NEW YORK -- MSNBC television host Joe Scarborough wants people to know that he's a die-hard conservative. Not everyone's convinced, however, saying the former congressman-turned-TV personality suffers from "liberal media disease."
But on the set of his popular wake-up show "Morning Joe," Scarborough is at ease, a virtual oasis where he's free from the political arrows aimed at him within conservative media circles.
Fox News host Sean Hannity said, "Joe used to be a conservative," and radio talk show host Mark Levin called him "the biggest idiot of them all."
Scarborough laughs off the criticism and fights back, too, calling screaming radio talk show hosts "bullies."
Being criticized by fellow conservatives is unusual for Scarborough. During the 1990s, he represented one of Florida's most conservative districts and helped deliver a balanced federal budget.
Nowadays, he speaks about a reliance on God Almighty, something the evangelical host believes in wholeheartedly. He grew up as an active Southern Baptist whose faith journey became even stronger in high school.
In speeches around the country, he's remarked how "faith in the God that was revealed in the Sermon on the Mount is the perfect antidote to the me-ism of our time."
It is his faith that got him through some rough times. He resigned from Congress after only six years because of challenges at home: one of his sons, Andrew, has a slight form of autism. His other son, Joey, emotionally needed his Washington, D.C.- based father present back at home.
"He just said, 'Dad, I need you at home,' Scarborough recalled.
"We went to a family counselor and the family counselor said, 'You can either come (home) to Pensacola (Florida) or your son can go up to Washington, D.C., but if you don't do that bad things are going to happen. Something needs to change,'" Scarborough told CBN News from his office at 30 Rock in Manhattan.
"I always tell people it was the hardest decision I ever made, but it was the easiest decision I ever made," he said.
Hitting Back at Critics
Today, Scarborough is dealing with a different issue: Being the punching bag for conservatives on the far right. Scarborough knows one of the reasons why.
"I have committed the unpardonable sin of not judging people for what they believe," he said.
It drives die-hard conservatives' nuts that he's chummy with liberal politicians, including many within the Obama administration. But Scarborough, who grew up in the Church and likes to quote scripture, offered the following biblical parallel.
"Jesus didn't hang out with the religious leaders," Scarborough said. "He didn't hang out with the people who patted him on the back. He hung out with the tax collectors. He hung out with those that others had contempt for."
Another issue is that he breaks party ranks. Remember when Republican Gov. Chris Christie welcomed President Obama to New Jersey for a Hurricane Sandy photo-op days before the 2012 election? While conservatives roundly criticized the Kodak moment, Scarborough had no problem with it.
"Chris Christie was doing his job and he should be saluted for it," he said during an appearance on ABC's "The View."
Adding more fuel to the fire was last year's Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown, Conn. Gun rights advocates were angry when Scarborough, who'd won a stellar rating from the National Rifle Association, softened his position on gun control, leading to on-air arguments with conservative lawmakers.
Scarborough believes any battle he has with the right is about how to win elections. He contends those siding with screaming radio talk show hosts won't be part of the winning ticket.
"Most of these guys couldn't get elected dog catcher," Scarborough said. "Getting a big audience on radio and winning elections, those are two completely different things."
Joe the RINO?
But the millions who tune in to these shows label Scarborough as a dreaded RINO: Republican In Name Only.
"I may be a RINO in that 2013 I am focused on winning," Scarborough told CBN News. "Ronald Reagan was conservative ideologically. He was moderate temperamentally. If we're going to ever get back in the White House, if we're going to win the suburbs of Philadelphia, if we're going to win the I-4 corridor, if we're going to win the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, we've got to understand that we've got to reach out to people who don't usually vote Republican."
Despite this tough love for conservatives, Scarborough calls out the other side, too.
He's reprimanded top Democrats, saying how "Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party are out of touch."
He's also verbally sparred with a few top Obama aides. Scarborough will also call out the mainstream media at times, like when there was initial reluctance to link the Boston Marathon bombers to Islamic terrorism.
"Can you imagine if those bombers were right wing extremists like (Timothy) McVeigh? We would still be hearing about it today," Scarborough lamented.
Sometimes it puts him in the mood for Fox News.
"Whenever I'm pulling my hair out and I think the media is being too liberal and too bias I, just as a reflex, as a conservative, I turn to Fox News. I watch Fox News and it's like I've jumped into a warm swimming pool," he said.
The water analogy works well when talking about 4 a.m. wake-up calls and the six-year grind of morning television.
"You should see Tom Hanks in (the movie) 'Castaway' and I kind of feel like I'm on the raft and I'm trying to get past that wave and it always knocks me back," Scarborough said.
But the waves haven't stopped him from hosting a very popular cable morning show that helps set the political discussion in America.
"The influencers watch this show," Scarborough proudly stated.
They do so because of Scarborough's ability to come across as a reasoned conservative on an intentionally liberal-minded network.
That breezy attitude plays out on another stage: Scarborough is also a musician and loves playing the guitar. His idol? Paul McCartney.
"He was sort of the sane, rational one of the Beatles," Scarborough explained. "Tried to keep them a bit more mainstream."
That is exactly the message Scarborough is trying to preach to his conservative Republican friends.