When a gay prostitute stepped forward in 2006 to accuse evangelical pastor and Christian right leader Ted Haggard of having sought him out for drug-fueled sex—and when Haggard responded by admitting to "sexual immorality"—a lot of people felt betrayed. The Colorado Springs, Colo.-based minister had publicly condemned homosexuality and lobbied for "family values" in Washington. At the time, his New Life Church was the largest in Colorado, with 14,000 members, and he was president of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 30 million Christians.
It's fair to say that filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of the Democratic speaker of the House, was pretty far down on the list of the aggrieved. Still, the Haggard scandal forced Pelosi to throw out most of the footage she'd shot during weeks spent with Haggard while filming Friends of God, her 2007 documentary about American evangelicals. With Haggard no longer a credible spokesman for the evangelical movement, Pelosi had to re-edit the film at the 11th hour. "He undermined my movie," she told me in a recent interview in HBO's New York headquarters. "I felt like I'd been personally deceived." Indeed, Pelosi had been so impressed by Haggard and other evangelicals she met while shooting Friends of God that the Catholic-schooled filmmaker and her husband started attending church again and had their two sons baptized.
So, when she was visiting her sister in Scottsdale, Ariz., the following winter and heard that Haggard was living just around the corner, she gave him a call, hoping—like lots of folks who'd been misled by him—to get someanswers. "The first thing I said to him was 'I can't believe you picked up the phone,' " Pelosi says. "And he said, 'Nobody calls me. Why wouldn't I pick up the phone?' "
Haggard invited Pelosi over, and she brought along her hand-held camera, as she always does. She shot a few minutes of Haggard answering her uncomfortable questions—essentially, what on earth happened? But Pelosi was mostly struck that someone who had been as powerful and popular as Haggard was now an untouchable, searching vainly for work and moving his family into another hotel or friend's home every few months. When Haggard called Pelosi later to ask for her husband's help in packing up his U-Haul for another move, she figured his plight was desperate enough to sustain a documentary.
That's what makes her new film, The Trials of Ted Haggard, which debuts on HBO on January 29, worth watching. For all the archival footage it digs up of him denouncing homosexuality and sermonizing about the dangers of dealing in lies and deception, Pelosi presents Haggard—a man now loathed by evangelicals and nonevangelicals alike—as a sympathetic character in need of a little Christian charity. "No one wants him," Pelosi told me. "The gays won't embrace him unless he says he's gay, and the Christians won't embrace him because he says he has problems with his sexuality."
Indeed, his severance package from New Life Church required Haggard to leave Colorado Springs and bars him from working in ministry. Not exactly a blueprint for Christian compassion. In blaming the church for making his life a living hell, Pelosi clearly takes Haggard's side. Shooting Haggard on meditative walks through the Arizona desert, Bible in hand, Pelosi presents him as the kind of forsaken sinner who would be at home in the New Testament. For her, the Christ figure is Haggard's wife, Gayle, the person most wronged by Haggard's sins but who is able to muster the will to forgive, even as his former parishioners back at New Life continue to vent anger. "Gayle, to me, is the living embodiment of the Gospel," Pelosi says. "She is the best advertisement for the Bible on Earth."
Pelosi films Haggard, unqualified for work outside the ministry, papering suburban neighborhoods with fliers for life insurance to make a living. "The reason I kept my personal struggle a secret is because I feared that my friends would reject me and abandon me and kick me out and that the church would exile me and excommunicate me," Haggard says into the camera before getting out of a car to leaflet another neighborhood. "And that happened and more."
Well, not exactly. New Life officials say the church paid Haggard and his family more than $300,000 in salary and benefits for the 14 months following his dismissal. Haggard says the figure was lower. Besides, what he most needed was personal support, he says. New Life's financial generosity, he told me in an interview, "doesn't replace Christian fellowship. It doesn't replace kindness. It doesn't replace the relationships that our children had had all their lives." The church says it was also overseeing a "restoration" process for him but that Haggard backed out, which Haggard denies. (New Life did not respond to a request for comment.)