From Rick Santorum to Ted Haggard, reality TV answers celebrity prayers
By Becky Garrison, Thursday 5 January 2012 11.36 EST
Voters in Iowa have given Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum the green light to continue his surge. This success can be attributed in part to the prayerful support offered by the devoutly Christian Duggars, the fertile stars of the TLC reality show 19 kids and counting. Also, this date marked another hopeful redemption via reality TV in the shape of Celebrity Wife Swap for two other Christian souls, disgraced pastor Ted Haggard and Academy award-nominated actor Gary Busey, whose credits include Gunsmoke, Law and Order, and a voiceover on Grand Theft Auto.
The Haggards became celebrities on the Christian circuit thanks to Ted’s high-profile position as founder of New Life Church, a megachurch in Colorado Springs. Also, in his capacity as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, he conversed with then president George W Bush weekly. Following claims that Ted engaged in “sexually immoral conduct” and methamphetamine use with a male prostitute, the Haggards followed in the tradition of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart by falling from grace as a direct result of his “sexual sins”.
After three weeks of counselling, Ted declared himself “cured” of homosexuality. Then the couple went into self-imposed hiding until they sought out the blessing of Oprah in 2009. Other media appearances designed to restore their reputation included the HBO documentary The Trials of Ted Haggard; Ted’s cameo in a Christian pro-abstinence sex comedy titled The Waiting Game; Divorce Court; the TLC special Haggard: Scandalous; and Gayle Haggard’s author tour to promote her book Why I Stayed.
Fast forward to 2012. Apparently the Haggards still feel like spiritual outcasts because once again, they seek public acceptance by appearing on yet another media vehicle. Given Ted’s sex-riddled past coupled with Busey’s entertaining antics on Celebrity Rehab with Dr Drew (2008) and Celebrity Apprentice 4 (2011), viewers of Celebrity Wife Swap might be expecting a dramatic and sexually charged MTV-themed reality show. But in this version of televised swapping, the actual switching remains confined to the women changing houses so they can sample another celebrity’s children and lifestyles.
At a local television appearance in Los Angeles promoting this episode, Ted showed a bit of heat when questioned about same-sex marriage. Based on this exchange, a viewer could expect that a show about wife swapping would get into the particulars of how this former evangelical megastar who admitted his bisexuality in a February 2011 issue of GQ maintains a “Christian” marriage. Throw in the fact that Busey claims to be a born-again Christian and is spiritually but not legally married to Stephanie Sampson, his Jewish fiancee whom he’s known in 31 past lives, and you’ve the potential for some faith-based fireworks.
Unfortunately these sparks never ignited during the actual show. Each player seemed acutely aware that every move could end up as tabloid fodder and rarely veered off a carefully constructed script. During a pre-show interview, Ted proclaimed: “The kids were excited about the idea of communicating the current status of our life so that [viewers] could have some actual data instead of the symbolic imagery that I have become out there in some people’s lives.” But the two children who stuck around beyond the obligatory family shot seemed to be conscripted to playing the role of the too-perfect preacher’s kid.
In his conversation with Sampson about “the scandal”, Ted seems particularly guarded when addressing her concerns that the Haggards view the male prostitute as Satan. In tackling this issue, he adopts the position found in progressive evangelical circles where one is affirming toward LGBT people but not radically welcoming when it comes to issues like marriage equality. Such a shifting would brand him as persona non grata with the National Association of Evangelicals, though his endorsement of Newt Gingrich puts him squarely into the conservative pro-family camp.
In the end, the families connected to explore their newfound friendship. Interested viewers can pick up their ongoing spiritual sagas the next time the Buseys and Haggards feel the need for yet another jolt of public affirmation via the restorative powers of the mass media.