"I'm guilty of sexual immorality," Haggard tells his flock

At New Life Church a tearful congregation hears from its fallen minister, and recommits itself to battling the enemy with prayer and political fervor.

Published November 5, 2006 8:00PM (EST)

On Sunday morning the 12,000 members of New Life Church officially learned what had been the talk of the nation Saturday evening: that Rev. Ted Haggard, their founding pastor and the former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, was to lead their flock no more. On Thursday, a male prostitute in Denver, Mike Jones, accused Haggard of paying him for sex and buying and using methamphetamines over a three-year period. Sunday, a visiting pastor named Larry Stockstill, who heads up New Life's Board of Overseers -- and who gave Ted Haggard his first associate preaching post before he founded New Life 26 years ago -- announced Haggard's dismissal from the church.

"We interviewed Haggard on Thursday and discovered the roots of his problem," Stockstill told thousands of congregants gathered here today for the 9 a.m. service, filling the 7,000-seat sanctuary and spilling out into every worship area on New Life's giant campus. The board then called Focus on the Family's James Dobson and powerful pastors across the nation, Stockstill said, who unanimously called for Haggard's dismissal.

Stockstill stood in a dark suit behind a Lucite podium and told the members of Colorado's largest megachurch that God opted to reveal Haggard's indiscretions now for a reason. And he implied that the reason had everything to do with Tuesday's election. "We can be mad at God. We can say that's not fair, the timing is terrible," said Stockstill. "He chose this incredibly, um, important time." God was telling the nation, Stockstill said, on the eve of an election favoring Democrats even in this blood-red congressional district, that it's time for a "revival." Then Stockstill read a letter from Haggard to his congregation.

"I am a sinner. I have fallen," Haggard wrote. "The fact is, I'm guilty of sexual immorality." Mike Jones' allegations, the pastor insisted, are not all true, but "enough of them are true."

"Part of my life is so repugnant and dark," Haggard said in the letter Stockstill read. "I've been warring against it all my life." He told of how he had sought counseling to address his sexuality, which he said cured him for spells. But then, he wrote, "the dirt I thought was gone would resurface ... the darkness increased and dominated." Haggard asked his congregation for forgiveness for him, and also for his accuser, who he suggested was inspired by God to reveal his "deception and sensuality."

Haggard's letter was followed by one from his wife, Gayle, addressed to her husband's female former congregants. "What I want you ladies to know is I love my husband Ted Haggard with all my heart. I am committed to him with all my heart." Her words, which echo the guide to marriage the Haggards published earlier this year (still on sale here in the bookstore outside the sanctuary), inspired a standing ovation.

A service that began with easy listening-style worship music sung by a 300-person choir, bathed in the fuchsia and lavender lights that suffuse the sanctuary, quickly became a clarion call for heterosexual marriage, and the "therapeutic restoration" of the soul of the founding pastor of this church. The choir and worship band sang about God's all-knowingness, of having absolute trust in him and nothing else. The clear message here was neither to question, nor to reassess, nor even to consider the personal struggle of their beloved former leader, who is at once the same man they have adored and followed -- and someone who happens to be attracted to men. It was to go back to the Psalms, and to soldier on.

Returning to New Life after visiting as a journalist last year, I wish I could say I'd suspected Haggard's secret all along, but I didn't. My first visit here was on another Sunday when Haggard was absent, but under very different circumstances: He was meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Coming back in the wake of the scandal, suddenly so much about his ministry feels, well, gay. The buff Air Force cadets strutting around in physique-skimming T-shirts. The scented candles lighted before prayer, the vanilla lattes available to be sipped at one of New Life's coffee bars afterward. The worship music that ranges from bumping to ballads, punctuated by pulsing lights and clubland-style smoke machines. But most of all, the iconography: A painting of "The Watcher," an unclothed Tyrese Gibson-looking figure with a gleaming shaved head and equally gleaming muscles, the feathers of his wings caressing his dark back, hunched but tense in a posture that could only be described as erotic. A giant bronze statue of "The Exalter" brandishing a larger-than-life sword, all veiny sinew and chiseled bulges, greeting parishioners as they enter the church. Pastor Ted's "prayer closet," where he prays every day, has a whole new meaning, now that he's out of it, as do the closets offered for parishioners' private prayer.

Even the myth of this man, the fables of New Life's founder, the Gospel of Haggard, seems absurd now. Highlights from the genesis of this church, told over and over, much like tales of Jesus spread through Greece and the Arabian Peninsula, feel like punch lines: When the church moved out of Haggard's basement into a strip mall where it was wedged between a massage parlor and a bar, when Haggard would go out "prayer-walking" to gay bars to seek out new recruits, when he would anoint "sinful" intersections in Colorado Springs with streams of oil (literally). This is a pastor who wrote a diet book.

