Filibuster Fray Lifts Profile of Minister

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

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.

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.

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.

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.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company