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Filibuster fray lifts minister’s profile

Texas minister Rick Scarborough and his network of ‘Patriot Pastors’ are power brokers in the growing movement to stock federal courts with judges that reflect conservative Christian values.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In his home town of Pearland, Tex., Baptist minister Rick Scarborough was tireless in promoting his conservative Christian way of thinking.

He attacked high school sex education courses, experimental medical treatments and transsexuals trying to change their gender identification. He recruited like-minded candidates to run for the local school board and city council. He crisscrossed the country to protest the ousting of Roy S. Moore, former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, for installing a Ten Commandments tablet at his courthouse. And Scarborough created a network of "Patriot Pastors" to lead evangelicals to the polls in 2004.

Opening a new front
Now he has set his sights on bigger stakes: pushing Senate Republicans to change the rules so that Democrats cannot block President Bush's judicial nominees. The fight over the judgeships was once a largely academic argument over the constitutionality of the filibuster. But now it provides a fiery new front in the culture war. And Scarborough is emblematic of the Christian right leaders who have been drawn to the fray.

Scarborough and other grass-roots conservative religious leaders believe the federal courts are trouncing Christian values on marriage, abortion and other right-to-life issues raised in the Terri Schiavo case. While he lacks the name recognition of more prominent religious activists, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and evangelist Pat Robertson, Scarborough is a potent force with close ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and influential Senate conservatives.

In just the past two weeks, Scarborough has recruited 2,000 more Christian ministers for his Patriot Pastor network, boosting total membership of the three-year-old alliance to about 5,000 members. The Senate returns tomorrow from a one-week recess, and the showdown over judges could come sometime in the next few weeks.

Keeping watch over GOP
It is a key test of the Christian right's political clout since last year's election, when Bush won a second term and Republicans strengthened their hold on Congress — thanks in part to a record turnout of so-called "values voters." Anytime Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) or other GOP leaders appear to be backing away from a showdown with the Democrats over the filibuster, Scarborough and his backers are there to give them a shove. This helps to explain the protracted nature of the dispute and the challenge to GOP leaders to work out a compromise.

"One of my goals in life is to give the Republican Party courage," Scarborough said in a recent interview. "We have a lot of gutless wonders who wear the tag conservative Republican. Anytime there's any amount of fire, they crater."

If Frist, as is expected, mounts a campaign for president in 2008, he will need the strong support of Christian conservatives to win his party's nomination. But for now, the verdict on Frist is still out, according to Scarborough.

"I've admired him for his unwavering commitment" in confirming Bush's judges, Scarborough said. But the senators whose offices he calls most often are Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), both conservative Catholics who also may run for president in 2008.

‘Straight to the heart of people’
Scarborough for years was little known outside of Texas despite long-standing ties to DeLay, who calls the preacher "one of my closest friends," and his 2002 anointment by Jerry Falwell as one of the new leaders of the religious right in America. Now that he is in the thick of the filibuster controversy, Scarborough's op-ed pieces are being picked up by major newspapers, and copies of his nine-year-old book, "Enough is Enough," which discusses judicial overreach, are in big demand.

While Christian right leaders such as Scarborough employ the usual Washington special-interest tactics — collaring lawmakers, issuing press releases, appearing on political talk shows — their real power rests in their unique access to millions of voters "who happen to go to church," as Scarborough puts it. "It's straight to the heart of people from men and women they trust," he said.

Scarborough is part of a constellation of Christian right and socially conservative groups that are spending millions to mobilize their followers to pressure the Senate to try to break a Democratic logjam blocking some of Bush's most conservative and controversial judicial nominees. Focus on the Family has run ads in favor of the filibuster rule change and co-sponsored with the Family Research Council a televised Sunday evening simulcast last month that featured a videotaped speech by Frist.

Backlash against the bench
Christian conservatives have turned their attention to the courts because they believe many judges reflect a secular, liberal elite and are making rulings affecting prayer in school, religious expressions in public life, the teaching of science and other matters that are contrary to the will of the majority of Americans.

"Judges are law. We have to live under their laws," said Don Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association and a member of the advisory board of Vision America, Scarborough's organization. "We as any other American citizen ought to have some input in the kinds of people who are going to rule over us."

The 2004 election lighted the fire for change, said Wildmon, who is also founder of the Arlington Group, a coalition of social conservative groups. "I always thought to the winner goes the spoils."

The goal of these groups is to remove the parliamentary impediments that Democrats have used to block 10 of Bush's federal appellate court nominees and that could be used to block future Supreme Court nominees. Of the 10, seven have been renominated by the president, and the Democrats have vowed to block them again. With a 55 to 45 majority, Republicans currently have enough votes to confirm Bush's nominees but not enough to shut off a Democratic filibuster to get to the final vote.

Football player finds faith, politics
Scarborough, 55, started preaching while a student at Stephen F. Austin State University. His other preoccupation was football; one teammate was future Redskins star kicker Mark Moseley. "I hiked every ball he kicked in college," Scarborough says.

After receiving a master's of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth and a doctorate in ministry from Louisiana Baptist Theological Seminary, Scarborough hit the national revival and crusade circuit for 14 years. He settled in Pearland in 1990 and became pastor of First Baptist Church.

His first foray into politics came two years later, when he attended a local high school assembly on AIDS awareness, and was appalled at the frank talk about condoms and "various sex acts." He read the transcript from the pulpit one Sunday morning and took his complaints — and at least 400 parishioners — to the school board. Eventually, the high-school principal was replaced by a supporter of abstinence-based sex education.

The experience taught Scarborough the power of the pulpit in stirring action, and he became a prominent force on the local political scene. Within a few years, members of his church had been elected to the Pearland city council and school board, and were hired for top local government jobs, including city manager and police chief.

Smack in the ‘middle of the flow’
But Scarborough encountered some bumps in the road. Several of his church members who won local school board and city council seats proved inept or uninspiring as public officials. In 1996, Scarborough tried to win control of the Texas Baptist General Convention to "take the state for Jesus," but lost to a moderate candidate by a 2-to-1 margin. In 2002, he resigned as pastor and founded Vision America to mobilize fellow church leaders "to promote active citizenship."

Even some of Scarborough's adversaries say they were impressed by how swiftly he has ascended in the filibuster debate. His biggest public relations coup was a conference he organized in Washington last month titled "Confronting the Judicial War on Faith." The event attracted considerable media attention and featured DeLay via video calling for Congress to "reassert our constitutional authority over the courts."

"He [Scarborough] has made himself a major player," says Rob Boston, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who has tracked Scarborough's career for years.

Some GOP activists not affiliated with religious groups worry that their original intent of challenging the judicial filibuster on constitutional grounds is now being perceived as more of an effort by Christian groups to impose a religious test on judicial nominees.

"We understand their frustration," says one Republican activist, who works closely with the religious groups. "But we'd rather keep the rhetoric constructive and not fire-breathing."

During his news conference last week, Bush distanced himself from the views of some religious groups that Democrats were blocking his judicial nominees because of differences in faith.

Scarborough insists that his broad goal is simply to put in place "constitutionally minded judges." It is an effort that could last months, even years, but he can't think of any cause more worthy. Along with the influx of new Patriot Pastors, his Web site,, received 850,000 hits last month.

"I couldn't believe it," Scarborough said. "We've been chipping along and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of the flow."