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A Passion for Mixing Religion and Politics

Former Pearland Pastor Grabs the National Spotlight with Judicial Filibuster Fight

Rick Scarborough put aside his college interest in politics when he "fell in love with Jesus."

Not until he had spent 14 years as a traveling evangelical preacher and settled at First Baptist Church in Pearland was he inspired to combine his two interests.

In 1992, Scarborough went to a high school talk on AIDS awareness and was appalled. The speaker, a young woman with AIDS, blew up a condom like a balloon and, Scarborough recalled, gave "graphic descriptions on every kind of sex act there was."

Scarborough took action, preaching against the speech at his church and complaining to the school board, on which, he was embarrassed to realize, not a single member of his congregation served.

Within two years, Scarborough had worked to elect members of his flock as the majorities of the Pearland school board and City Council. The school principal who brought in the offending speaker was soon replaced.

Scarborough himself was enmeshed in controversy. Some church members left First Baptist over his political activities, and Scarborough's ties to city officials proved divisive to the community at large. He was closely aligned with then-City Manager Paul Grohman, a lightning rod who was accused of threatening to shoot the city attorney and eventually was fired by the City Council.

Now Scarborough has turned his passion for mixing religion and politics to the national stage.

Through two Web sites and a network of pastors, Scarborough is taking on federal judges and Congress.

`Moral travesties'

"If more preachers would be more courageous, we might see an end to these moral travesties," Scarborough, 55, said in a recent interview at Bush Intercontinental Airport, on his way home to Nacogdoches after a Washington, D.C., dinner for his friend, beleaguered House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land.

By "moral travesties," Scarborough means, among other things, court rulings in favor of abortion, sodomy and same-sex marriage, and against Ten Commandments on government property and prayer in school.

"The whole concept of separation of church and state is a myth propagated by liberal judges," he said. "It's not in the Constitution."

Many disagree with Scarborough's interpretation, of course, but thousands who agree are seeking information on his Web sites, www.visionamerica.us and www.stopactivistjudges.org.

He says the latter site has gotten 850,000 hits in the past month, and 2,000 people signed up for his e-mail newsletter in the week following a Washington conference Scarborough organized called "Confronting the Judicial War on Faith."

Scarborough and others of the religious right are pushing Congress to change the rules to prevent Democrats from filibustering against President Bush's judicial appointments.

"The real goal of Scarborough and others in the conservative Christian community is to change the American judiciary," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist with the University of Virginia. "They believe that they're winning in the political game but losing in the judicial game."

Rift among Baptists

Scarborough has a contentious history with David R. Currie, the executive director of Texas Baptists Committed, an anti-fundamentalist group that won a war with Scarborough over the direction of the Texas Baptist General Convention. Scarborough ran for the convention's presidency in 1996 and lost to a more moderate candidate. He was a key figure two years later when conservatives left the group to form their own convention.

Scarborough said recently that he regrets the rift with moderate Baptists because he would like to "get men on both sides of that divide involved" in his new cause.

"I think he's a very dangerous man," said Currie, also a former pastor and a devout Baptist, in a recent interview. "That whole `Christian nation' movement is attempting to undermine the absolute strength and genius of this country, and that's the First Amendment."

"To make judges a religious issue is ludicrous," Currie continued.

Scarborough's conference attempting to do just that last month was broadcast repeatedly on C-SPAN and helped propel the native Texan onto the national radar. He has since been quoted in newspapers across the country, profiled in the Washington Post and Time magazine and interviewed on the CBS Evening News.

"I see myself as a catalyst to get preachers to stop and think," Scarborough said. "I didn't know it was a national movement until I read it in the Washington Post."

`Patriot pastors'

Through Vision America, Scarborough claims, he has enlisted about 3,000 preachers into a "patriot pastors" network, encouraging them to endorse candidates and encourage their congregations to be politically active. He hopes to sign up 25,000 pastors.

"It's a sin for a Christian not to be engaged in redeeming the culture," Scarborough said, adding that the best way to get a message out to wholesome voters is through the pulpit.

He offers specific guidelines on the Web site for what political activities tax-exempt churches can legally participate in. Churches can hand out voting records of incumbents, for example, but not candidate campaign literature, while pastors may distribute both.

"Any individual, including a pastor, may wear different hats at different times and, therefore, be involved in political activity as long as he is wearing the right hat," the Web site says.

The stopactivistjudges.org site offers a variety of options for communicating with lawmakers, including mailing them 18-inch blue foam fingers reading, "Vote. Don't obstruct."

Scarborough runs his religious-political conglomerate from a plot of land outside Nacogdoches, where he keeps horses and cows.

"I'm living my lifelong fantasy of being a cowboy," said Scarborough, wearing a dark suit with a silver tie and pocket square that sends an image of inside-the-Beltway rather than Piney-Woods-of-Texas.

His wife, Tommye, sat quietly during an interview in the sterile environment of Allie's American Grille at the Houston Airport Marriott.

Asked if she is political, she responded, "I do support him."

"She's very political," Scarborough added. "When we can't decide which restaurant to go to, she lets me choose."


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