In Europe today, many people of Christian faith awoke to the unsettling news that one of America's leading evangelical leaders has confessed to improper behaviour.
Several U.S. cable media outlets covered charges made against Pastor Ted Haggard, leader of the New Life Church in Colorado. The charges are twofold: that Haggard engaged in homosexual sex acts with a male prostitute and that he received methamphetamine drugs from the same person.
At first, Pastor Haggard denied the allegations. However, when his voice was identified in voice mails to the prostitute, he admitted purchasing drugs, though he still denies any sexual impropriety. He also claims never to have used the drugs, though he was ‘tempted’ to do so.
As former head of the 30 million strong National Association of Evangelicals -- a position he resigned as a result of the allegations -- Haggard is well-known in America. Whilst many religious people in Europe would never have heard of Rev. Haggard, vocal opponents of evangelical Christianity here are likely to file the story for future use.
Though not as politically strident as some other American evangelical leaders, Haggard has moved the organisation closer to overt involvement in the political fray, particularly with his firm support of President George W. Bush. One author reported that Haggard talks to President Bush or his advisers once a week, though the claim was quickly denied by a White House spokesman.
Haggard believes in the fight against global warming and has advocated a greater involvement of the church in issues relating to poverty. Both positions have set him at odds with many of his more right-wing and outspoken colleagues.
But he also advocates that homosexual marriage should be banned; a position that, in the middle of a highly charged midterm election campaign has made him new enemies. It was this stance that led his accuser, a self-confessed ‘male escort’ and drug supplier, to bring his charges into the open. Thus far, the sexual aspects of the charges remain unproven.
Whether or not the charges are ever admitted or proven, there are some salutary lessons for all church leaders.
For one, this sorry tale reveals again the fine and often dangerous line religious leaders walk when they become politically active. Unlike America, where faith seems to play a much greater role in public political discussions, European leaders have tended to shy away from making their views known on key issues -- to the point, I think, where people of other faiths, most notably Muslims, have sometimes become more central to political decision-making than Christians.
Often, for religious leaders there is a real personal cost involved in making a political stand. An even bigger danger is aligning oneself too closely with one side or the other in the political fray. Or being seen to endorse one candidate for office over another, in a public way.
As religion and particularly the Christian religion have played a central role in the development of European cultures, it is important that its leaders are able to share their views.
After all, if Christianity stands for nothing else, it stands for the right to a second chance.