Despite the screamingly liberal bona fides that come with being the daughter of the Democratic Speaker of the House, documentarian Alexandra Pelosi has carved out a niche for herself as one of America’s best-known chroniclers of the conservative/evangelical half of this country — in part because she’s the kind of liberal who was taught that it’s nice to listen to everyone. It was while shooting 2007’s Friends of God that she first met Ted Haggard, who was at the time pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, as well as the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals. Sadly, there is no quicker way to get yourself fired from your gig at the pulpit of a megachurch than admitting to doing crystal meth/having sex with a male prostitute, and in 2006, Haggard was exiled — not just from the New Life Church, but from the entire state of Colorado. Pelosi’s latest doc, The Trials of Ted Haggard, premiering tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO, is the story of this very disgraced man’s attempts to keep his family together, to find a job, to live without the church he founded in his basement, and ultimately, to find a way back home.
Pelosi was reticent to do much press for the movie — "I don’t really need to talk about Ted to anybody because Ted can talk about Ted and I don’t have anything to add to that," she says — but she did us the favor of calling in anyway. Read on for how the doc came into being, her thoughts on the problems that exist on both sides of the gays vs. evangelicals divide (at least w/r/t Haggard), and why she is now, as she puts it "prescribing the Bible"…
To most of her gay friends, says Pelosi, this documentary counts as "giving sympathy to the devil." But she seems to genuinely like Haggard, and explains, "He didn’t give really anti-gay sermons. I’m telling you this because I made a movie about evangelical Christians, and I had to sit through the sermons. The most anti-gay things that I found [Haggard said] were basically jokes. He makes jokes about gays. But he’s not Pat Robertson saying, ‘The gays caused 9/11.’" When Pelosi found out Haggard was living in Scottsdale, Ariz., after his fall from grace, she gave him a ring when she came to town to visit her sister; lo and behold, he answered the phone. "This guy is down and out," she says. "He has no work, his family is falling apart, he’s got nothing. And I called. I think he was just lonely." Pelosi and her husband stopped by for lunch, and ended up staying for nine hours. "And the day he was moving, he had no one there," she says. "The cynical New Yorkers were the only ones there to help him move. I was just filming my husband moving boxes, not because I thought it was going to be a movie someday. Most documentaries shoot like 200 hours. In this case, what you see in the movie is what I filmed. It all happened by accident." And fairly quickly: the footage that makes up the movie was approved by Haggard only about a month ago.
The Trials of Ted Haggard is, according to Pelosi, "really anti-church" — and seriously, church? you’re allowed to kick someone out of a state?? — but she emphasizes that on the flip side, it actually turned out to be very pro-Bible and very pro-Jesus. "I was there for a lot of times when they’d sit down as a family and read the Bible, and it really seemed to give them some hope," she says. In the end, Pelosi became so enamored with the "greatest hits" of scripture that she went out and got herself a Bible, too. "I had to," she laughs. "Ted would be reading these passages… it was like hearing a song on the radio. Like, ‘That was good!’" Most of all, Pelosi saw the benefit the book had in the life of "the real victim in all of this," Haggard’s wife, Gayle. "She’s one of those women who says, ‘The Bible says you have to forgive, so I forgive.’ It’s like, ‘Honey, your husband has been messing around with other men…’ and she’d say, ‘Yeah, but the Bible says forgive.’ Isn’t that inspirational?" Pelosi asks. "Jesus would say everybody deserves forgiveness. Even though you’re gay. Even if they gave anti-gay sermons.’"
By the way, it’s not just the church who Pelosi views as being unnecessarily harsh towards her unlikely friend. "I hate how the gays want Ted to say, ‘I’m gay and I’m out and I’m proud,’" she says. "He’s not. He’s conflicted. I think there’s more than ‘I’m gay,’ ‘I’m straight.’ I’m satisfied with him saying, ‘I’m confused, I have a wife and five kids but I struggle with my sexuality, I have these attractions, these urges.’ I feel like that’s sort of honest. And his wife and his kids are the only things he has left."
[She's a lightning talker, this lady, and there's really no sense interrupting. Take us to the comments, Alexandra! Let's hope everyone stays respectful in them!]
"Gay. What is gay? Ted Haggard doesn’t think he’s gay, because he doesn’t live in Chelsea, he doesn’t have a timeshare on Fire Island, and he doesn’t dance in his Speedo in the Gay Pride parade. To him, that’s what ‘gay’ is. So he’s not lying when he says he’s not gay. It’s an identity thing. When you say, ‘Are you gay?’ you’re not talking about his sex life. You’re talking about identity. And the gay of Chelsea is totally different than the gay of Colorado Springs. There is this culture war going on in America between gays and evangelicals. It’s not just happening in Colorado, it’s happening in California with Prop 8. When Rick Warren was selected to pray at the inauguration, it happened. Gays versus evangelicals. And Ted has fallen right in between. He’s fallen in the crack. He wants to be an evangelical. He wants to go back to church. Before he dies, I think all he wants is a call from the church saying, ‘Can you please come give a sermon? We’d love to have you.’"