The Rev. Rick Scarborough is on a mission to save evangelical Christians from what he claims is a cabal of left-wing forces bent on oppressing their values and ruining America.
At a Washington, D.C., gathering in late March sponsored by his Vision America organization, the Texas preacher and an array of invited speakers spent hours blasting the alleged enemies of Christianity and arguing that to save America from moral ruin more evangelicals needed to get politically active.
Even though Congress and the White House are controlled by people who have been friendly to the Religious Right cause, Scarborough and his cohorts maintained during their “‘War on Christians’ and The Values Voter in 2006” conference that animosity towards Christianity is on the increase.
“We are here in Washington, D.C., so we can bring a focus and hopefully initiate a national debate on this matter of the growing hostility to all things religious,” Scarborough told a sparsely attended opening session at a ballroom in the Omni Shoreham.
After two days of speakers, including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Phyllis Schlafly, Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer, TV preacher Rod Parsley and a string of panel discussions, it was hard to come away not thinking that despite all the bluster and overwrought rhetoric, the conference was nothing but a thinly veiled effort to rally so-called “values voters” on behalf of the Republican Party for the approaching elections and bolster Scarborough’s national profile.
As the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Cox News Service, “This ‘war’ is nothing real. The fact is, Christians in America are a cultural majority, and they are an extremely powerful group. But what you have here are second-tier preachers who are hoping to hit the big time, desperately hoping for a national spotlight.”
Scarborough’s effort to spark a national debate over Christians’ plight in the public square appears to have fallen flat. His conference, however, rife with over-the-top performances from a string of Religious Right warriors, did draw a smattering of media attention.
Americans United representatives attended the meeting to report on Scarborough’s efforts to advance the Religious Right agenda. The speakers focused on slamming gays, Hollywood, the media, federal judges and the public schools.
The majority of those who came to the microphone also had books to peddle – all of them about those liberal forces supposedly mobilized against evangelical Christians. Many of the books’ titles reflected the tone of the March 27-28 conference, such as: Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family In a Culture That’s Gone Stark Raving Mad; The Criminalization of Christianity; Silent No More: Bringing moral clarity to America while freedom still rings; and Same Sex Marriage: Putting Every Household at Risk.
Not far beneath the vitriolic and bombastic rhetoric were Scarborough’s pleas to evangelical Christians to turn out in large numbers on Election Day for candidates beholden to the Religious Right’s agenda.
Scarborough urged attendees to disseminate among their communities a “Values Voters” Contract with Congress,” which detailed what the so-called “values voter” should look for in candidates.
The document, which Scarborough said was endorsed by several leading Religious Right figures, stated that office seekers should support organized prayer in public schools and other public places, a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, laws restricting reproductive rights and limits on the power of federal courts to hear constitutional cases.
A week before the conference, Scarborough sent an e-mail to his supporters boasting about his involvement in a meeting with congressional leaders. Scarborough claimed that after he distributed the values voters’ contract, one of the congressional leaders told him during a break that the document was “the most visionary thing” gleaned from the meeting.
Scarborough has a relatively small operation at present, but he aspires to a larger role in politics. His Lufkin, Texas-based organization took in only $823,000 in fiscal year 2004. Of that sum, $115, 800 went to pay Scarborough’s salary.
But the Texas preacher has made enough noise on behalf of right-wing religious-political causes to attract some star power to his Washington event.
Several members of Congress made appearances at the “War on Christians” conference.
Sen. Cornyn gave a short speech blasting the U.S. Supreme Court. He said the high court is suffering from a “poverty or bankruptcy of judicial reasoning.”
Cornyn captured headlines last year when he suggested that a rash of violence against federal judges could be attributed to unpopular rulings by the courts. The Texas Republican did not offer the attendees anything as inflammatory as that, but still ridiculed the high court, calling it a dysfunctional body that has “re-interpreted the First Amendment of the Constitution to essentially erect a wall of hostility towards religious expression.”
The Texas senator painted a dire picture for religious believers in America. He claimed that the Supreme Court’s “wall of hostility” has created a smothering atmosphere for evangelicals.
According to Cornyn, “[I]f you want to talk about your religious beliefs in the public forum, all of a sudden those are forbidden.”
The senator’s comments sparked repeated applause and yelps of “amen” from the dinnertime audience. Cornyn added that federal judges “who have taken an oath to uphold the law” have “in effect become lawmakers, and thus lawbreakers, by making it up as they go along.”
The conference’s attendees and participants are the hardcore of the Religious Right. They fervently insist that federal judges, the media, Hollywood and gays are oppressing their First Amendment liberties and destroying the nation.
Only one or two conference speakers conceded that Hollywood is now producing big-budget Christian-themed movies or that conservative Christian views and values are given plenty of air time on radio or Fox News.
Not much was said about the ubiquitous televangelists either. Not only do TV preachers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell still reach millions of viewers, but pastors Rick Warren and Joel Osteen have best-selling books and speak to audiences that reach well into the millions. The New York Times recently reported that Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston has weekend services that draw up to 40,000 and are taped for broadcast in all 210 American markets. Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life has been a runaway best seller.
