
“The Trials of Ted Haggard” is a strange, disturbing, imperfect but in the end heartbreaking little film that may wind up being the most powerful indictment of homophobia since “Brokeback Mountain.” It’s not so much a documentary as it is a series of encounters with a man struggling to hold on to two mutually destructive identities: an evangelical who is not exclusively heterosexual. That he cannot let go of the latter and will not let go of the former makes him a tragic embodiment of the still-raging war between sexuality and religion.
Almost accidentally, “The Trials of Ted Haggard” offers a revealing sideways look at the nature of deception, forgiveness, judgment and redemption. On both sides of the camera.
With his lanky frame and wide, horsy smile, Haggard is the portrait of an American preacher man. Pelosi met him when he was, as the film says, “at the top of his game.” She was making a film about evangelicals, and Haggard, the leader of the influential New Life mega-church in Colorado, acted as something of a tour guide.
Shortly after she finished “Friends of God,” the Haggard scandal broke; Pelosi was, she has said, shocked (which, given her relationship with Washington, where such things occur with alarming regularity, seems a bit odd).
She and her camera caught up with him after he moved from Colorado to Arizona. Haggard and his family were, we are told in written exposition, in exile; as part of a settlement with the New Life Church, they were “banished” from the ministry and the state of Colorado. That the settlement also included the payment of more than $100,000, which makes it less of a banishment than a mutual agreement, is not mentioned.
Even if you consider Haggard guilty of a moral crime, be it adultery, hypocrisy or inciting homophobia, the sight of him schlepping his family and his boxes from one temporary residence to another, scrambling to find a job despite a national reputation for immorality, is a pitiable one. “I’ll get the job if they don’t Google me,” he says with good humor of one interview (he doesn’t get the job).
Pelosi seems to have similar mixed feelings. Although she soft-pedals the anti-gay bias of the New Life Church and makes the man who originally outed Haggard look like a gold digger, she tries to show her tough-mindedness by asking questions in a taunting, almost mocking manner: “Pastor Ted, the last time I saw you, you were king of a huge mega-church. Where did all your friends go?” or “You used to be on TV all the time, and now you just watch it.”
This only allows Haggard to remain unshakable in his turn-the-other-cheek humility. When Pelosi asks, “How does it feel to be in exile?” he answers simply: “We’re miserable.”
Of course, he’s on a golf course at the time, which is one of the weirder moments in this often surreal experience. But there’s nothing surreal about watching Haggard desperately try to explain himself to himself. Though his language is careful and qualified, he acknowledges that he is sexually attracted to men, a fact that he considers a personal failing. Though he wishes the church that he founded had been more forgiving toward him -- “I still try to see the best in people,” he says at one point. “I just wish they’d try to see the best in me” -- he repeatedly acknowledges that he “broke the rules” and so must accept the punishment.
The idea that his homosexual impulses are natural and do not deserve punishment, that perhaps it is the judgmental nature of his church that is wrong, does not seem to enter his mind. “The reason I kept my personal struggle a secret,” he says, “is because I feared that my friends would reject me and abandon me . . . and the church would exile me and excommunicate me. And that happened. And more.” But still it is himself he would change, not his version of Christianity.
The film initially ended with the note that the Haggards had returned to Colorado. Now it will end with an acknowledgment of the new allegations. Either way, it’s hard to imagine a happy ending for Ted Haggard, who seems intent on breaking his own heart.
‘The Trials of Ted Haggard’
When: 8 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)