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Out of the dark

Religion | Ted Haggard's secret cost him his ministry, but exposure could grant him New Life

Issue: "GOP downfall," Nov. 18, 2006

Newscasts from the Nov. 5 Sunday services at New Life Church in Colorado Springs captured deep emotional anguish and steely resolve on the tear-stained faces of a 14,000-member congregation in crisis. Parishioners listened quietly as a four-day national media circus of rumors and outlandish accusations culminated in the confirmation of their worst fears: Senior pastor Ted Haggard admitted to sexual immorality.

In a letter to the church, Haggard wrote, "I am a deceiver and a liar. There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all of my adult life." An independent board of overseers announced its decision to remove Haggard permanently from his leadership role, one he had occupied since the church began with meetings in his basement 21 years ago.

Two days earlier, the National Association of Evangelicals unanimously accepted Haggard's resignation after a three-year stint as president of the organization, which represents 45,000 churches and 30 million Christians. Not since the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals of the 1980s has such a prominent evangelical leader fallen so far so fast.

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Yet details of Haggard's misconduct remain mysterious. Mike Jones, a homosexual prostitute in Denver, alleges that Haggard paid him for sex nearly every month for the past three years, at times using methamphetamines to heighten the experience. Jones claims not to have known the identity of his client until recently when he saw Haggard on television. He came forward, he says, to expose the hypocrisy of a man who condemns homosexual acts in public but commits them in private.

When initially confronted with the allegations by local news reporters outside his Colorado Springs home, Haggard denied knowing Jones and said he'd never had sex with a man in Denver and was faithful to his wife. But the following day, after an analysis of recorded voicemails revealed Haggard had called Jones to set up a drug deal, the 50-year-old pastor told reporters he went to Jones for a massage and bought meth but never used it.

Haggard's letter of confession makes note of his "inconsistent statements," but also maintains, "The accusations that have been leveled against me are not all true, but enough of them are true that I have been appropriately and lovingly removed from ministry."

New Life congregants applauded that acknowledgement of guilt, however vague, many expressing their undying love for Haggard and deep desire for healing and reconciliation. A letter from the pastor's wife, Gayle Haggard, echoed such sentiments of forgiveness and drew a standing ovation. "What I want you to know is that I love my husband, Ted Haggard, with all my heart. I am committed to him until death do us part. We started this journey together and, with the grace of God, we will finish together," she wrote. "For those of you who have been concerned that my marriage was so perfect I could not possibly relate to the women who are facing great difficulties, know that this will never again be the case. My test has begun; watch me. I will try to prove myself faithful."

Tragically, the Haggards' five children have the closest view. Even Jones, who admits political motivation for the timing of his disclosure, has expressed sadness over his role in bringing a family great pain. The Haggards will seek counsel and spiritual direction from pastors Jack Hayford and Tommy Barnett. Focus on the Family's James Dobson was also originally assigned to the restoration team but cited time constraints in backing out.

Like many evangelical leaders, Dobson professed disbelief upon hearing initial news reports of Haggard's homosexual trysts. The two men are personal friends and political allies in defense of the unborn and traditional marriage. Varying pundits speculated that Haggard's exposure might swing voters either for or against a marriage amendment on the Colorado ballot. The amendment passed easily.

The political impact could prove more significant and lasting on a national scale-though not in the manner many mainstream media outlets predict. While conservative on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, Haggard worked to expand the evangelical agenda to include such concerns as the environment. Hardly content with a message of personal responsibility-wherein he might have simply encouraged recycling and conservation-Haggard trumpeted federal solutions like capping greenhouse gas emissions.

With boundless energy and a disarming nature, Haggard helped elevate the 64-year-old NAE to unprecedented prominence, creating a formidable platform from which to champion his nontraditional evangelical causes. Some secular environmentalists considered the influential leader a strategically critical force in the global warming debate. The greening of evangelicals could slow considerably without Haggard's presence in the national conversation.

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