Religious Right leaders and the White House distanced themselves from fallen leader Ted Haggard, touted last year by a national magazine as one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals because of his access to the Bush administration.
“He represents 30 million conservative Christians spread over 45,000 churches from 52 diverse denominations,” Time wrote of the then-head of the National Association of Evangelicals in February 2005. “Every Monday he participates in the West Wing conference call with evangelical leaders.”
Haggard resigned from NEA leadership on Friday, amid allegations that he had a three-year homosexual relationship and bought drugs from a male escort. Haggard’s New Life Church, which Harper’s Magazine called “the most powerful megachurch in America,” removed him as minister on Saturday.
“Our investigation and Pastor Haggard’s public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct,” the church said in a statement. “In consultation with leading evangelicals and experts familiar with the type of behavior Pastor Haggard has demonstrated, we have decided that the most positive and productive direction for our church is his dismissal and removal.”
In a letter read during Sunday services, Haggard told the church, “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.”
“I am a deceiver and a liar,” Haggard said. “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. For extended periods of time, I would enjoy victory and rejoice in freedom. Then, from time to time, the dirt that I thought was gone would resurface, and I would find myself thinking thoughts and experiencing desires that were contrary to everything I believe and teach.”
Haggard’s fall from grace drew comparisons to the 1980s scandals of televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. This time the stakes are higher, politically at least, as the Religious Right seeks to mobilize a base for Tuesday’s mid-term election already frustrated by Republicans’ failure to deliver on campaign promises and scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramhoff and former Congressman Mark Foley.
The White House contradicted reports that Haggard is a Washington insider.
“He had been on a couple of calls, but was not a weekly participant in those calls,” said Bush spokesman Tony Fratto. “I believe he’s been to the White House one or two times. I don’t want to confine it to a specific number because it would take a while to figure out how many times. But there have been a lot of people who come to the White House.”
On Friday’s “700 Club,” televangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Roberson also downplayed Haggard’s influence.
“We’re sad to see any evangelical leader fall, but I want to correct something that’s in the AP and you see all over, that the National Association of Evangelicals represents 30 million evangelicals,” Robertson said. “That just isn’t true.”
“Forty years ago the NAE was a fairly significant organization,” Robertson said. “It had a good deal of influence and had support of a number of evangelical bodies. Since that time it has become essentially a shell of what it used to be, and I don’t think it has all that much influence.”
Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell said he doesn’t know Haggard.
“Well, I don’t know him,” Falwell said on CNN. “I’ve met him, and he’s been rather critical of activists like Dr. James Dobson and myself. In pastors’ meetings, he’s said we shouldn’t be aggressive as we have.”
“He doesn’t really lead the movement,” Falwell said. “He’s president of an association that’s very loosely knit, and I have never been a member of it. Most of people that I know have not, and no one has looked to them for leadership.”
Others paint a different picture.
Haggard boasted the NAE “has never been a piece of legislation that the NEA has tried to get through Congress that they’ve failed to get,” said author Robert Lanham, who interviewed Haggard extensively for his new book and Web site, The Sinners Guide to the Evangelical Right.
In 2003, Haggard described his visit to Washington to witness President Bush as he signed the Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003.
“I sat with those from the Senate and House who voted for the bill, and afterward was escorted to the President’s motorcade and taken to the White House. I and seven others were able to spend 55 minutes with the President in the Oval office discussing any issue we liked….
“Attending the private meeting with the President were Rev. Jerry Falwell from Liberty University, Janet Parshall, author and host of the nationally syndicated radio broadcast ‘Janet Parshall’s America,’ Southern Baptist Convention President Dr. Jack Graham, former SBC President Dr. Adrian Rogers, American Center for Law and Justice Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow, National Religious Broadcasters President Frank Wright, and President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission Dr. Richard Land.”
“It is unconscionable that the legitimate news media would report a rumor like this based on nothing but one man’s accusation,” Dobson said.
“Ted Haggard is a friend of mine, and it appears someone is trying to damage his reputation as a way of influencing the outcome of Tuesday’s election–especially the vote on Colorado’s marriage protection amendment–which Ted strongly supports,” Dobson said.
Later Dobson issued a statement saying he was “heartsick” over allegations against Haggard.
“Perhaps the allegations are false and the circumstances are not as we have heard,” Dobson said. “Either way, the situation has grave implications for the cause of Christ, and we ask for the Lord’s guidance and blessings in the days ahead.”
Haggard’s accuser, Mike Jones, said he came forward after learning Haggard’s true identity because he viewed his support of Colorado’s upcoming ballot initiative to ban gay marriage as hypocritical.
“We don’t have to debate what we should think about homosexual activity, because it’s written in the Bible,” Haggard said in a clip on YouTube from the recent documentary “Jesus Camp.”
“I think I know what you did last night,” Haggard said in an aside, pointing a finger into the camera and apparently addressing the operator. “If you send me a thousand dollars, I won’t tell your wife.” After laughter, Haggard added, “If you use any of this I’ll sue you.”
White House spokesman Fratto told a reporter he doubts the scandal will dispirit evangelicals and force them to sit out Tuesday’s election.
“I think the community you’re referring to understands where the Republican Party is on issues that are important to them,” he said. “And something that an individual did that affects them personally shouldn’t affect their interest in advancing issues that they care about.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.