Pastor changing the way evangelicals think about public life
Colorado Springs – Ted Haggard still wakes each morning at dawn to read the Bible. His core beliefs haven’t changed. He believes this city is special, a new Jerusalem. He believes in the power of prayer, that prophets still exist, that evangelism is the answer.
He thinks of himself as a local church pastor first, even though his newfound prominence has placed him in the company of presidents and on the pages of national news magazines, singled out as a powerful new voice of evangelical Christianity.
Haggard tells himself over and over that influence is on loan. In an instant, it could be gone. The men he moves with now – Tony Blair, Ariel Sharon – know it too, he believes. Being a preacher, Haggard believes his influence is on loan from God.
He intends to use it now, while he can, to transform the way evangelical Christians think about their engagement in public life, even if it means occasionally breaking ranks with a president he admires and calling out his peers when they misstep.
Haggard, 49, has used his charisma and vision to revive a floundering organization called the National Association of Evangelicals, a group of churches, denominations and ministries representing 30 million people.
He got there not through the standard path of heading a denomination but by starting New Life Church in his basement and building it into a 12,000-strong congregation whose success spawned a network of like-minded churches.
Broadening the agenda
As evangelical Christians have become a vital voting bloc, Haggard has become a go-to person for politicians seeking to measure how that constituency thinks. He takes part in weekly White House conference calls.
Haggard’s range of interests, however, might come as a surprise. A staunch Republican, Haggard cares a great deal about abortion, gay marriage and the Supreme Court. But since taking over the NAE presidency in 2003, Haggard has pushed to broaden that vision. He has granted special status to the environment, which he believes Christians are biblically mandated to protect.
To that end, Haggard has parked his Chevy pickup in the barn and gets around town on a scooter.
“Our agenda should be broad because the Bible is broad – it’s 1,500 pages,” Haggard said in an interview inside his church’s new $18 million, 7,500-seat worship building, which opened in December. “The Bible says we’ve got to be concerned for the poor, about social justice, about the environment. We’d be foolish to reject that.”
The wider emphasis has far- reaching consequences if U.S. evangelicals, estimated to make up anywhere between 10 percent and 25 percent of the electorate, take to the message. But it also is rife with conflict because some evangelical leaders and groups espouse narrower priorities.
“Haggard is an interesting figure because he represents this kind of middle way,” said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “He’s in the position (of NAE president) because he’s influential, but he’s also gained influence by being in the position. He is an example of a new kind of evangelical leader.”
The son of an Indiana veterinarian and entrepreneur, Haggard is a charismatic Christian, an exuberant brand of evangelicalism that believes “spiritual gifts” in the Bible such as speaking in tongues, prophesy and healing are still possible. His faith system teaches that prayer can help reduce crime and lure new industry to town, that demons and angels are at work on Earth. Haggard traces part of his widescreen approach to evangelicalism to his days as a young man smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. There, he saw the divide along two borders between the poor and the wealthy, those who could worship according to their conscience and those who could not.
“I knew faith, economics and government have to combine to help people live a good life, that any one or two alone don’t give us enough,” Haggard said. “I have never thought the Gospel message was just the plan of eternal life. Our responsibility as Christians is we give our lives away for the good of others, and that has to include social justice, government, economic issues, caring for the poor and the oppressed.”
Haggard said he experienced the vision of New Life Church while fasting and praying on Pikes Peak.
In a confused time, Haggard’s conservative Christianity gives people a clear set of rules. But Sunday at New Life Church also offers the freedom to throw your hands up in the air if the spirit moves you, to dance in the aisles. There’s a big emphasis on youth and mission work.
Haggard’s philosophy of New Life Church is simple: to give people “purpose in their lives, answers to their problems and ways to keep their families together.”
Rather than retreating from pop culture, New Life embraces it, staging an Easter Passion Play with live animals and strobe lights – the flashier the better so New Lifers can invite their church-shy neighbors.
The church boasts a roster of more than 1,300 “small groups” that meet over how to train dogs, learn Russian or share tips on marriage.
“Innovation is just part of his personality,” said Todd Bassett, national commander of the Salvation Army. “He lights up a room with his enthusiasm.”
Those traits persuaded the NAE to elevate Haggard to the presidency in 2003. The alliance began bearing fruit last year when Haggard and 28 other evangelical leaders endorsed “creation care,” a strategy for environmental action that, most controversially, included a pledge to fight global warming.