The conference provided a friendly forum for former House Majority Leader DeLay. The Texas Republican relinquished his leadership duties last year after becoming ensnared in a scandal revolving around inappropriate lobbying.
Despite felony money-laundering charges pending against him in his home state, DeLay drew a standing ovation from the “War on Christians” crowd. Scarborough, during his introduction, said his respect for DeLay has grown and that DeLay’s political problems were brought about because of his religious convictions.
“I believe the most damaging thing that Tom DeLay has done in his life,” Scarborough told the lunch-time audience, “is to take his faith seriously into public office, which made him a target of all those who despise the cause of Christ.”
Although Scarborough’s Vision America is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt group that isn’t supposed to be involved in partisan politics, Scarborough urged the audience to get involved in DeLay’s re-election. The pastor claimed that the so-called liberal elite from the Northeast is funneling millions of dollars into the campaign war chest of DeLay’s Democratic challenger.
“Here is a cause worth weighing into,” Scarborough said. “This is a man that I believe God has appointed to – in this day to – represent righteousness in government. I believe in Tom DeLay.”
DeLay did not disappoint his audience. He claimed America was created by God to spread American-style democracy worldwide.
“The United States, the freedoms that we enjoy, the unprecedented success of our shared history are not an accident,” DeLay said. “It is not an accident that the most church-going nation in the world is also the richest and strongest. It is not an accident that the most faithful, hopeful and charitable nation on earth is also the one most hated by the forces of evil – be they Nazi, communist or terrorist.
“We are,” he continued, “a providential nation, serving the cause of justice and freedom everywhere in the world. For more than 200 years, every time the history of human freedom has needed a champion to rise against a new and terrifying enemy, an American of faith has risen.”
Following DeLay’s address, Scarborough implored the beleaguered congressman to “keep your eyes on Jesus” and to stand strong against political enemies in Washington and Texas.
“God always does his best work right after a crucifixion,” Scarborough said.
A week after appearing at the event, however, DeLay announced he was abandoning his re-election bid.
In an interview with Time magazine, DeLay said he would “continue to fight for the conservative cause” and “continue to work for a Republican majority.” He also said that his speech at Scarborough’s conference helped him realize he could still be a successful advocate for the Religious Right. He described the reaction from the Vision America conferees as “incredible – just an outpouring of love and support.”
DeLay’s address was the conference’s biggest media draw, but hardly its most provocative.
For example, Ohio preacher Parsley warned, “It’s time – and high time – for a revolution, a reformation and a revival in the United States of America.”
Parsley, whose services at World Harvest Church in Columbus, Ohio, are broadcast to large audiences worldwide, took the opportunity to promote his book, Silent No More, which he told the audience had “been anointed and blessed of God.”
The televangelist, a rising Religious Right star, is girding for a battle of great proportions between evangelical Christians and liberal America.
“The church that claims to uphold the cause of Christ, yet condemns confrontation, is little more than a social club,” Parsley blustered. “They want rain with no thunder and rain with no lightning; they long to avoid confrontation by dwelling in what I call the devil’s de-militarized zone – inside the safety of their sanctuaries.
“Power, real power, concedes nothing without a demand,” Parsley thundered. “Somebody got to stand up to be seen and speak out to be heard.”
Parsley then declared, “We are at a point of crisis. Our culture is in chaos. The moral foundations, once constructed by the tenets of our faith, are quickly crumbling around us, with no sign of a cure.”
Despite the dire predicament evangelical Christians claim they find themselves in, Parsley sounded a note of optimism. If they vote in large numbers, Parsley claimed, evangelical Christians could return America to the days when public schools led students in prayer and other religious activities, reproductive rights were nonexistent and gays stayed closeted.
“The more they afflict us, the more we prosper and grow,” Parsley said. “And I’m here to tell you, if you think 2004 was something, we have not begun to reach critical mass. We are the largest special interest group in America today.”
The Christian pastor left his audience with a militant call: “Man your battle stations, ready your weapons, lock and load!”
Other clergy were almost as extreme. The Rev. Laurence White, a Lutheran pastor from Texas, declared that America “is no longer good” and warned that if evangelical Christians do not stand against liberal America that “God will and should judge America.”
Other speakers targeted the federal courts, a regular object of Religious Right wrath. If church and state are to be melded in America, judges like former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore are needed on the bench. But judges who uphold the First Amendment principle of church-state separation are inevitably dubbed “activist judges” or worse by the Religious Right.
Long-time ultra-conservative pundit Schlafly and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) insisted that the federal courts are hostile to Christianity.
“We are going to stop activist judges,” Schlafly told the gathering.
Schlafly lashed out at former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, the Bush-appointed judge who wrote the opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District invalidating an anti-evolution school policy. She said that people of faith must become engaged in what she described as a battle against “the tyranny of the judiciary.”
Schlafly added that it was “too kind” to refer to judges as “activist judges.”
