The Ted Haggard case to me sounds like a story lifted out of a novel. Ted Haggard is a charismatic, ultra-righteous, very outspoken and influential religious figure who not only founded an evangelical movement 20 years ago, but was also the Chairman - until he resigned a few days ago - of the National Association of Evangelicals, a US umbrella body of evangelical churches which boasts 30 million members. No wonder he has strong connections to the White House: 30 million sounds like a lot of votes.
One of my mum's trademark phrases is "Tuhan Maha Kaya" (Most Bountiful is the Lord) - a phrase she often uses when a bad deed that the perpetrators have been at pains to hide is uncovered. (We often heard this phrase in our childhood, particularly when we were found out watching TV instead of studying for school or doing other naughty things.) This phrase came to mind when I read that Ted Haggard - who is well known for his strong public stance against same-sex marriage - was ejected from the Church he founded - get this - for sexually immoral conduct involving a gay male prostitute and drugs. Tuhan Maha Kaya, indeed.
I first saw an American evangelical figure on TV on my last visit to the US. I was back in my hotel room and as I was flipping the channels I stumbled upon what I thought at first was a stand-up comedy show. I saw a guy standing on a stage cracking jokes that had the audience in stitches. I only caught on a few minutes later when I noticed that he kept referring to Jesus, charity, love - you probably know the drill.
It was fascinating. This guy I saw on TV was such a contrast to the religious preachers I knew back home (but then, maybe that's because I didn't know that many). He looked young, had an expensive-looking haircut, was dressed in a sharp suit and a dapper tie, good-looking and was oozing charisma. He was very witty and sharp, deftly jumping from the Bible to pop culture to politics as he made his point, and the crowd was clearly in love with him.
Back in Malaysia, while chatting with a rather religious friend, I commented on how different American preachers are compared to their Malaysian counterparts. He flatly disagreed.
"Yes, maybe on the surface they don't look as sophisticated or as smooth as the American preachers, but fundamentally they are the same. They may not wear designer suits, but they are without a doubt a bunch of very charismatic people, good with the crowd and are arguably quite concerned with their public image. They are just catering for a different market, that's why they look different."
Now, that put a different new spin on those pendakwah (preachers) that appear on the weekly Ceramah Perdana on TV. I pondered further on this and realized that my friend was right. Preachers in America and Malaysia dress differently and perhaps have a different intellectual approach when expounding on their interpretation of faith. But they fundamentally pontificate on similar things: traditional good old-fashioned values under threat, salvation, sin, heaven and hell and religion's role in our everyday life. Preachers in both countries are dead convinced of their respective righteousness and are obviously persuaded that they have found "the way". When they address the crowd, they speak to the same concerns and play to the same insecurities.
And I thought the only similarities we had with the US were oversized airconditioned shopping malls and our increasingly consumeristic society. Silly me.
There has been a substantial rise in religious fervour in our society, particularly over the last few years. I am subscribed to a couple of Malaysia-based mailing lists, and I receive multiple messages on religion everyday. The amount of cyber preaching that I get these days beggars belief. From injunctions on the mortal sin of wearing a baseball cap to the legitimacy of stoning people to death; from the prohibition of women wearing perfume to the grave sin of wearing pants that reach below your ankles: you name it, I've got them all. It seems more and more people have "found the light" and they are eager to take everyone else into the light with them.
I have no problem whatsoever with the rise of religious fervour. Many people obviously derive a lot of utility from religious convictions these days, and if religion makes them happy, good for them. The only thing that disturbs me is that, all of those who "have found the light", seem oh-so-cocksure that there is only one way of "finding the light" and that their way is the only right one. While they say that they are open to debate and question, the way they frame discussions and the appeal they frequently make to authority effectively kill debate and preclude questioning. Their truth is the only absolute one, and woe betide any who dare to challenge it.
Back to Ted Haggard. Ted Haggard used to be - and probably still is - one of those cocksure self-righteous people who go around preaching to other people how to live their lives. He's one of those people who think they know better and did everything he could to make the world conform to his standards even at the expense of other people's happiness, personal hopes and aspirations. Alas, as it turned out, his own personal life fell way short of the standards that he vociferously promoted. I suppose it would have been tolerable if he had just been another sinner like the rest of us, but as things appear, he turns out to be just another hypocrite and a liar.
To you holier-than-thou preachers out there: beware. Judge not, lest ye be judged.
Because Tuhan Maha Kaya.