When news broke that Rev. Ted Haggard, a staunch opponent of legalizing gay marriage, had allegedly been cheating on his wife with a male prostitute, the evangelical community was in shock.
"I probably cried all morning," says Michelle Richmond, one of 14,000 members of Haggard's New Life Church. No doubt, the 30 million members of the Haggard-led National Association of Evangelicals felt the same way.
Patti and Jeff Ellis, a conservative Christian couple from Atlanta, GA, experienced a similar shock when their 16-year-old son Adam announced he was gay.
"Patti and I were devastated," writes Jeff on his family's website, Familyacceptance.com. "Our response was typical. We prayed for a miracle. We pleaded, 'God, please remove this burden from our son and our whole family. If Adam is truly gay, then please change him.'"
Patti and Jeff now say their prayers have been answered, but not in the way you might think; in fact, not only have they come to accept Adam's homosexuality, they both now favor laws which permit gays to marry.
"This is the same as civil rights," says Patti. "More parents need to stand up for their children." So what does this have to do with Ted Haggard?
The key to the Ellis' "conversion," they say, was being able to put a face on the otherwise abstract issue of homosexuality. "It's not about the gays," says Patti, "It's about the Ellises." Or as Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, puts it, people like the Ellises "go from an abstract idea to a real person with a real name and a real story," and come to understand "there's no negative impact on their own lives to have gays and lesbians living out in the open." The question is will the members of Rev. Haggard's spiritual family undergo a similar conversion?
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the conversion may already be underway. Granted, opposition to gay marriage remains at 56 percent for white evangelical Protestants — but that number is down from 65 percent just two years ago.
Nevertheless, 82 percent of gay marriage opponents say it runs counter to their religious beliefs. For Jeff Ellis, the Bible was clear that being gay, much less being gay and married, was a sin in the highest order. Rev. Bob Hudak, of the Church of Nativity in Fayetteville, Georgia, puts it even more bluntly. "If I were to take the Bible literally," says Hudak, "every homosexual should be put to death because of what Leviticus says."
Nevertheless, with some interpretation, the Ellises have found other passages in the Bible that have given them hope, such as John 8:7, in which Jesus says to a crowd criticizing an adulterous woman, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."
Jeff asks: "If the story were to be exchanged with a gay man, would Jesus have responded differently? Would he have said, 'You have my blessing in stoning this man to death?' I don't think so."
Ultimately, say the Ellises, coming to terms with their son's homosexuality deepened their beliefs. "Faithful to his word, God answered our prayer," says Jeff. "However, the changes that took place were not in Adam but in us. God...opened our eyes to the fact that he had created Adam gay for his own reasons and we, in our arrogance, viewed God's creation as flawed."
The Ellises now view their son's homosexuality as a kind of blessing. "I believe God's purpose for making Adam gay was to show Patti and I, and the rest of the world, the true meaning of unconditional love," says Jeff.
Ted Haggard's support system has thus far taken a distinctly different tack. Rev. Jack Hayford and the Rev. Tommy Barnett have been tapped by New Life's overseer board to supervise Haggard's spiritual "restoration," a process that could take up to three to five years, and will involve prayer, confession, and the rebuke of "godly men" like singer Pat Boone and televangelist/sex scandal veteran Jim Bakker. A polygraph test will also be used.
Meanwhile, America's ambivalence toward laws that permit gay marriage (and/or civil unions) remains. Although 51 percent of Americans continue to oppose legalizing gay marriage, that number has declined significantly from 63 percent just two years ago.
"Public attitudes toward gay rights have changed more than any other issue I've tracked in 20 years," says Clyde Wilcox, professor of government at Georgetown University. "It's not going to be long before we see several of these proposed [gay marriage] amendments fail."
Indeed, lawmakers in Massachusetts, the only state where same-sex marriage is legal, recently dealt what appears to be a fatal blow to a proposed constitutional amendment to ban it. Nevertheless, eight states voted on amendments to ban gay marriage this past election — and of those, seven passed.
So, years from now, will we look back at the Ted Haggard scandal and say, in an odd way, it helped set the stage for legalizing gay marriage or gay civil unions? Perhaps not — but I, for one, am keeping the faith.
Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.