Evangelist's Troubles May Influence Election
Allegations from a former gay prostitute involving a nationally known, Colorado-based pastor could influence the outcome of a handful of competitive House races and ballot initiatives in the state in Tuesday's elections and may depress evangelical turnout elsewhere, says an expert on religion and the public.
Evangelist Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs admitted Friday that he bought methamphetamine and received a massage from a gay prostitute who claims he was paid for drug-fueled trysts by the outspoken gay marriage opponent.
"It may lead to some evangelicals in Colorado to throw in the towel and stay home," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The biggest political reverberations will likely be in Colorado, where the still unfolding story could deter evangelicals from going to the polls in support of a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Haggard was an outspoken proponent of the measure. Another initiative on next week's ballot would legalize domestic partnerships for gay couples in Colorado. Earlier polls suggested that both initiatives would pass, but much of the opposition to the civil union measure comes from conservative Christians.
Depressed evangelical turnout in Colorado could also negatively affect three congressional seats that are currently held by Republicans. Because Haggardwho appeared recently on the cover of Christianity Today and has authored books popular in the evangelical communityis seen as less of a political figure outside Colorado, the allegations may have less effect elsewhere. But, says Green, "It could just be that the accumulation of woes, like the Foley scandal and David Kuo's book [Tempting Faith] and now this problem could just wear [evangelicals] out and they could be disillusioned."
Haggard admitted to buying methamphetamine from Michael Jones, who Haggard said he met through a referral from a Denver hotel after he asked where he could get a massage. Haggard denied Jones's allegations that the two had a three-year sexual relationship that ended earlier this year. Jones claims he saw Haggard use methamphetamine but that he did not sell the drugs to the pastor.
Haggard resigned Thursday from the presidency of the National Association of Evangelicals, a national organization with more than 30 million members. He also stepped down from his post as senior pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, while an outside "board of overseers" investigates the charges.
"As an evangelical Christian, I'm never surprised when people sin," New Life associate pastor Rob Brendle said in an interview this afternoon. "As Bible-believing Christians, we recognize that evil lurks in the heart of every man and woman and that God gives us the power to overcome evil with good."
The general reaction of parishioners of New Life, which counts 14,000 members, was "not shock and abhorrence," Brendle said. "It was an outpouring of compassion."
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, a top Christian conservative and a close ally of Haggard'sFocus is headquartered a few miles down the road from New Life reacted with more alarm.
"[T]he situation has grave implications for the Cause of Christ, and we ask for the Lord's guidance and blessings in the days ahead," Dobson said in a statement. He noted, however, that Haggard "will continue to be my friend, even if the worst allegations prove accurate."
Asked today aboard Air Force One whether the Haggard allegations threatened to demoralize evangelical voters in the days before the election, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, "I doubt it...[The] community...understands where the Republican Party is on issues that are important to them, and someone'ssomething that an individual did that affects them personally shouldn't affect their interest in advancing issues that they care about."
Gilgoff's book The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War, will be published next March by St. Martin's Press.