After denying that he had ever met a gay escort who claimed to have had a three-year sexual relationship with him, the Rev. Ted Haggard admitted yesterday that he had summoned the escort to give him a massage in a Denver hotel room and bought methamphetamine from him.
But Mr. Haggard, one of the nation’s leading evangelical ministers, maintained that the two men never had sex and that he threw out the drugs without using them.
“I never kept it very long because it was wrong,” Mr. Haggard said, smiling grimly and submitting to questions from a television reporter as he pulled out of his driveway yesterday, his wife, Gayle, silent in the passenger seat. “I was tempted, I bought it, but I never used it.”
Mr. Haggard’s explanation came two days after the male escort, Michael Jones, stepped forward to claim that Mr. Haggard was a monthly client for the last three years. On Thursday, Mr. Haggard had resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals and stepped down as pastor of his 14,000-member Colorado Springs megachurch, pending an independent investigation of the accusations.
The escort failed a lie detector test on Friday that he had volunteered to take, but the man who administered the test said the results might have been skewed because Mr. Jones had slept little and was suffering from a migraine. Mr. Jones insisted he was telling the truth and said he would take another lie detector test.
Mr. Haggard’s difficulties are bound to echo beyond his own church, especially on the eve of the midterm elections. He is at the center of several intersecting evangelical power circles and has ties to the Bush administration.
He was an ambassador representing the interests of evangelicals to Washington, and vice versa — participating in the White House’s Monday conference calls with conservative Christian leaders. He was also politically active, championing the fight against same-sex marriage in Colorado and other states.
And Mr. Haggard, 50, was elected president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group that represents 45,000 churches.
The association’s executive committee unanimously accepted Mr. Haggard’s resignation on Friday after learning that he had admitted that some of the accusations were true, said the Rev. L. Roy Taylor, chairman of the board of directors and the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church in America.
“It’s personally difficult to believe, knowing Ted, but theologically, we recognize that we all struggle with a dark side and that sinful behavior is possible for anyone,” Dr. Taylor said.
When Mr. Haggard was elected three years ago as the National Association of Evangelicals’ president, the magazine Christianity Today hailed him as a new kind of evangelical who could revive a flagging organization.
He was younger, less formal and more moderate than many of the bigger names in conservative Christianity. He was soon pushing to add issues like global warming, poverty and genocide in Darfur to the movement’s traditional agenda of opposition to homosexuality and abortion.
“Pastor Ted was a symbolically important figure and a very public figure, so I think the ramifications could be enormous,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College. “Among evangelicals, there is such a cult of personality that grows up around these various figures.”
In Colorado, Mr. Haggard was a leader in the campaign for Amendment 43, which would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Mr. Haggard’s accuser said this was his main motivation for going public with his account of having sex with Mr. Haggard.
In a telephone interview from Denver, Mr. Jones, 49, said, “When the federal marriage amendment came up before the Senate earlier this year, I wanted to see the stance of his church, and the more I read about it, the angrier I got.”
“He’s preaching against homosexuals and yet he’s having gay sex behind people’s backs,” Mr. Jones said.
In an interview with MSNBC, Mr. Jones denied selling methamphetamine to Mr. Haggard, saying he “met someone else that I had hooked him up with to buy it.”
Experts on evangelicals were uncertain how the revelations about Mr. Haggard would affect the midterm elections, and evangelicals’ involvement in politics in the long term. Some experts said accusations that such a politically involved pastor was a closet homosexual could further alienate evangelicals from political involvement, while others said it could motivate them.
Members of Mr. Haggard’s church were stunned by the accusations.
“This is inconsistent with everything that I know of him,” said Patton Dodd, Christianity editor at the Web site Beliefnet, who edited seven of Mr. Haggard’s books, attends his church and considers him a close friend. He said Mr. Haggard had close family ties, taking a Sabbath day at home every Saturday to be with his wife and five children.
Elizabeth Miller, a 46-year-old mother of three who has been a member of the church for almost six years, said she was so upset that she took the day off from work to pray.
“It’s like a death in the family, except it’s not that clear,” Ms. Miller said. “It’s more like having someone slowly dying from a painful illness.”
She said that she and the other church members believed in redemption and forgiveness and would stand by Mr. Haggard.
In the past, Mr. Haggard proved more accepting of gay men and lesbians than some of his evangelical colleagues. He did not publicly oppose another measure on the November ballot, Referendum 1, which would give same-sex couples some legal rights and benefits.
The Rev. Nori Rost, executive director of Just Spirit, a watchdog group that monitors the religious right, recalled that Mr. Haggard’s church once invited the choirs from other churches in town to perform at an ecumenical Easter service. At the time, she was the pastor of a predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church. When some other evangelical churches learned that the gay church had also been invited, they refused to sing unless Mr. Haggard retracted the invitation to the gay church. Mr. Haggard refused, and the gay choir sang, she said. In the impromptu interview in his car, Mr. Haggard said that he stayed at hotels in Denver because he wrote books there, and that he met the male escort through a hotel referral for a massage.
Mr. Jones had a different version of the story. He said he began advertising on the Internet as a male escort, and was called by a man who identified himself as Art from Kansas City. He said they met about once a month for a relationship Mr. Jones said was purely physical.
“I had no impression of him, other than that he was a nice guy,” Mr. Jones said. “The only thing of a personal nature he ever volunteered was that he was married.”
Mr. Jones said he discovered Mr. Haggard’s true identity about six months ago when he saw him on television two days in a row, first, on a special about “The DaVinci Code” and then on a Christian station that a TV in his gym was tuned to.
“When I saw him, I didn’t say, ‘Oh, that looks like Art,’ ” Mr. Jones said. “I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s Art.’ ”
After Mr. Jones looked up his alleged client on the Internet and learned of his stature in the evangelical community, he said he was amazed. “I thought this guy is really taking a big chance,” he said.
Mr. Jones maintained that his decision to speak out about the relationship was not suggested by any gay rights groups. He also said the decision was not based on financial motives, though Mr. Jones did file for bankruptcy in April 2005. “If I’d wanted to make money, I could have blackmailed him,” he said.
Mr. Jones said he hoped that his assertions would convince the religious right to rethink their opposition to same-sex marriage.
Conservative Christian organizations reacted with both sympathy and dismay. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said in a statement, “The situation has grave implications for the cause of Christ and we ask for the Lord’s guidance and blessings in the days ahead.”
Katie Kelly contributed reporting from Colorado Springs.