The surprisingly compelling documentary The Trials of Ted Haggard chronicles the hardships former mega-church pastor Ted Haggard has faced in the years following his fall from “grace.” Forced to leave his church, his home, even his state, Haggard is harried by the media, joblessness, and the lack of forgiveness from the church he helped found, not to mention his own personal regret surrounding his solicitation of a male prostitute, his drug use, and his handling of the entire situation. Though the film is clearly sympathetic to Haggard, filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi has a habit of sticking the camera right into the wounded parts of the former pastor’s life. To his credit, Haggard doesn’t flinch often and, having lost everything, comes across as a man who has nothing more to hide.
While Haggard is moving a box of suits (during one of four moves in his year in exile), Pelosi makes a comment about the man’s need for “church suits.” Haggard responds that they’re no longer church suits, but instead they have become his “business suits.” He is so honest and innocently ironic at moments, it’s hard to believe his current mode of life is without some new guile. And yet it seems inconceivable that seemingly no bitterness has taken root in him at all. It’s on this level that the film is most compelling, tapping into the tension of the question of Haggard’s sincerity. He rarely gets angry and exhibits a sort of joyful exuberance even during his gloomiest moments, a disposition which, no doubt, played a role in propelling him to evangelical mega-church stardom.
The film excerpts clips of Haggard’s preaching, particularly sermons that deal with hidden sins and homosexuality, but whatever Haggard taught his church about forgiveness, it apparently didn’t resonate. The collective evangelical disavowal of Haggard and his subsequent exile shows that in many ways he was not a leader so much as a lightning rod of opinion, a palimpsest onto which evangelicals wrote their own thoughts and feelings about what a good Christian should look like. This is not only true for evangelicals though: Once Haggard’s hypocrisy was revealed, he became a similar lightning rod for the media and gay community, the stock hypocrite and/or bigot. Haggard laments that even after his fall, when his life affects nobody, he is still pursued and held up for ridicule. Still, he refuses to blame anybody but himself for his own trials. In his worst moments, Haggard feels as if the church has told him to “go to hell”; at his best, he’s grateful he no longer has to hide in fear.
The film does not delve into the details of Haggard’s struggles with homosexuality or his decision to try to be, as one pastor memorably put it, “completely heterosexual.” The film, in fact, does not delve much into anything beyond the basic struggles of Haggard to survive after having lost his social and religious standing, which is regrettable since Haggard seems like an interesting enough persona to warrant a more full-bodied study. Nonetheless, like The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a documentary that covers another famous evangelical’s fall from grace, Trials of Ted Haggard serves as a reminder of the real lives that exist under the glare of public attention (and continue to exist after it fades).