Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was not present at Justice Sunday II, a televised gathering of major religious leaders in his home state to promote the Supreme Court nomination of John G. Roberts Jr., but he was on everyone's mind.
Just over two weeks ago, the prospective presidential candidate alarmed some leaders of the Christian right when he broke ranks with President Bush to announce support of expanded embryonic stem cell research, a stand viewed in many quarters of the antiabortion movement as permitting the taking of a human life.
Some religious leaders who spoke here were prepared to forgive Frist or to grant him the benefit of the doubt. Others, however, warned that he had crossed an important moral boundary and would face political consequences.
Until his July 29 speech on the Senate floor, Frist had been viewed as a solid ally of religious conservatives, building his likely presidential candidacy on a strategy of securing a solid base of support on the right. Frist had been the featured speaker at Justice Sunday I, calling for an end to filibusters of judicial nominees, but he did not attend Sunday's event.
Every winner of the Republican presidential nomination since Ronald Reagan in 1980 has had significant support from social conservatives, won in large measure by embracing stands acceptable to antiabortion groups. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who denounced the religious right during his bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, was defeated that year by George W. Bush, who had worked hard to cultivate social conservatives.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and the leading organizer of Justice Sunday II, said: "I have a lot of respect for Senator Frist. We disagree with him on one issue, but it's a big issue. . . . I would not write him off; I would just say it will be very difficult to get support from the pro-life community. This is a big issue to disagree on, [but] it certainly does not end our friendship."
Perkins said Frist was not invited to Justice Sunday II because House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was chosen for star billing, not because of Frist's stand on stem cell research. Other religious leaders here, speaking not for attribution, said they viewed the decision not to invite Frist to a major event in his home state as a pointed snub.
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, who spoke by video to the Justice Sunday II assembly, has steadily escalated his criticism of Frist, comparing his stand on embryonic stem cell research to Nazi experimentation on human subjects during WWII.
"The Nazis experimented on human beings in horrible ways in the concentration camps, and I imagine, if you wanted to take the time to read about it, there would have been some discoveries there that benefited mankind," he said on his radio show last week. "You remove ethics and morality, and you get what happened in Nazi Germany." Then, specifically addressing Frist, Dobson said, "there's a higher order of ethics here."
Coming to Frist's defense, the Rev. Jerry Sutton, pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church, where Justice Sunday II was held, said the senator was making a different argument: "Instead of discarding all these embryos that are going to be discarded anyway, let's use them. Now, he is pro-life and, and he believes that the overall idea of unrestricted embryonic stem cell research is wrong. I know Bill, and if he ran for president and we sat down and talked, I could be very supportive of Bill Frist for president."
Similarly, Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said he believes that the fertilized embryo is "a human life," but "this abortion debate is an authentic discussion, embryonic stem cell research is an authentic debate, when to end a human life is an authentic debate." Haggard said he has occasionally supported "people who have been pro-choice."
In announcing his decision, Frist said he was acutely aware of the moral dilemmas posed by his stand: "I am pro-life. . . . An embryo is nascent human life. It's genetically distinct. And it's biologically human. It's living. This position is consistent with my faith."
But Frist contended: "It isn't just a matter of faith. It's a fact of science. . . . Cure today may be just a theory, a hope, a dream. But the promise is powerful enough that I believe this research deserves our increased energy and focus. Embryonic stem cell research must be supported."