Where Grace Abounds
How do evangelicals “cure” homosexuals like Ted Haggard? When the author enrolled in one local treatment program, he discovered the prescription involved a regimen of Twinkies, margaritas, a little Cher, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and sing-alongs to the musical Grease.
Never far away was the question of what now. How does change happen and when? Toward the end of a Small Group session, I ask Scott a question that’s been bugging me for weeks. “Is this ministry really ex-gay or is it more like gay AA?” As soon as it left my mouth, I knew it had been asked before. “So are we all just bunch of dry drunks?” he asks in response. “Alcoholism, I think, is more of a behavior problem, where homosexuality is more of a developmental problem.”
Scott says that people often come to WGA with the idea that they can get a quick fix. “Uh yeah, um, can you like make this stop please?” His point is that “the process” doesn’t provide quick fixes. Even after 13 years, he says, he’s only transitioned from being actively homosexual to his current state of nonpracticing bisexuality. When he’s not dealing with Thursday nights, Scott helps coordinate educational-outreach programs for churches and Denver-area Christian schools. He knows that the way he looks and talks, most people probably assume things about him. He’s 40ish and he’s used to it. From time to time, he speaks with friends he knew from “the lifestyle” and says they invariably condescend to him with comments like, “Well, I guess if it makes you happy, that’s good.”
“They want to celebrate diversity, but as long as you think just like they do,” he says. One thing Scott says he loves about Where Grace Abounds is that it doesn’t go for the quick fix, or try to get people to pretend to be something they’re not. Nowhere could this be more obvious than in Scott’s office, where the most striking feature is a life-size cardboard cutout of Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer—a show famous for its gay following.
Of the many screaming contradictions ripe within Where Grace Abounds, one is the way so many trappings of gay culture—camp and irony, to name a few—are appropriated, while the gay “lifestyle” is simultaneously cast in a light that, if not directly contemptuous, is deeply foreboding. In so much as it was a relief not to witness traditional gender roles hailed as a panacea or foisted over effeminate men like a testosterone burkah, it wasn’t enough. If it’s OK to admire gay icons like Madonna and Cher, and if singing along to Grease is an acceptable social outing, then exactly how toxic is this homosexual culture? Scott says this sets the group apart from other ex-gay ministries that are not comfortable with the ministry’s flamboyance. Activities like the Grease sing-along, he says, don’t fly in most of ex-gay America. “I think if I’d gone to any other ministry, I wouldn’t have made it.”
The California sun is setting as Sandy sits alone on an expanse of concrete. In the aquifer below, Danny Zuko has saved Greased Lightning’s pink slip from the Scorpions. Graduation is a scene away, and Sandy is mourning her innocence.
Sandy, you must start anew Don’t you know what you must do
Once again, the one-woman Taliban next to me chimes in: “Don’t do it, Sandy. Don’t do it!”
Hold your head high, take a deep breath and sigh
Goodbye to Sandra Dee
If Grease is about anything besides shooby doo-wop, it’s a bittersweet commentary on how a won’t-go-to-bed-till-I’m-legally-wed sensibility is not for long in America’s oversexed teen culture. A message that couldn’t be more at odds with everything I heard during my months at Where Grace Abounds.
Ted Haggard has more in common with Sandy than one might think. One glaring difference is the fictional character managed to embrace her sexuality while Haggard kept his firmly locked away. Well, almost. As to what his fall will mean to the larger Christian political movement, the answer, or rather the spin, is likely to be…not much. As author and journalist Jeffrey Sharlet argues, the fallen-pastor narrative is a well-established trope—one the Christian right knows how to handle. After all, what is Christianity if not the story of falling and redemption?
Grease ends with the class of Rydell High pledging they “will always be together.” If WGA has lasted for 21 years, who’s to say it won’t last that much longer? Regardless of the cultural and legal strides gay America is bound to make, scripture will still be scripture. After so many stories of hurt, so many testimonies that are less about viable recovery than successful coping, I’m only convinced how tough the struggle is for people like Scott and Peggy, Matt and Donny. But this is the price they pay for a biblically correct lifestyle, for what they believe is a larger paycheck: their salvation.
Pastor Ted walks this same road; arguably a rougher one. A man who thrived in a spotlight of his own making for so long will surely have a tough time with his audience diminished. His new quiet life—spent taking online graduate courses—seems both a gentle letdown and its own form of purgatory. In this context, one wonders if the e-mail he accidentally leaked to the media in the wake of his farewell payoff was both a snub to New Life Church’s overseers and a flare signal for those who might wish to find him. One wonders about the demons that phoned the young Pastor Ted in the 1980s. The spiritual war he saw within the confines of Colorado Springs was almost certainly raging internally. Religion offered him a clear moral paradigm but not an egress from his nature. Did the demon that brought him down ever phone at night? Is he calling still?
*All references and quotes in this section come directly from Ted Haggard’s book Primary Purpose: Making it Hard for People to Go to Hell From Your City (Strang Communications, 1995).
John Dicker is a contributor for 5280. His sexual orientation confuses everyone but himself.