Bill Berkowitz*

OAKLAND, California, Nov 6 2006 (IPS) — Last week, Pastor Ted Haggard, a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, got a November surprise.

Only a few days before voters in Colorado and seven other states were to vote on ballot initiatives banning gay marriage, Mike Jones, a former gay escort, claimed that he had a three-year sexual relationship with Haggard, the founder and senior leader of the 14,000 member Colorado Springs, Colorado-based New Life Church, the state’s largest megachurch.

Haggard also served as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, whose 30 million members come from more than 45,000 churches across the United States. Over the past few years, Haggard has been a regular advisor to the George W. Bush administration – which has tried to rejuvenate the issue of gay marriage to boost conservative turnout in Tuesday’s election.

After initially denying all of Jones’ charges, Haggard, himself married with five children, resigned his post at the NAE and voluntarily took an administrative leave of absence from his church. He was later dismissed by the church’s independent overseer board.

By Sunday morning, a letter composed by Haggard admitting his involvement with Jones was read to New Life Church parishioners. In the letter, Haggard apologised for his transgressions and asked for forgiveness.

“The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality. And I take responsibility for the entire problem. I am a deceiver and a liar. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life,” he said.

Although Haggard refused to be specific about which of Jones’ accusations were true, he pointed out that “the accusations made against me are not all true but enough of them are that I was appropriately removed from my church leadership position.”

Jones came forward after realising that the person he was involved with was Haggard. In a radio interview, Jones said that “After sitting back and contemplating this issue, the biggest reason (for exposing it) is being a gay man all my life, I have experience with my friends, some great sadness of people that were in a relationship through the years” and were not able to enjoy the same rights and privileges as a married man and woman.

“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,” he said.

According to the political blog Colorado Confidential, Haggard’s New Life Church contributed 12,000 dollars to the campaign for Amendment 43, a ballot measure that would amend the state’s constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

“It has been a very bad year for conservative evangelicals,” Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told IPS. “Their leader in congress, Tom DeLay, had to slink away in disgrace; several of the ‘family values’ contingent in the House [of Representatives] appeared to have covered up the Mark Foley [sex] scandal; David Kuo’s book revealed that some in Karl Rove’s office regard them as ‘nuts’, and, now, Ted Haggard has been forced to leave the stage.”

Kuo, a former high-ranking official at the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, told Time magazine that he believes the scandal could reduce evangelical turnout on Tuesday. “I think the significance of the Haggard thing is this building case against evangelical involvement in politics,” he said. “Christians are smart. They can see what influence politics is having.”

While backing federal and state measures to block gay marriages, Haggard did take a more tolerant stance on domestic partnerships.

“If the state wants to provide people who are in a different type of relationship the same benefits as marriage, that’s up to the community,” Haggard said. “As a Christian, I would be hesitant to do anything that would deny people medical insurance or the ability to visit their partner in a hospital.”

“We believe within the church that sexuality should be only between a married man and a woman,” Haggard said. “But there are many things that I teach in the church that I would never want integrated into civil law.”

Haggard was one of the rising stars in conservative evangelical Christian circles; the heir apparent to such leaders as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson. In 2005, then NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw profiled Haggard in a series on mega-churches. The pastor was also listed by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in the United States last year.

Well-connected to the Bush administration, Haggard often met with officials at the White House.

In 2004, Haggard was heavily involved in rallying the evangelical vote for the Republicans, the Wall Street Journal reported, and urged his followers to call their congressional representatives in support of the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would ban same-sex marriages.

However, he also publicly condemned the use of torture on terror suspects as “violat[ing] the basic dignity of the human person”, and his National Association of Evangelicals pressured the Bush administration to change its position on global warming.

Given Haggard’s prominence and influence in the conservative evangelical and political communities, his alleged three-year gay relationship and use of the drug methamphetamine is of far greater import than the televangelist scandals of the 1980s involving the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart and PTL’s Jim Bakker – the former was caught engaging in meet-ups with prostitutes, while the latter was discovered dabbling in extramarital relationships and financial shenanigans.

Whether the Haggard revelations will have any impact on the elections remains to be seen.

“Haggard was a guy who had the same rigid views on issues like gay marriage and abortion as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, but he was politically savvy enough to understand that conservative Christian evangelicals needed to focus on other issues like race and poverty,” Lynn said.

“I hope that in the future, evangelical Christians will spend more effort on their personal lives than on their political ambitions,” he added.

*Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column “Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.


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