DENVER — The president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals resigned Thursday after his Colorado Springs, Colo., mega-church opened an investigation into allegations that he had repeatedly paid for sex with a male prostitute.
The Rev. Ted Haggard, who regularly consults with the White House on policy matters, told a Denver television station that he "never had a gay relationship with anybody" and had been faithful to his wife of 28 years.
In a statement released by New Life Church, where he is senior pastor, the 50-year-old Haggard added: "I hope to be able to discuss this matter in more detail at a later date. In the interim, I will seek both spiritual advice and guidance."
The allegations were made Wednesday on a Denver talk radio station, KHOW-AM. Mike Jones, who described himself as a male escort, said he had a sexual "business relationship" with Haggard for the last three years. Jones, 49, told the Associated Press that he had saved voicemail messages from Haggard, as well as an envelope that he said Haggard had used to mail him cash.
A committee of pastors from across the country has been convened to investigate the allegations. They can "discipline me if I need to be disciplined, fire me if I need to be fired," Haggard told KUSA-TV. He also placed himself on administrative leave from the 14,000-member church pending the investigation, saying he could not continue to minister "under the cloud created by the accusations."
A father of five who dresses in blue jeans and drives a Chevy pickup, Haggard is well-known, and widely praised, as an energetic, charismatic pastor who has pushed to expand evangelical activism into issues such as global warming and world poverty. But he hasn't shied away from the traditional culture-war issues of abortion and homosexuality.
A lengthy profile in Harper's magazine -- which is quoted approvingly on Haggard's website -- recounts how he built New Life Church in part by hanging out at gay bars and inviting the patrons to come to his sermons and be saved.
Under Haggard's leadership, the National Assn. of Evangelicals, which has 30 million members, reaffirmed a policy statement that describes homosexuality as "a deviation from the Creator's plan" and calls same-sex relations a sin that, "if persisted in ... excludes one from the Kingdom of God."
Haggard has lobbied for a U.S. constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage; he also supports the gay-marriage ban that will go before Colorado voters Tuesday.
Jones told the Denver Post that the marriage-ban campaign motivated him to come forward: "To have someone in such a high profile preaching against [same-sex couples] and doing the opposite
Leaders on the religious right have been working to turn out evangelical voters who they fear may stay home because they're disillusioned by the war in Iraq and the conduct of former Republican Rep. Mark Foley, who exchanged sexual Internet messages with underage male congressional pages. The allegations against Haggard could further disillusion voters, depressing turnout, said Paul de Vries, a board member of the National Assn. of Evangelicals.
"If this is true," De Vries said, "it's obviously going to hurt a lot of people."
Haggard's mentor, the Rev. Jack Hayford of the First Foursquare Church in Southern California, expressed confidence that Haggard had "integrity of intention in confronting any personal challenge that may need to be addressed."
Other religious leaders close to Haggard expressed shock Thursday.
"The accusations do not comport with what I know of the man," said the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the evangelical association.
De Vries, who is president of the New York Divinity School, said of Haggard: "He's a brilliant man, an inspiring leader.... He has a strong sense of biblical teaching and biblical values. This is a reminder that we have to be sure that our own lives are coherent with what we say from the pulpit. It's a reminder to look in the mirror."
Neither De Vries nor Cizik had talked with Haggard by late Thursday evening. Both said they were eager to hear him address the allegations.
"We owe it to him to hear from him," Cizik said. "Let's not crucify the man until we've gotten the facts."