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Christian Living

Spiritual Life

Michael Phelps and Ted Haggard: The Connection

The race was an instant classic. In the final men’s swimming event of the 2009 Beijing Olympics, with the world watching, Michael Phelps came from behind, clocking the fastest butterfly leg ever recorded in a medley, enough to give his team a lead to win the race. In that moment, Michael Phelps clinched a record-breaking eight Olympic gold medals, instantly becoming a national hero. Suddenly, the 23-year-old kid from Baltimore was the most decorated Olympian in history, and his face showed up on everything from cereal boxes to magazine covers.

In 2005, Ted Haggard led one of the most influential mega-churches in the country. Not only was his New Life Church a thriving congregation, but Haggard himself was named one the most influential evangelicals in the country by Time magazine—he was said to be a regular advisor of President Bush, and at the height of his success, Haggard led the National Association of Evangelicals.

From the outside, Ted Haggard and Michael Phelps don’t seem to have a lot in common. Haggard was no Olympian, and Phelps isn’t known to make many religious commitments. But, at the pinnacles of their successes, both men had one common trait: They were made into larger than life figures. But, along with their bouts with fame, they both hold a more obvious connection—they are both human. And, unfortunately, sometimes those two things do not mix well.

Although they will be remembered for their fame and influence, both men have made decisions that have permanently marred their reputations.

In 2006, allegations were made that Ted Haggard maintained an inappropriate relationship with a male prostitute and used drugs during their meetings. Haggard would later step down from leadership at the church he founded, admitting he was “guilty of sexual immorality.” Recently more allegations of sexual misconduct have arisen as a new high-profile documentary about Haggard made its debut on HBO.

Even though Michael Phelps isn’t in the ministry, his Olympic performance and eager acceptance of endorsement deals transformed him from a champion to a role model. But earlier this month, his family-friendly image was tarnished when a photo surfaced of Phelps smoking what appeared to be a bong used for marijuana. Phelps issued a statement expressing his remorse for "behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment". He was soon dropped by Kellogg’s cereal and suspended by USA swimming.

Though their circumstances and forms of misconduct are obviously very different, the two men represent an issue that has only been exaggerated in an era of celebrity and mass media. The two obtained huge followings of fans and congregants who were let down when their superhuman facades crumbled under the weight of very human mistakes.

Leaders, celebrities and athletes have never been immune to lapses in judgment and struggles with sin, but we live in an age where their status has become larger than life through book deals, endorsements, TV appearances, magazines and Internet stories. People who started life as regular members of society suddenly become omnipresent figures, whose status is more defined by their achievements than their character.

Most of the people who were affected in both scandals and have opinions about Michael Phelps and Ted Haggard have probably never met either of them. All of what they know (and what they think about the two individuals) isn’t based on personal interaction and an actual relationship; it’s based on how they’ve been portrayed for what they’ve accomplished. In a way, when leaders reach that kind of status, they become more of an idea than a person. Phelps wasn’t just a college kid who was good at swimming and liked listening to hip-hop—he was a champion. He was an American. He was an athlete. He was a series of ideas, not just a guy named Michael. Haggard wasn’t just a family-man who was struggling with secret issues. He was a leader. He was an evangelical. He was a political voice.

Even if it is unintentional, these two men (and other celebrities and public figures), tend to lose a bit of their humanity (at least in the eyes of the public) when they become more identified for what they represent than who they actually are. That’s why it’s so devastating when we get reminders that they are human after-all. It’s even more dangerous and shocking when we tie our identity not just up in the ideas they represent, but their representation of them.

There were people who didn’t just think of themselves as "a leader" or "an evangelical", they identified with Ted Haggard, because he represented these ideas. So many parents were upset during the Michael Phelps scandal not because their children related to Michael Phelps the 23-year-old, but because they wanted to be like Michael Phelps the athlete and the champion.

When the celebrities lose creditability, in a way, so do the ideas they represent (whether rightly or wrongly). And, when we have our identities tied to that creditability, it can be crushing when it is lost in the public square.

Even in the days of the early church, Paul understood that our faith shouldn’t be placed solely on the shoulders of people. Because no matter what they’ve achieved or what status they hold, they are still human. In Romans 3 he writes, "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one" (3:10-12, NIV).

Paul says that we are all accountable to the law of God. We all know the difference from right and wrong, but at some point, even the greatest leaders will succumb to human nature. But, as it turns out, perfection was never the point of the law. The point was that we become aware of how inadequate our attempts at perfection are. “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20, NIV).

All of our attempts to represent the things we believe and live lives that are perfect will inevitably fail. No matter how many gold medals we win or how many followers attend our meetings, we can never be good enough. But, the good news is, we don’t have to be.

That’s where Jesus steps in. God knew that, at some point, everyone will stumble. Everyone will disappoint the people they love. All of us will sin and make mistakes. That trait is the one thing that makes us human. Sin is what separates us from God, and we needed a bridge to get over that gulf.

That’s why He sent Jesus. Jesus was perfect so we don’t have to be. Not only that, but He took all the punishment we deserve for our transgressions so we don’t have to. He died on the cross to restore us. All we have to do is accept it and repent.

Living under the burden of perfection is too much for a person to bear—even if you’re famous and people love you. It’s important to remember that God’s forgiveness and grace doesn’t exempt us from trying to do our best and striving for righteousness (Paul reminds us, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” [Romans 6:1-2]). But it does show us that no matter how hard we try, we still need Him, even if we become a success, a leader or even an Olympic champion.

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