Of course, it's all set against the mountainous, aggressively heterosexual backdrop of Colorado Springs, where even with people moving all over the country to fill the new housing developments and malls there are still two births for every person who moves here. This is the place the Museum of the American Cowboy and the Pro-Rodeo Hall of Fame call home, not to mention the Air Force Academy, and five military bases (but maybe that's all sounding a little Village People now, too?). And outside of those institutions, there are literally hundreds of Christian organizations with their own Christian yellow pages. Focus on the Family has its own exit off the highway here, and its own ZIP code.

But to many people, the hundreds of thousands who have heard the stories of Ted Haggard, none of this would have happened without him. As I have overheard people tell each other at New Life Church, even today, looking out over the squadron of television trucks outside the church, "He is still the hand of God."

At Haggard's pride and glory, the World Prayer Center -- a giant solarium overlooking the Rockies, manned 24/7 by his minions praying for the salvation of the world -- a gathering of teens and young adults assembled Saturday night to save the souls not of strangers around the globe, but of their fallen leader. They spent the evening breathlessly reading Bible verses and prayers into microphones between worship songs belted out by a live band. The focal point of the huge glass room is not a cross, but a giant rotating globe -- an unnecessary reminder that, as one young parishioner repeatedly said, "The world's eyes are on us."

Two huge computer monitors flashed prayer requests sent in from across the globe as they are all day, every day -- for more money for missionaries in Zambia, or for the souls of a family in Russia. But Saturday, many of the requests focused for the first time on this church and a scandal that perhaps no one could have imagined when the giant globe and bodybuilder angels were installed: "For dear Pastor Ted, that justice will be served and that forgiveness overflow in his family."

Many spoken prayers were for Haggard as well, but most swerved away from his soul quite quickly into prayers for personal purity, the salvation of the "homosexual community" and the "vanquishing of Satan." The people gathered in their jeans and T-shirts, each clutching a worn Bible, didn't seem to blame Haggard for his indiscretions. They blamed Satan. And they blamed themselves.

"We repent for lifting Ted up higher than we should have -- lifting him up on a pedestal and telling people what he did, not what you did," a guy with a shaved head and a goatee spit angrily into the mic. "This is our call to purify our lives." Next came a crew-cut man in a blinding yellow T-shirt: "I pray that the anger the enemy instills inside us will be set free. That this time, as the church is being attacked, I pray the church will come together outside and say to the Gates of Hades, you will not overcome."

A woman in her 40s clad in black entered the World Prayer Center, kneeled and pressed her head against the carpet. As she finally rose, she whispered over and over, so many times that I could easily read her quickly moving lips, "Why this? Why this, Lord?" As she began to pace, still whispering, a young woman with blond curls that seem to have not seen a shower since the news broke on Thursday carried her Bible up to the microphone. "I look at the homosexual community and I pray this would not harden their hearts toward evangelicals anymore -- that they would come to know Christ, Lord. As this storm is raging around us, we will lift our heads high, we will walk in purity." At the mention of purity, her voice trembled, her tears began to flow.

Of course, the notion that the "purity" of the evangelical community, and indeed America itself, is under attack from the "homosexual community" -- as the hand of Satan -- is what's central to all of this, not just to Haggard's fall but to the fall's election. Rolling voting continues today on Amendment 43, the ballot initiative Haggard himself pushed to ban gay marriage in Colorado. Indeed, it's the reason that Haggard's accuser, Mike Jones -- a Denver escort with a body that could stand beside the "Exalter" -- came forward with his story about a man named "Art" (which happens to be Haggard's middle name) who has been paying him for sex for three years now; the hypocrisy of a man who would preach against homosexuality and then engage in it roiled him to action.

Furthermore, here in Congressional District 5, of which Colorado Springs is the red beating heart, many Christians have been telling pollsters that they are sick of pastors becoming politicians, and tired of providing the base to support a war that feels so close to home here. As the American death toll in Iraq climbs toward the 3,000 mark, that number is distinctly personal in a town of five military bases. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter is leading the polls by double digits. And down by only 7 points -- just 3 beyond the margin of error -- is Democratic congressional candidate Jay Fawcett, a largely unknown former Air Force lieutenant colonel. In this district, which since the day it was drawn has only elected Republicans to Congress, that is a very, very big deal. And while Fawcett supports civil unions, though not gay "marriage" per se, nothing could be further from the focus of his runaway campaign.

Still, at New Life on Sunday, there's zealous energy and anger. It streams from every tear duct, radiates from every palm raised heavenward. In almost every sermon and every public prayer, the notion of a motivated and united family emerges, one determined to hold back the enemy -- referring to both Democratic candidates and Satan here -- and to champion the causes of the conservative Christian political machine. Whether the scandal swirling around this massive church today will determine the outcome of that initiative -- or affect the crucial congressional and gubernatorial races here, all of which are looking bluer than anyone predicted -- can't be known yet. But one thing we can know: It will be hard for anyone in Colorado to vote either way for Amendment 43 without thinking about the fall of former pastor Ted Haggard.

By Lauren Sandler

Lauren Sandler is Salon's Life editor and the author of "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement."

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