Ted Haggard Returns

From his bedroom turned office in Colorado Springs, Ted Haggard prepares people for the afterlife. Not the roof-shaking "power encounters" with God that once defined him as founder of New Life Church and leader of the 30 million–strong National Association of Evangelicals. Now he's offering deliverance of a different sort: life insurance. Drumming up leads through a referral service, Haggard and his wife, Gayle, work the phones, setting up in-house consultations with the former "Pastor Ted" to close the deal. "One thing we can guarantee our clients," Haggard likes to say, "is that bad things do happen in life." (Article continued below...)

You can say amen to that. It's been two years since a prostitute named Mike Jones alleged he'd had a three-year, drug-fueled affair with Haggard. Haggard, now 52, ultimately admitted to a crystal-meth purchase and "sexual immorality." Within a week, he'd stepped down from his posts and into the pantheon of evangelicals (Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart) felled by their own sins. Now, in his first magazine interview since the scandal, Haggard talks about his ongoing struggle with his sexuality, his former church and his plans for the future. Why now? For one thing, he's pushing "The Trials of Ted Haggard," a wincingly candid HBO documentary due to air on January 29. But as you can sense in the film, and hear in conversation, Haggard still feels a lot of anger—at New Life Church, as well as at himself.

On that day in late 2006 when he finally dropped the denials, Haggard felt exhausted and lost, and so he did what came naturally: he put his trust in the church. "I was disoriented, confused, depressed. I had thrown my life away, and I had to trust these men," he tells NEWSWEEK. "I would have signed anything." Under the terms of his severance package and "restoration" deal, Haggard agreed to never set foot in New Life again and to leave Colorado forever (although the banishment was lifted after just more than a year). He took his family and his severance package—a year's pay, around $140,000—and began what the Haggards refer to as their life in exile. They spent the next 18 months crisscrossing Arizona with their two teenage sons piled into a U-Haul, staying in a series of budget hotels and the homes of "kind strangers."

Cash and Christian mercy were in short supply, but at least one friend made sure to come calling: Alexandra Pelosi. The Emmy-winning director (and Speaker Nancy's daughter) met Haggard in 2005 while shooting "Friends of God," her tour of evangelical America. She says she initially traveled to Arizona to make sure he was OK, and ever the filmmaker, just started filming when she saw Ted carrying a rack of his church suits into a cheap motel. He wasn't compensated for Pelosi's roughly 10 hours of footage, spread over several visits. "This movie was stolen from Ted," she says. "I was there, I had a camera, that's it." Haggard says the film is "fair and even" and let her shoot it. "Here's the way I've worked in my lifetime: I tend to say yes," he says.

Unfortunately, other people kept telling him no. Struggling to find work in the secular world, he turns to hanging "hundreds, maybe thousands" of mortgage advertisements on suburban doorknobs, and when Pelosi zooms in to ask about his success rate, Haggard's Grand Canyon smile goes missing. He didn't get a single response. In another scene, Haggard is feeling confident on the way to his first secular job interview, a counseling position at the University of Phoenix, the adult learning center. "If they don't Google me, I'll get the job," he tells Pelosi. Apparently they did, because he struck out there, too. Finally, Haggard lands work as a traveling insurance salesmen, a prelude to his present-day success with a different commission sales company, Mortgage Protection Group. He now says he makes around $1,000 a week.

And yet, while he strives to turn the other cheek, full Christian forgiveness eludes him. He believes that New Life cast him away when he needed it the most. As he says in the movie: "The Church has said go to hell." Haggard now thinks that he lashed himself too hard. "I understand why when a criminal is caught they will sometimes admit to things they didn't do," he says. "I wanted to overrepent, and I think I did overrepent. In my [resignation] letter to the church I said I was a deceiver and a liar, but I hadn't lied about anything except to keep quiet about what was going on inside me."

He's still struggling. Haggard denies saying in early 2007, after three weeks of spiritual counseling, that he had become "completely heterosexual," and in the film he puts himself back on the couch, asking, "Gay, straight, bisexual—what are you, Ted Haggard?" Perhaps naively he also allows himself to be filmed lovingly sucking an ice pop. Haggard traces his sexual struggles back to allegedly being molested in the second grade by an employee of his father. In seventh grade, he says, he fooled around sexually with other preteen boys. At 18, he became a born-again Christian and started "dating girls and loving it." He says he has never had an adult same-sex encounter with anyone other than Jones.

So is he gay or straight? After more than a year of secular counseling sessions, he still ducks the label question. "I believe that sexuality is complex and confusing," he says. "I no longer struggle with homosexual compulsions. I still have thoughts from time to time, but they're not powerful thoughts. I still have temptations from time to time, but they're not powerful temptations. They're not compelling." Both he and Gayle say that their 30-year marriage has actually improved in the wake of the scandal. "As you might imagine, with greater openness the intimacy is better," says Gayle, who says she stayed with Ted for two reasons. "No. 1, he's worth it, and our children are worth it."

One thing that hasn't changed is his conservative philosophy. Haggard still opposes gay marriage, telling Pelosi that "God's best plan for human beings is for man and woman to unite together," and he believes that homosexuality is a learned behavior "like alcoholism." Gays (and many straights) will undoubtedly scoff, but Haggard comes across more like a man striving to be honest to himself, the world and his God. "I am what I am," he says in the movie. "I was born an evangelical."

The 42-minute film ends by noting that in January 2008 the Haggards were allowed to move back to Colorado, which they did last June. Shortly after Christmas, the church also opened the door for him to return to New Life—as a member of the congregation. He is cleared to start a new ministry, or preach as a guest, so long as it's more than 100 miles from his old church. But he has no plans to lead a congregation again, saying it's no longer his place to shape Christian policy. That said, he believes that "there is a place for everyone in the church."

Except, for the moment, the Haggard family. "We don't attend a church because it would create news, and we don't want to put our children or the church pastor through that," he says. "So we're just trying to lay low, do our business, be with our family and do the appropriate things without causing a stir." Since settling into his old house, Haggard has found a post-preacher routine of fast-food lunches ("I love McDonald's. I love Wendy's. I love KFC.") and weekly runs at a nearby middle-school track. But life is clearly not back to normal. He says he avoids thinking about New Life, which he can see from his bedroom window. He has yet to unpack boxes that it shipped from his office, including his picture with President Bush and a handwritten copy of the Bible transcribed by his congregants. But he has a new flock to tend now. He's recruited 42 people to join his burgeoning team of insurance agents. Whether it's prayer or premiums, Ted Haggard is obviously a natural salesman.