Church Leader Resigns After Gay Sex Claim

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006

One of the nation's most influential conservative Christian leaders, the Rev. Ted Haggard, resigned yesterday as president of the National Association of Evangelicals and temporarily stepped aside as pastor of a Colorado mega-church after a self-described male escort accused him of paying for gay sex.

Haggard, an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, vigorously denied the allegation. "Never had a gay relationship with anybody, and I'm steady with my wife. I'm faithful to my wife," he told a Colorado television station, KUSA.

But in a statement issued by New Life Church, his 14,000-member congregation in Colorado Springs, Haggard said he could "not continue to minister under the cloud created by the accusations," which were first made public on a Denver talk-radio station yesterday morning.

Although he has avoided endorsing political candidates, Haggard has been a staunch ally of the Bush administration. Some political observers said his resignation was more bad news for Republicans trying to rally their conservative Christian base to turn out for the midterm elections.

"This is one more factor that could increase the disillusionment of evangelicals with prominent leaders on the Christian right and with the political process as a whole, and some may conclude that perhaps their forebears were wise to be wary about politics," said William Martin, a professor of religion and public policy at Rice University and a biographer of the Rev. Billy Graham.

Conservative Christian leaders rallied around Haggard. "I've always admired Ted's Christian character and his ministry, and I find these accusations incredible, frankly," said the Rev. L. Roy Taylor, chairman of the National Association of Evangelicals, which has about 45,000 constituent churches across the country.

Taylor said that the NAE's executive committee will hold a teleconference today to decide how to proceed. He said he may serve temporarily as president of the organization, in addition to his regular duties as the stated clerk, or administrative leader, of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America.

"I'm a minister not a political scientist, so I couldn't predict" what political impact Haggard's resignation might have, Taylor said. "Evangelicals have a serious understanding of the power of sin and human evil, and realize that every person, whether Christian or not, struggles with the dark side," he added.

In his written statement, Haggard said he was "voluntarily stepping aside from leadership" of New Life Church so that its four-member board of overseers could conduct an investigation. An associate pastor, the Rev. Ross Parsley, will take over as the church's acting leader, and "in the interim, I will seek both spiritual advice and guidance," Haggard said.

Haggard declined further comment, but a close colleague at New Life Church said that although he is stepping down as pastor temporarily, his resignation as president of the NAE is permanent.

"Ted realizes this is a pretty consuming situation in terms of media, and in order to make sure the good work of the NAE goes forward without distraction, that is a decision he voluntarily made," the colleague said, speaking anonymously because the church was limiting its comments to the written statement.

Haggard's accuser identified himself as Mike Jones, 49. Jones said in radio and television interviews that he had a three-year sexual relationship with the pastor, who he said came to Denver and paid him for sex about once a month.

Jones told Peter Boyles, host of a talk-radio show on KHOW-AM station, that he has recorded voice-mail messages and a letter from Haggard, and that he witnessed the pastor using methamphetamine. But he did not immediately produce the alleged voice-mails or letter.

Jones indicated that he is going public with the accusations at least in part because Colorado has two questions related to same-sex marriage on Tuesday's ballot. One is Amendment 43, which would define marriage as between one man and one woman, and which Haggard has supported. The other is Referendum 1, which would give same-sex couples more legal rights and benefits.

"Being a gay man all my life . . . I felt it was my responsibility to my fellow brothers and sisters, that I had to take a stand, and I cannot sit back anymore and hear [what] to me is an anti-gay message," Jones said.

John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, said Haggard's resignation is likely to reverberate more loudly in Colorado than nationally.

"Haggard is a very important political figure in Colorado, and there are tight races there as well as ballot questions that could be affected," he said, citing in particular the embattled reelection efforts of Reps. Marilyn Musgrave and Tom Tancredo, both Republicans. "I think there's less of an implication for what evangelicals might do nationwide, because outside of Colorado he's not directly involved in voter turnout efforts and is seen as more of a religious leader than a political one."

Green also noted that under Haggard's leadership, the NAE has sought to widen the evangelical agenda to include global warming, international human rights and poverty issues. Although non-evangelicals may view Haggard as a diehard conservative, within the evangelical movement he is seen as a moderate, Green said.

"If the allegations are proven true, it could discredit a prominent moderate figure in the evangelical community," he said.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company