Haggard draws a parallel between the choice evangelicals face over the environment and a lost opportunity in the 1960s.
“We blew it with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Haggard said. “My generation’s opportunity to blow it is to say we shouldn’t deal with the environment because that’s a liberal issue. Well, civil liberties was a liberal issue, and we were on the wrong side of that.”
An alliance with the Sierra Club or other environmental groups, however, is unlikely. Haggard’s solutions are rooted in free-market economics.
He agrees with the Bush administration’s decision to opt out of the Kyoto agreement, saying America shouldn’t give up its sovereignty. But he thinks that the government should do more to invest in research and development for solar power, and that carbon dioxide and mercury emissions should be reduced not through regulations but with business incentives.
Adviser to world leaders
Perhaps NAE’s most striking accomplishment under Haggard was last fall’s “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” a document urging engagement in traditional culture-war issues such as abortion and gay marriage but also poverty, education, taxes, welfare and immigration.
The document is short on specific solutions and allows that evangelicals can disagree about them.
“That’s hard to get everyone to sign on to,” said Clyde Wilcox, a political scientist at Georgetown University. “People talk about herding cats when it comes to bringing together evangelicals. It’s a broad agenda.”
Fault lines have appeared. Tom Minnery, a vice president with Focus on the Family, questioned the science behind global warming and said, “Any issue that seems to put plants and animals above humans is one that we cannot support.” Others argue that the evangelical movement risks diluting its influence.
“Modern popular evangelicalism is concerned about some pretty important issues: the abortion debate, the future of marriage and how to raise children in a popular culture that is very toxic,” said Michael Cromartie,director of the evangelicals in civic life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “In an age where we have a war on terror, it’s hard to get your mind around the much broader issues that some evangelicals want to put on the agenda.”
Haggard thinks that sells evangelical Christians short, and he believes he is in a unique position to stretch the agenda.
“I don’t make a million dollars every broadcast,” he said. “I don’t have a mailing list. I speak for 30 million people who go to good evangelical Christian churches every Sunday. I don’t need to keep a radio or TV program going or rally a bunch of people to raise money.”
In a few years, Haggard has gone from successful megachurch pastor to whispering into the ears of the world’s most powerful leaders.
Haggard lent advice to Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, after the Republican came under fire from evangelicals for suggesting the Senate wouldn’t approve anti-abortion justices.
He counseled British Prime Minister Blair on what kind of semantics to use in persuading President Bush to support Third World debt relief.
He traveled with a delegation of evangelical leaders to Israel, where he assured Prime Minister Sharon of continued evangelical support.
Doubts a run at politics
Haggard can’t be sure whether his words lead to change. An example: In a private moment in 2003, Haggard told President Bush that U.S. tariffs on steel inflate the price of steel worldwide and hurt poor nations. Bush looked surprised that an evangelical would care about tariffs. A couple of weeks later, the tariffs were eliminated. But Haggard does not claim credit.
“Influence is kind of like prayer,” Haggard said. “You do it, and sometimes you see what you want being done. But you don’t know if it would have happened anyway.”
Haggard briefly considered running for U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley’s seat next year if the Colorado Republican were to retire. But he decided he could prove more influential in his current role and doubts he’ll ever run for office.
Though he preaches evangelical unity, Haggard has not hesitated to criticize better-known colleagues. He rebuked Pat Robertson for advocating the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and attempted to separate the evangelical movement from Franklin Graham’s statement after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that Islam was an evil and wicked religion.
And Haggard said last week that the White House erred in underscoring failed Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers’ evangelical faith, saying her judicial philosophy was what mattered.
He also set himself apart from the vast majority of evangelical Christian groups by applauding a 2003 Supreme Court decision that struck down a Texas anti- sodomy law.
“I believe the church has to teach against immorality, but I don’t believe it’s the role of the state to spend money to find out what consenting adults do in their bedrooms and then haul them off to jail,” Haggard said.
The NAE, observers say, will need to weigh the greater prominence and energy Haggard has brought with the risk of associating itself too closely with one person – a person with close ties to a White House in trouble.
In the meantime, the fresh new face of big-tent evangelical Christianity has an appointment to keep. Haggard is visiting New York next week to talk about poverty and AIDS in Africa with Bono, singer of the popular-music group U2.