Politics & Policy

Saving the Conservative Soul

Don't take the wrong lesson from Ted Haggard's fall.

The meaning of evangelical leader Ted Haggard’s downfall needs to be well understood by religious conservatives, lest the tragedy be compounded. The pain that has befallen the man — now resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals — along with his family and church is the consequence of his poor decisions.

#ad#What would be worse than his personal destruction, however, is if the side of the culture war that Haggard ably fought against in his public life were allowed to define his sins as a final proof that religious conservatism itself is cruel, stupid, and morally corrupt. On the contrary, the Haggard story confirms some truths of the worldview he defended.

Accused of conducting a sordid homosexual affair, he admitted on Sunday, “The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality. And I take responsibility for the entire problem. I am a deceiver and a liar. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life.”

Liberals descended like vultures. “I’m praying for Haggard,” Time-magazine blogger Andrew Sullivan assured his readers, “as I hope he is praying for me and every sinner. But the lesson of this to the religious right surely is: go and sin no more. Stop the lies. Stop the bigotry. Deal with the reality of gay people, our souls, our wounded hearts, our humanity, our right to be treated equally by our own government. It’s what Jesus did. And it is your true calling now.”

The key point in this spinning of Haggard’s humiliation is that the story exposes the “lies” underlying the conservative religious view especially as it pertains to gay matrimony.

What lies? The conservative case against redefining marriage is based on the observation of human vulnerability to temptation. Haggard confirms what we’ve said all along. It is pervasive moral weakness that makes such things necessary.

If everyone were in control of his appetites, there would be no need for the government to be involved in endorsing some sexual relationships while withholding endorsement from others. The more society undermines ancient standards of moral conduct, the harder it becomes to withstand temptation. This is why gay marriage threatens heterosexual marriage. When the awe in which people once held matrimony is diluted, by treating it as a man-made and thus amendable institution rather than a divinely determined one, heterosexuals find sexual sins of all sorts harder to resist.

So the experience of Ted Haggard strengthens the case for legally constituted social institutions like traditional marriage. Did the acceptability of gay love in today’s culture hasten Haggard’s fall? No doubt it did. It’s possible that the same man in a better time and place would have been beset by no such temptation.

But if even Haggard, this Christian fighter against homosexual culture, succumbed, doesn’t that prove that gay identity is natural, inborn, and therefore normal? Well, yes, in a way it does. But all temptations are natural, many are inborn, and to be called to fight against them in ourselves, according to a religious view, is the most normal thing in the world.

We know from experience that people have demons. Some of these are merely pesky, verging on the trivial. I have friends who keep kosher, for example, who confess they feel tempted by the smell of pepperoni pizza when passing by a non-kosher pizza store.

Other temptations go incomparably deeper in the human personality. There appears to be spectrum, from the easiest to fight (for a Jew, pepperoni pizza?), to the moderately difficult (gossip, perhaps), to the very difficult (alcoholism, anger, pornography, adultery, you name it). If temptations fall along such a spectrum, there must be one end that represents the sin or sins that pose the toughest challenge to those affected by them. At this extreme end, perhaps we would locate homosexuality. Partly that’s because traditional morality provides it no legitimate outlet at all. Possibly, another thing that makes a homosexual temptation difficult to resist is that, at least until the advent of AIDS, it produced no physical ravages (as alcoholism and anger do).

These are some of the reasons that all homosexuals deserve not our condemnation but only our most sincere compassion.

The Haggard story, in short, recalls and thus confirms a traditional understanding of how God sees humanity and our struggles. Christianity has its own teachings on this theme, which possess their own integrity. You can find a neat overview of Judaism’s perspective in a classic 18th-century work of religious philosophy by an Italian mystic and sage, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s The Way of God.

Luzzatto compactly explains that “God’s purpose in creation was to bestow of His good to another.” For this goodness to be meaningful to us, He set certain challenges to allow us to feel we had merited it: “God therefore decreed and arranged that creation contain elements of both perfection and deficiency, as well as a creature with equal access to both. This creature would then be given the means to both acquire perfection and avoid deficiency.

“By clinging to the elements of perfection, this unique creature would make itself resemble its Creator, at least to the degree that this is possible for it. As a consequence, it becomes worthy of being drawn close to God, to derive pleasure from His goodness.”

Choosing between perfection and deficiency, good and evil, is the human condition in a nutshell. Admittedly, it doesn’t seem fair that some people appear to be given easier challenges than others are. But God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.

When we fail, it hardly impugns the Biblical framework. This basic religious view, whether in its Christian or Jewish version, stands at loggerheads with secularism. The latter denies personal moral responsibility, which may in turn be the bottom-line point of disagreement between conservatives and liberals.

Gay advocates reason that because a man has a temptation to homosexuality, he has little moral choice other than to obey it. This view of morality goes back to Darwin, who reduced behavior to biologically determined instincts. In The Descent of Man he wrote, “At the moment of action, man will no doubt be apt to follow the stronger impulse; and though this may occasionally prompt him to the noblest deeds, it will far more commonly lead him to gratify his own desires at the expense of other men.” In his private notebooks, Darwin was more blunt, commenting that “the general delusion about free will [is] obvious.”

In the Ted Haggard affair, then, we are confronted with questions not only of right and wrong but, more fundamentally, of moral responsibility versus biological determinism. Conservatives, not only religious ones, need to be very clear where we come down on this.

For surely the greatest intellectual and spiritual corruption is not the failure to fight off your demons, but the decision to urge upon other people a view that tells them they are justified in giving up their own moral fight. In that sense, I hope Ted Haggard does pray for Andrew Sullivan, because it is Sullivan and those on his side of the culture war who do much greater damage to our lives.

 – David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a columnist for the Forward, and the author of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.

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