Although Rev. Ted Haggard was the pastor of a 14,000-member church and president of "the largest evangelical group in America," as well as a regular member of weekly conference calls with the Bush administration, National Public Radio's Mara Liasson, Slate's John Dickerson, and Time's Ana Marie Cox all downplayed the political impact of recent allegations that he solicited sex and drugs from a male prostitute.
After allegations surfaced that Rev. Ted Haggard, founder and former senior pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, had solicited a male prostitute for sex and drugs, National Public Radio national political correspondent Mara Liasson downplayed the political impact of this development, claiming, on the November 3 edition of NPR's Morning Edition, "I wouldn't call him a national leader, but he certainly is important in his own state." On the same day, on MSNBC's special, Decision 2006: Battleground America, Slate.com chief political correspondent John Dickerson and Time magazine columnist Ana Marie Cox similarly dismissed the news as "interesting in the evangelical community" but not likely to "have a big effect" politically.
But these assessments overlook the fact that Haggard was the president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) from 2003 until he stepped down on November 2 amid the allegations. Haggard's official biography describes NAE as "the largest evangelical group in America," and it has been widely reported that he takes part in weekly conference calls with White House officials. Indeed, Time -- Cox's own magazine -- named Haggard one of the "25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America" last year. An article in the May 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine reported, "No pastor in America holds more sway over the political direction of evangelicalism than does Pastor Ted."
On the November 3 edition of NPR's Morning Edition, co-host Steve Inskeep asked Liasson about the Haggard scandal:
INSKEEP: Let me ask about another thing that could be seen as a distraction, it's just developing in the last 24 hours. Ted Haggard -- prominent evangelical minister, opponent of gay marriage -- announced he's resigned after a male prostitute claimed they had a relationship. And this is a guy with -- with some connections to the White House.
LIASSON: Yeah, he's not -- I wouldn't call him a national leader, but he certainly is important in his own state. It's yet one more thing that -- that could further demoralize the Christian conservative base of the Republican Party and cause turnout among those voters to be lower than the White House needs.
In fact, Haggard is very much a national leader. His biography, posted on his personal website, speaks to his national prominence, noting his numerous media appearances and his designation in the February 7, 2005, issue of Time as one of the most influential evangelicals in America. From the bio:
Pastor Ted has been interviewed by [ABC's The View co-host] Barbara Walters, [former NBC News anchor] Tom Brokaw, [Fox News host] Bill O'Reilly, [MSNBC host] Chris Matthews, and more. Time included Pastor Ted in their list of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America. Harper's says, "No pastor in America holds more sway over the political direction of evangelicalism than does Pastor Ted."
Indeed, in the article on the New Life Church in the May 2005 issue of Harper's, contributing editor Jeff Sharlet described Haggard and Focus on the Family:
The press tends to regard [Focus on the Family founder and chairman James C.] Dobson as the most powerful evangelical Christian in America, but Pastor Ted is at least his equal. Whereas Dobson plays the part of national scold, promising to destroy politicians who defy the Bible, Pastor Ted quietly guides those politicians through the ritual of acquiescence required to save face. He doesn't strut, like Dobson; he gushes. When Bush invited him to the Oval Office to discuss policy with seven other chieftains of the Christian right in late 2003, Pastor Ted regaled his whole congregation with the story via email. "Well, on Monday I was in the World Prayer Center" -- New Life's high-tech, twenty-four-hour-a-day prayer chapel -- "and my cell phone rang." It was a presidential aide; "the President," says Pastor Ted, wanted him on hand for the signing of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Pastor Ted was on a plane the next morning and in the President's office the following afternoon. "It was incredible," wrote Pastor Ted. He left it to the press to note that Dobson wasn't there.
No pastor in America holds more sway over the political direction of evangelicalism than does Pastor Ted, and no church more than New Life.
Moreover, Haggard takes part in a weekly conference call with the Bush administration and has personally lobbied the president on specific policies in the past, as the February 2005 Time profile reported:
At a meeting with President Bush in November 2003, after nearly an hour of jovial Oval Office chat, the Rev. Ted Haggard, 48, got serious. He argued against Bush-imposed steel tariffs on the grounds that free markets foster economic growth, which helps the poor. A month later, the White House dropped the tariffs. Haggard wasn't alone in faulting the policy, and he doesn't claim to be the impetus, but as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, he gets listened to. He represents 30 million conservative Christians spread over 45,000 churches from 52 diverse denominations. Every Monday he participates in the West Wing conference call with evangelical leaders. The group continues to prod the President to campaign aggressively for a federal marriage amendment. "We wanted him to use the force of his office to actively lobby the Congress and Senate, which he did not adequately do," says Haggard.
Nonetheless, on the November 3 edition of MSNBC's Battleground America, Dickerson and Cox joined Liasson in downplaying the Haggard allegations when asked by MSNBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O'Donnell about the story's potential political ramifications. Cox highlighted the fact that Haggard is "two steps removed" from President Bush himself and suggested that Haggard's participation in "conference calls" is not very significant. Dickerson conceded that the scandal is "interesting in the evangelical community" but went on to describe the notion of it affecting the upcoming elections as a "stretch":
O'DONNELL: But does it play into this larger theme, which Democrats have tried to harp on, which is corruption in Republican or conservative ranks -- or hypocrisy, if you will?
COX: I think you can say hypocrisy, but he's a -- he's like a -- he's a little -- two steps removed from the White House, right? He had regular weekly phone calls with the Bush administration. I think he spoke to the president fairly regularly. But conference calls? I mean, that's -- you know, how -- well, although -- but it depends on what they say.
DICKERSON: It's a way -- it's a stretch, it's a stretch. He's not involved -- he's not in the White House, he's not a public official -- or an elected official. It's also quite dangerous for Democrats to talk about these kinds of issues. There's a lot of troubles on the Democratic side. It's an interesting story. It's very interesting in the evangelical community and in the religious community, but I think as a political story, it probably doesn't have a big effect.