NEW YORK -- Evangelical leader Ted Haggard, in apologizing for contacts with a gay prostitute, said he had sought help to combat a "repulsive and dark" side of his life -- but no approach had proven effective.
Even as he pledges to undergo further counseling, Haggard's comments have rekindled debate over the controversial premise that people can overcome same-sex attractions through "reparative therapy." It's a concept espoused by many religious conservatives, and disputed by many mental health experts.
"Haggard is Exhibit A of how people can't change their sexual orientation," said Wayne Besen, a gay-rights activist and author. "With all that he had to lose -- a wife, children, a huge church -- he had to be who he was in the end. He couldn't pray away the gay."
Haggard denied some of the prostitute's claims but confessed to "sexual immorality" and resigned earlier this month as pastor of his 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado. He gave up the presidency of the National Association of Evangelicals.
"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," he wrote to his congregation. "Through the years, I've sought assistance in a variety of ways, with none of them proving to be effective in me."
Haggard did not specify how he had sought help or describe the healing-and-restoration program he vows to pursue now -- but did say he deserved to be "disciplined and corrected."
Clinton Anderson, director of the American Psychological Association's Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Concerns Office, found Haggard's statement dismaying.
"There's a profound sadness that someone should be saddled culturally with such a negative attitude toward a part of themselves," Anderson said. "From our vantage point as psychologists, his self-repulsion is not necessary, it's not justified."
California psychologist Joseph Nicolosi -- a leading advocate of reparative therapy -- said such second-guessing of Haggard was inappropriate.
"If this man is saying, 'This is a part of me that I abhor,' why can't we respect that?" Nicolosi asked. "Why do we have to attribute that to something external and take away the dignity of the individual to express how he feels?"
Nicolosi is president of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), representing therapists who believe it's appropriate to help clients try to change their sexual orientation. Some take a secular, psychoanalytical approach; other allies of NARTH favor prayer-based counseling.
Nicolosi suggested that he could help Haggard if the evangelist was prepared for "deep, emotional work."
"We're talking about looking at your life squarely in the eye -- facing the realities that you did not get certain central affirmations from your mother or your father," Nicolosi said.
NARTH's views are considered fringe by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. Both declared in the 1970s that homosexuality was not a mental disorder and does not warrant a "cure."
"There's nothing good that can come from conversion therapy," said Doug Haldeman, a Seattle psychologist who specializes in gay-related issues. "The wreckage left behind, for some who go through it, is frightening -- they're depressed, suicidal."
Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York City psychiatrist who wrote "Psychoanalytic Therapy and the Gay Man," said reparative therapy's proponents ignore its potential for causing harm. "They're selling you something without any warning of what might go wrong," he said.
There have been numerous studies, with varying conclusions, on how homosexuality originates and whether it can be changed. But there has been no authoritative study -- accepted by both sides -- examining the effectiveness and possible ill-effects of reparative therapy.
At its national convention this summer, the American Psychological Association was pressed by NARTH about its stance on reparative therapy. APA leaders said they did not oppose people voluntarily seeking to change their sexual orientation, but said therapists should warn that treatment could prove harmful and be sure the client wasn't motivated mainly by social pressure.
The APA also said the positions of NARTH and its allies "create an environment in which prejudice and discrimination can flourish."
Nicolosi said NARTH opposes anti-gay prejudice, but he contended that social factors which trouble gays are a legitimate reason for seeking therapy. "It's more difficult to live as a gay man than as a heterosexual," he said. "We wish to respond to those clients who feel that it is. ... It's irrelevant if it's society's fault."
Nicolosi is a regular participant in Love Won Out, a series of conferences organized by the Christian ministry Focus on the Family as part of what is known as the ex-gay movement. The conferences, often protested by gay-rights supporters, spread the message that "a homosexual identity is something that can be overcome."
Another Love Won Out regular is Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, a network of ministries promoting "freedom from homosexuality" through Christian faith.
Chambers, who says he changed his own sexual orientation through religious counseling, expressed empathy with Haggard, saying, "We're all susceptible to temptation."
As for Haggard's future, Chambers said: "If someone says they want to change because of their faith-based convictions, you have to honor that. There has to be a real desire and motivation on the part of the person to change."
Leave it to the Religious Right to turn Santa Claus into a wedge issue and exchange the gift of seasonal cheer for a box of holiday fear. Thanks to their histrionic "War on Christmas" campaign, major retailers, including Wal-Mart and Walgreen Co. are now dumping "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas" and piping in religious Christmas carols.
"They're all trying to get the spirit back," industry analyst Marshal Cohen told the Los Angeles Times.
Is he talking about the universal Christmas Spirit or the sectarian Holy Spirit? This sudden change of heart was due to an intensive lobbying campaign last year by right wing organizations, such as the American Family Association and Liberty Counsel, and conservative pundits like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter. While mainstream Americans went to the store with a shopping list, conservatives showed up with a political agenda, checking chains once and twice to see if they were naughty or nice.
Yes, their tireless efforts to divide America paid off and Jesus is now officially the "Reason for the Season." With this monumental change, we can purchase Sin on sale to the soundtrack of Silent Night. Praise the American Family Association for they have put morals back into the mall. With the new Big Box Bible plan, you can also get that violent video game for your child, confess your wickedness while in line and be absolved by the time you swipe your American Express.
You know what, if Jesus were a greeter at Wal-Mart, I bet he’d welcome customers with the more inclusive "Happy Holidays."
Jesus was about humility and respecting other people, while this phony "War on Christmas" is about humiliation and disrespecting the views of others. This is a muscular version of religion that seeks to overpower and stomp on diversity.
The reason that retail stores began to say "Happy Holidays" was a recognition that many of their shoppers were not Christians. It was not a war on anyone or anything, but a matter of courtesy, good manners, and common decency. After all, why would a genuine Christian want to want to tell a Hindu, Jew or atheist "Merry Christmas?"
It makes no sense unless the hidden goal is to intimidate people and cow them into accepting religious supremacy of the majority religion. This is the right wings way to let you know that they are in charge and that this is a fundamentalist Christian nation and you are merely renting space, thanks to their overwhelming generosity.
If you break it down, this is really about proselytizing. It is a sort of Jesus tax, that lets non-believers shop for the holidays if they are willing to pay the price of constantly having to bow before another's deity.
This issue does not seem like a big deal on the surface since it is largely symbolic. However, if you look at the way the right wing incorporates symbols and then uses them to bludgeon opponents, there is reason to worry. They often point to the dollar bill and say, "See, it says 'in God we trust!' Doesn't that prove we are a Christian nation? Or, they will point to the Pledge of Allegiance and say, "It says one nation under God, so we can deny gay people equality or teach creationism in public schools because it is our' country."
As with these other symbols, the extremists want to hijack the shared shopping experience that holds us together and remake it in their own mean-spirited image. While Merry Christmas may be a truly joyous message to Christians, it may not be entirely benign to others. It is the celebration of the birth of Jesus and to make other people share in the religious festivities when they enter a Wal-Mart is wrong.
These large chains should reverse course and not give in to the demagogues on the fringe. After getting creamed in the elections, the conservatives get this consolation prize while they lick their wounds. For now, they may have won Wal-Mart and Walgreens in their War on Christmas, but in doing so they have lost their reason for the season, which is love, peace and goodwill for all.