Friday, November 03, 2006

Evangelical leader who has had regular talks with the White House resigns over sex scandal

Evangelical leader resigns over sex scandal
By Keith Coffman

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - The president of the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals, who has had regular talks with the White House and vocally opposes gay marriage, resigned on Thursday after being accused of having a sexual relationship with a male escort.

Ted Haggard, who denied the accusation, also temporarily stepped down as senior pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, the church said in a statement.

"I've never had a gay relationship with anyone," Haggard said in an interview with Denver television station KUSA on Wednesday night. "I'm steady with my wife. I'm faithful to my wife."

The New Life Church statement quoted Haggard as saying he could "not continue to minister under the cloud created by the accusations."

"I am voluntarily stepping aside from leadership so that the overseer process can be allowed to proceed with integrity. I hope to be able to discuss this matter in more detail at a later date," the church statement quoted Haggard as saying.

Mike Jones, who said he was a male escort, told KUSA on Wednesday he had had a three-year sexual "business relationship" with Haggard.

Haggard, who is often credited with rallying conservative Christians behind President George W. Bush for his 2004 re-election, talks to Bush or his advisors every Monday, Harper's Magazine reported last year.

Haggard supports a proposed amendment to the Colorado constitution that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Colorado voters will decide on that issue next week when they vote in the congressional elections.


Such ballot initiatives also help the Republican Party which polls say is in danger of losing control of Congress in Tuesday's midterm vote.

Evangelical Christians have been a key base of support for Bush and the Republican Party.

A father of five, Haggard has long been a leading figure among conservative U.S. evangelical Christians.

Time Magazine included him in its list of the "25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America." Harper's Magazine, an influential liberal periodical, described New Life last year as "America's most powerful megachurch."

While the National Association of Evangelicals is associated with conservative causes it is not as rigidly ideological and staunchly supportive of the Republican Party as other evangelical groups.

Its vice president of governmental affairs, Richard Cizik, is vocal in support of policies to stop global warming: an issue not associated with most Republicans.

Jerry Falwell, a prominent conservative Christian and Republican Party stalwart, was quick to play down the organization's role and Haggard's standing among evangelicals.

"He (Haggard) doesn't really lead the (evangelical) movement. ... He is the president of an association that is very loosely knit and I've never been a member of it," Falwell said in a CNN interview on Thursday.

(additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Dallas)