“They really are supremacist judges,” she said, “judges who think they are smarter and better than the rest of us, that they can overrule the other branches of government and the will of the American people. What we have are judges re-writing the Constitution, changing the words of the Constitution…. And running roughshod over our history and heritage.”
Schlafly slammed O’Connor for a recent speech at Georgetown University. O’Connor warned that interfering with an independent judiciary had allowed dictatorships to flourish in developing and communist countries. O’Connor, without dropping names, blasted congressional leaders who have continued to issue sharp broadsides against the federal courts and promoted bills stripping the courts of jurisdiction.
“Now, I’m just reminding you how glad we are that she has left the court,” said Schlafly. “In her late days, she became Sen. Barbara Boxer’s favorite justice. And the reason is because she voted twice for abortion, twice for gay rights and twice against the Ten Commandments. How bad can you be?
“Now, she made a speech the other day,” Schlafly continued, referring to O’Connor’s Georgetown address, “in which she attacked people who criticize the court for bringing about a dictatorship and for strong-arming the judiciary. Now, I think this just shows she is the stereotypical hysterical female.”
During a panel discussion called “The Judiciary: Overruling God,” two congressmen promoted court-stripping bills as the best way to punish the federal courts for unpopular rulings.
U.S. Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) claimed that the Supreme Court creates law “out of thin air.” To counter the federal court’s alleged unwieldy power, Akin told the conferees that he would continue to advocate for bills that yank certain types of cases from the federal courts.
Aiken cited the “Pledge Protection Act,” which if passed would bar federal courts from hearing First Amendment challenges involving the Pledge.
Akin’s colleague, Gohmert, joined in the court bashing, assuring the gathering that he would support bills to alter the reach and power of the courts.
Like the majority of the conference’s speakers, Scarborough had a book to peddle, his recently released Liberalism Kills Kids.
“The very last few paragraphs of the book say these words,” read Scarborough. “Have you had enough? Then stand up, speak up and join us as we seek to mobilize the church in America.”
In his book’s final chapter, Scarborough declares, “Pulpits aflame with righteousness are the best counter to a liberal media that is openly hostile to Christianity.”
Scarborough writes that the Internal Revenue Service is also involved in the vast left-wing conspiracy to silence evangelical Christians. Federal tax law, he charges, was altered in the early 1950s to ban pastors of churches “for the first time in American history” from speaking “on any issue that was considered ‘political.’”
In reality, the federal tax code only bars churches and other tax-exempt charities from endorsing or opposing politicians. It does not prohibit houses of worship or other religious organizations from speaking out on public policy issues.
Additionally, Scarborough writes that Americans United monitors houses of worship nationwide to make sure their religious leaders are not endorsing or opposing candidates. Scarborough claims that Americans United seeks to intimidate pastors by sending out “thousands of threatening letters preceding every election.”
In fact, Americans United has worked hard to advise churches on what the law requires so that they won’t get into trouble with the federal tax agency. The work, says AU staffers, is hardly threatening.
At the morning worship service on the conference’s final day, Scarborough urged the attendees not to shrink from becoming politically active.
Scarborough cited his own experience of political activism in Pearland, Texas, as proof that a riled Religious Right base can make a difference at the polls. He said that in 1992 as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Pearland, he became aware of a public high school forum on AIDS, where “every sex act imaginable” was discussed.
The public school study enraged Scarborough and spurred him to mobilize his congregation to help elect new school board members and city officers beholden to the preacher’s Religious Right agenda.
What Scarborough did not mention was that his favored candidates were eventually all voted out of office and one candidate was forced from office because of ethical improprieties. (See “Weekend Warriors,” June 2002 Church & State.)
“What must drive the believer in politics is Christ,” Scarborough said on the conference’s final day. “Why are we in this work? For the glory of God, not for the accolade, not for the attention.”
Scarborough maintained that America would reap great success if evangelical Christians were able to control the outcomes of state and national elections.
“People don’t want America to go off into oblivion,” he said. “They want you to be successful. Because you know what, everybody, infidels and all, will benefit if Christians are successful in returning this nation to moral sanity.”
The conference’s final panel discussion, dubbed “Taking Our Faith to the Ballot Box,” included Herb Titus, one of the lawyers who defended Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Moore lost a long-running legal battle to keep a large Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building.
Titus essentially argued that Americans should apply a religious test for candidates seeking public office. He said any politician who does not believe in Jesus Christ is unfit to serve in public office.
“That’s why when we examine a candidate for Congress, we want to know more than what their ideas are, we want to know more than what their positions are,” said Titus. “We want to know whether they’ve got the strength of character to do what is right when the pressure is upon them to do what is wrong.
“And I do not believe,” he continued, “that anybody who does not know Jesus Christ as their lord and savior . . . is able to do what is required in America today.”
Scarborough’s “War on Christians” conference detailed a plan to rally evangelical Christians to the polls and had little to do with engaging American citizens in debate over religion and government. There was no debate at this conference. The speakers and panelists pounded home similar points repeatedly: liberals are ruining America and evangelical Christians need to vote in larger numbers.
How Scarborough’s project fares may not be known until after the November elections.