Eight years ago, the Rev. Rick Scarborough of Pearland, Texas, announced big plans for the community.
Scarborough, a Religious Right activist and pastor of First Baptist Church in Pearland, mobilized his 1,400-member congregation in an effort to take complete control of the local government. Denouncing church-state separation as a lie from Satan, he sought to convert his church into a giant political machine and stack the city council, school board and other municipal positions with his ideological soul mates. (See "Bully Pulpit," May 1996 Church & State.)
For a while, the scheme seemed to be working. Scarborough-backed candidates held a majority on the city council, infiltrated the school board and won appointments to important local positions. The game plan, outlined in Scarborough's 1996 book Enough Is Enough, called for "Christianizing" Pearland, convincing other Texas pastors to do the same and then taking his crusade nationwide.
Thankfully, it doesn't look like that will happening anytime soon. Pearland's experiment with fundamentalist theocracy is over. In recent years voters have declined to return Scarborough's cronies to office. In late 1998, one of Scarborough's last allies, City Manager Paul Grohman, was fired. City officials are now undertaking a widespread investigation into financial irregularities.
Press accounts say that Grohman is accused of violating competitive bidding laws and of engaging in preferential treatment in the awarding of city contracts. Grohman denies the charges, but municipal officials believe they have a solid case against him. "At a minimum, he was grossly unethical, but as the evidence strongly indicates, more likely criminal, in his actions," said Bill Berger, a member of the city council. Berger urged Pearland residents to read a 64-page report on the matter prepared by an independent accounting firm to see "the extent to which [Grohman] was out of control."
Scarborough's congregation is up to its steeple in this ugly business. According to the Houston Chronicle, Grohman used his influence to provide inside information about a city road construction project to First Baptist. Leaders at the church, of which Grohman is a member, then acquired a parcel of land that later greatly increased in value when they city sought to buy it to build the highway.
As if allegations of financial wrong-doing weren't bad enough, this scandal also has a sex angle. One of the charges against Grohman is that he and a former city official spent $500 to gain possession of a diary that contained the client list of a local prostitute. According to the Chronicle, the diary was obtained by a woman's housekeeper to "blackmail individuals involved in the election process."
Grohman vigorously denies all the charges and sees a plot. "God always turns things to good what Satan and men mean for evil," he told the newspaper.
Regardless of the outcome of this sordid story, these shenanigans have reflected poorly on First Baptist. Local informants say Scarborough's headlong dive into hardball politics has deeply split the congregation. Many long-time members left the church and began worshipping elsewhere. Reportedly, attendance at Sunday school has dropped by half.
Let's stop here and sum up: The church jumped into electoral politics. Its favored candidates enjoyed power for a short time but were ousted by the voters. The church subsequently found itself embroiled in a financial scandal. Membership is down.
It would seem that Rev. Scarborough's experiment in fusing church and state did great harm to both institutions in Pearland. And therein lies the lesson. Some houses of worship today are itching to jump into politics. They have been seduced by the claims of men like Pat Robertson and James Dobson that the salvation of America can be achieved through the ballot box.
Thus they distribute stacked "voter guides," their pastors endorse "godly" candidates from the pulpit and their church services look more like political rallies than praiseful worship.
Some of these activities may be unlawful; others may be unethical. All are irreligious. The church's job is not partisan politics. While religious leaders may have things to say on social, moral and public issues -- and they can say them with impunity -- they should never allow their houses of worship to become cogs in someone's political machine.
Undaunted by his own experience in Pearland, Scarborough has announced the formation of a Religious Right group he calls Vision America. He still insists that he will take his ideas nationwide.
We believe that America's voters, like those in Pearland, have enough common sense to reject this overture. We hope religious leaders reject this ploy as well.
It's a reality of modern life that many Americans don't think much of politics or politicians these days. Yet polls show that most Americans still hold religious leaders in relatively high esteem. When religion gets intermeshed with the backroom wheeling and dealing of politics, which is more likely to happen -- that politics will be elevated to a new lofty level or that religion will be dragged down into a mud-filled gutter?
The experience of Pastor Scarborough's First Baptist Church, with its misguided and now repudiated far-right religio-political crusade in Pearland, has already answered that question.