A Mega-Scandal for a Mega-Church

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Pastor Ted Haggard, 2004

"I did not have a homosexual relationship with a man in Denver," Ted Haggard said with a calm specificity during an interview with a Denver TV reporter on Wednesday night as controversy broke around him. "I am steady with my wife. I'm faithful to my wife." Nevertheless, the pastor of one of the most prominent mega-churches in the country and one of President George W. Bush's advisors on evangelical issues has agreed to resign from his own 14,000-member New Life Church and temporarily resigned as president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 45,000 evangelical churches across the U.S., after Mike Jones, a gay massage therapist and self-described professional male escort in Denver told local radio and TV stations that he sold Haggard gay sex for three years. Jones also said that Haggard used drugs with him. Haggard was one of TIME's 25 Most Important Evangelicals in 2005. Thursday night, New Life Church's acting senior pastor Ross Parsley told Colorado Springs' KTTV News that Haggard had confessed to some of the alleged indiscretions. Haggard told reporters outside his house on Friday that he had purchased the drug methamphetamine and received a massage from Jones, but denied that he had sex with the gay prostitute and said he was "tempted" but "never used" the drug, according to the Associated Press. Late Saturday, according to the A.P., New Life Church's independent investigative board issued a statement declaring that they had recommended removal, saying Haggard was guilty "of sexually immoral conduct."

In an interview with TIME, Jones described the alleged relationship as "strictly sex" and "no emotions." He says the encounters occurred "about once a month." Jones says that Haggard "never brought up anything about what he did for a living. He always went by the name Art. The only thing he brought up about his personal life was that he was married. He never talked about the church, nothing. He said he was from Kansas City." Jones says he did not discover who "Art" was for "about two and a half years." Then, he says, "one time I was watching the History Channel and they were doing a show on the antichrist, and lo and behold his face popped up as an expert. I went, omigod it's Art, that's the guy I'm seeing." Jones says he decided to expose Haggard because of the alleged hypocrisy. "Here's a guy who put himself on a really high pedestal for millions and millions of followers, and he let them down. And his family." He adds, "I could have blackmailed him. God, I could use the money. I could have blackmailed him; that would have been really easy to do. But I didn't. So no, there's no backing behind me at all. I came out on my own." The Rocky Mountain News says that Jones appeared in bankruptcy court last year and told the judge he's an unemployed fitness consultant. Haggard claims not to know who Jones is. "What did you say his name is again?" he asked a reporter at one point.

Four senior pastors who do not belong to the New Life Church have been investigating the allegations by Jones. Haggard has said they have the authority to discipline him, fire him or exonerate him of the charges. Earlier in the week, an attorney for the New Life Church said that Haggard's stepping aside was purely pro forma and not an admission of wrongdoing until the investigation was concluded. But even before the investigative board reportedly formally recommended removal, Dr. Joel Hunter, pastor of the 12,000-member Northland Church in Orlando, told TIME that Haggard's resignation was permanent. "We're going to be standing with him and walking with him through the process," Hunter says. Haggard had intimated that the allegations may be an electioneering ploy. He supports Amendment 43 on the Colorado state ballot on Nov. 7, which would add a new section to the state constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Another question on the ballot — Referendum I — would allow gays and lesbians to form legally protected domestic partnerships. While Haggard is not seen as a firebreather on the issue, and insists he supports the civil rights of all groups, he has expressed no interest in supporting Referendum I. At this point, one poll shows that Amendment 43 has 53% support; while Referendum I has 47%.

Jones too says that the elections may have played a part in their relationship. However, he believes that Haggard stopped seeing him after August of this year because the vote on marriage was approaching and the clergyman did not want to risk being caught in a compromising position. "My gut feeling is that the elections were coming up and we have the two amendments and he decided to lie low. And the whole [Congressman Mark] Foley thing was coming out. The last three times I saw him, I knew who he was. I never said anything. We really didn't talk."

Haggard had also been receiving attention for his appearance in the documentary Jesus Camp, a film about the religious training of children in Pentecostal seminars. Haggard put out the word to evangelical groups to avoid the film. In it, he is seen telling a crowd, "We don't have to have a debate about what we think about homosexual activity. It's written in the Bible." Shortly after that, Haggard looks mockingly into the camera to say, "I think I know what you did last night. If you send me a thousand dollars, I won't tell your wife." The crowd responds with peals of laughter. Then he says with a wide smile, "If you use any of this, I'll sue you."

Kent Lemburg, a gay massage therapist, says he knows Jones. "He'd always advertise himself in the back of Out Front," a local publication that is a directory and guide to the local gay scene. "He's a body builder. He definitely is an escort."

In an ad on Out Front's website, there is a photograph of a bare-chested man called Mike who resembles Jones and purports to have appeared in Men's Health, Playgirl and a number of gay skin magazines. It also says, "Performers from Broadway shows call upon my services when on tour. If you would like an incredible massage by a handsome, athletic, masculine man, please call me. Hey, I'm also a nice guy."