COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - Embattled evangelist Ted Haggard admitted on Friday to buying the drug methamphetamine and seeking a massage from a gay male prostitute but denied he had sex with the man or used the stimulant.
Haggard, a vocal opponent of gay marriage, resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals on Thursday after being accused by a male escort of having had a sexual relationship with him and using meth.
“I did call him. I called him to buy some meth. But I threw it away. I was buying it for me but I never used it,” Haggard, who looked uneasy as he sat in a car with his wife, said in an interview with KUSA TV in Colorado broadcast on CNN.
Asked if he had sex with his accuser, he replied tersely, “No I did not.” He said he had sought the man out at a Denver hotel for a “massage.”
Haggard said he stayed at a number of hotels in Denver because he went to the city to write.
Evangelicals said they were praying for Haggard but were troubled by the situation.
“This is a blow as the National Association of Evangelicals is a significant organisation for us. We would always want to lift up a high standard of conduct for church leaders,” said Gary Ledbetter, the director of communications for the Dallas-based Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
The NAE is composed of 60 member denominations representing 45,000 churches across the United States.
Haggard also temporarily stepped down as senior pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs.
“I have put myself on an extended suspension from my senior pastor’s role. I’ve resigned from the NAE — because both of these roles are based on trust and right now my trust is questionable,” he said.
With his chiseled features and wide smile, Haggard was a poster boy for the evangelical movement and social conservative causes. Harper’s magazine reported he had regularly advised the White House.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said on Friday Haggard had been on a couple of evangelical calls with the White House, “but was not a weekly participant in those calls. I believe he’s been at the White House one or two times.”
Conservative Christians are a support base for the Republican Party and President George W. Bush. Evangelical leaders have been urging the faithful to vote on Tuesday with polls showing Republicans set to lose control of one and perhaps both houses of Congress.
They also have encouraged conservative voters in eight states including Colorado to support proposed amendments to ban same-sex nuptials.
Some evangelicals expressed suspicion at the timing of the accusations so close to the elections.
“We’ve been praying that the whole truth will come out, either way. Even if Mike Jones (Haggard’s accuser) is telling the truth, it seems weird that this is coming out five days before an election,” said Chris Uhles, an evangelical lay minister based in Colorado Springs, a major centre of evangelical activity.
Some analysts said they saw little impact at the polls.
“People have settled their opinions of Republicans and Democrats and this is especially true of evangelicals. It’s come too late to have an impact on the poll,” said Scott Keeter of the PEW Research Centre.
The episode has revived memories of the financial and sex scandals that brought down two of the most prominent televangelists of the 1980s, Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.
Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Dallas