The Rise and Fall of Ted Haggard
Ted Haggard isn't well known in Britain and Ireland. And until this week he wasn't exactly a household name in the United States either. Time magazine recently named him one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America -- founder and senior pastor of the nation's most powerful megachurch, president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals, the largest evangelical group in America, and, according to Harper’s, “No pastor in America holds more sway over the political direction of evangelicalism than does Pastor Ted.”
None of which adds up to nationwide celebrity. But all that changed this week when Mike Jones, a former escort based in Denver, went on radio and television programmes, coast-to-coast, to claim that Pastor Ted has been one of his clients for the past three years. In fact, he says, it's been a monthly arrangement, and the pastor liked to take drugs with him -- Crystal Meth, to be precise -- during sex.
At first, Ted Haggard, who is married with five children, denied everything. On Wednesday evening, standing outside his 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he speculated that the male escort, whom he has never met, must be targetting him as a political ploy ahead of next Tuesday's congressional mid-term elections. After all, Ted Haggard is a distinguished and influential Christian leader, a supporter of President Bush, and a champion of "Amendment 43", a controversial legislative measure, also to be decided on Tuesday, that will introduce a state-wide ban on same-sex marriage.
Mike Jones, for his part, says he at first had no idea that his client was a leading member of the Christian Right. He knew Ted Haggard as "Art" -- Haggard's middle name, as it happens, is Arthur. Seeing the pastor on television making arguments against gay marriage, Jones decided to expose Haggard before the election.
Who to believe? Ted Haggard immediately agreed to take "administrative" leave from his pastorate and resigned his leadership role within the National Association of Evangelicals -- yet denied any association with Mr Jones.
Then the smoking gun turned up. A voice-mail message from "Art" on Mike Jones's answering machine, which voice analysts identified as Pastor Ted's. In that message, the pastor is heard arranging a meeting with Mike Jones and asking him to buy some meth.
Pastor Ted's story began to crumble under the weight of new evidence of his deception. His story changed. By Friday, he was acknowledging that he knew Mr Jones: he had been referred to him for a sports massage by a Denver hotel; he admitted to having been "tempted" by drugs -- but not sex; but maintained that he threw the drugs away without trying them. The pastor's interviews with Channel 9, a local TV station, are both bizarre and painful to watch.
These and other revelations prompted a speedy response from the church commission quickly established on Wednesday to investigate the allegations. Yesterday, the board members ruled that the pastor should be dismissed from his post immediately.
The White House has responded by downplaying Ted Haggard's political influence; but it seems likely that this episode may discourage many American evangelicals from voting on Tuesday. House Republicans are already extremely exposed given their handling of the Mark Foley case. And since every development in the Ted Haggard affair has been reported on TV news programmes and talk shows across the nation, this can only serve to further depress their hopes of holding onto the reins of power in the House of Representatives.
Beyond the political fallout for a struggling Bush administration that relies on support from the Christian Right, very deep personal questions remain to be faced by Ted and Gayle Haggard and their family. One can only hope they will be given the chance to work through those issues with the privacy they both now deserve. I expect Ted Haggard is about to discover who his true friends are -- and whether they go to the same church.