Analytic Theology

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Celebrity Death Match: Ted Haggard versus Mel Gibson

November 6th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

DAVID KRONEMYER: The New Life Church’s Board of Overseers recently dismissed Ted Haggard, a prominent author and national evangelical Christian leader, for “sexually immoral conduct.” Haggard wrote: “I am a sinner. I have fallen.” New Life’s interim senior pastor, Ross Parsley, told church members: “Pastor Ted is living in a greater measure of repentance and forgiveness today than he has been living in for years.” Even the gay escort who “outed” him, Mike Jones, is quoted as having said: “I hope the healing process can start,” Johnson, K., “Church Tries to Cope After Minister’s Dismissal,” New York Times (Nov. 6, 2006); “Haggard apologizes for ‘repulsive and dark’ actions,” Los Angeles Times (Nov. 6, 2006).

This new-ageish mea culpa sounds remarkably similar to that proffered by Mel Gibson in the wake of anti-Semitic remarks he made, after he was arrested for drunk driving. Significantly, Mr. Gibson’s case involved the use of words, rather than actual activity – Mr. Gibson’s actual apology was for using words that were “vitriolic and harmful,” see text of Mel Gibson statement reproduced at cnn.com (Aug. 1, 2006). True, Mr. Gibson was arrested for drunk driving, which is an activity; however, unquestionably that would have passed with little comment, had he just kept his mouth shut. It is clear that “words” were the gist or gravamen of Mr. Gibson’s offense.

Whereas, it appears that Mr. Haggard actually participated in gay sex and used drugs – the former not being a crime, but, as Mr. Jones stated, is mind-bendingly hypocritical, particularly given Mr. Haggard’s previous anti-homosexual statements. The distinction being that it’s “activity” followed by words of apology, rather than “words” followed by words of apology. In principle, and unlike Mr. Gibson, Mr. Haggard could have remained perfectly mute, and his actions would have been equally impactful upon his congregation.

Interestingly, at no point in his reported statements does Mr. Gibson characterize what he said as “sinful,” or “a sin.” Even though, arguably, Mr. Gibson’s hurtful use of words was every bit as “sinful” as Mr. Haggard’s various offenses. In addition to pride, envy and wrath, Mr. Gibson rightly could be characterized as demonstrating an excess of hubris.

The contrast between Mr. Haggard’s case, and Mr. Gibson’s, provides another interesting point of entry into J. L. Austin’s theory of performatives – words that, when used, in and of themselves accomplish acts, or action. The “speech act” performed by Mr. Gibson variously might be characterized as degradation, denunciation, denigration, derision, dismissal, disparagement, or even slander (to get off the “d”s for a moment). Whereas, Mr. Haggard undertook no speech acts at all. Both, of course, exhibited the speech act of “apologizing” in their subsequent remarks; whether they truly were demonstrating the speech act of “contrition” is another matter.

Like Dale Bozzio of the great 80s band Missing Persons sang: “What are words for, if no one listens anymore?” It makes you wonder who will rehabilitate their careers more successfully, Mr. Gibson or Mr. Haggard.