COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — One of the nation's most influential evangelical leaders admitted Friday that he visited a male prostitute for a massage and bought methamphetamine for personal use -- though he said he threw the drugs away without using them.
The Rev. Ted Haggard denied the prostitute's allegation that the two men met for sex as often as every month for the last three years. But he did say that he had visited the prostitute for a massage and later called him more than once to buy methamphetamine -- a drug used in some gay circles to heighten sexual sensation.
"I never kept [the drugs] very long," Haggard told a TV reporter who questioned him as he was leaving his home in Colorado Springs, a short drive from his 14,000-member mega-church. "I was tempted. I bought it. But I never used it."
The man Haggard met in Denver, Mike Jones, has advertised as a male escort in gay magazines. His website promises massages "with the pleasure of the man in mind" and includes photos of his bodybuilder physique -- including a rear view where he's nude except for a Santa hat. Haggard said he was referred to Jones for a massage by a Denver hotel.
"No concierge in Denver would have referred me," Jones told MSNBC on Friday, saying he believed Haggard had found his number in a gay magazine or website.
Jones said he decided to come forward because he thought Haggard's stand against gay marriage was hypocritical.
The pastor has promoted a measure to ban same-sex marriage that appears on the ballot Tuesday in Colorado.
"How dare he say it's wrong for homosexuals to be able to have marriage with their partner ... [when] he can have it but go behind his wife's back and have gay sex?" Jones said.
The National Assn. of Evangelicals, which has 30 million members, accepted Haggard's resignation as president Friday, saying he had committed serious misconduct and needed "moral healing."
In a statement, the group's executive committee said its members had not believed the salacious reports at first but came to recognize "the stark reality of the power of sin in all our lives."
Haggard's congregants, who packed New Life Church on Friday, echoed that theme, expressing disappointment and bewilderment but also forgiveness and understanding.
Haggard and his wife, Gayle, "are amazing people. But they are people," said Lynn Jenkins, 47, her eyes welling. "We all betray each other from time to time.
"That's human nature."
Hundreds sang and prayed in the World Prayer Center, raising their hands to the heavens or clasping them, trembling, in front of their faces. Another sanctuary was packed with hundreds of teenagers, who were attentive as an assistant pastor spoke of sin and redemption.
Congregants had thought Haggard's life was ideal: He was always upbeat, proud of his five children -- a family man, a man of God. "I want my finances in order, my kids trained, and my wife to love life," Haggard wrote in one of his books. "I don't want surprises, scandals or secrets."
Haggard and his wife "have been my spiritual authorities," said Patty Van Tassel, 50. "They have planted amazing seeds.... This is very sad. I know he feels ashamed. But I know that God is in control."
Outside New Life, bundled up against the cold, a man sat late into the evening Friday, holding a hand-lettered sign that read: "God still loves you, Pastor Ted. And so do I."
In the three years that Haggard, 50, has been at the helm of the evangelical association, he has significantly raised its political profile. He has participated in some of the Bush administration's regular conference calls with evangelicals. Haggard was also invited to the Oval Office in November 2003 to watch President Bush sign the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban.
Though Haggard has spoken out on abortion and same-sex marriage from time to time, he is less fiery on those topics than many of his colleagues are. He has pushed, instead, for a broader concept of biblical values: He wants evangelicals to be more involved in protecting the environment and helping the poor.
Haggard has not joined other evangelicals in campaigning against a Colorado initiative to provide domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples. He also stood out among conservative preachers for publicly praising a 2003 Supreme Court decision that struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law.
"I believe the church has to teach against immorality," he told the Denver Post, "but I don't believe it's the role of the state to spend money to find out what consenting adults do in their bedrooms and then haul them off to jail."
Haggard's entanglement in scandal has brought glee to some on the left; the liberal activist group DefCon posted an online poll asking whether the pastor should be inducted into the "Religious Right's Hall of Hypocrisy."
But a far more common reaction, among Christians of all political views, was sorrow and a sense of loss.