For the past 20 years, one of the strongest congressional defenders of church-state separation has been a tenacious House member from Texas named Chet Edwards.
Edwards was never afraid to take a strong stand for the church-state wall. A church-going Methodist, he insisted that if church and state were to get too cozy, it was the church that would end up in peril.
In 1998, Edwards helped lead the fight against a so-called “Religious Freedom Amendment,” an attempt by Newt Gingrich and his Religious Right allies to remove church-state separation from the First Amendment. Thanks in a large part to Edwards’ leadership, the misguided measure was soundly defeated.
More recently, Edwards expressed skepticism about religious discrimination in “faith-based” initiatives and efforts to politicize churches.
Edwards’ activism on behalf of the wall made him many enemies among the Religious Right. These groups tried several times to defeat him. Edwards withstood these challenges, but November’s Republican wave was too strong. It swept Edwards out of Congress.
The people of Texas’ 17th District aren’t the only losers for that; indeed, the entire nation is.
The House retains other champions of church-state separation, of course. Reps. Robert Scott (D-Va.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) come to mind. But such brave souls are scarce these days, and we can’t afford to lose any. That’s why the loss of Chet Edwards is an especially hard blow.
During the 1998 religion amendment fight, Edwards spoke at a press conference the morning of the vote. He remarked, “I can think of no other issue in my entire political career that would ever be more important to me than defending the Bill of Rights and its protection of religious freedom.”
Several candidates who directly attacked church-state separation lost last month – among them Christine O’Donnell and Glen Urquhart in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado.
These high-profile extremists were defeated, but that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. Religious Right groups are ecstatic about the election results and are certain their issues have been given new life.
There has already been talk in the new Congress about voucher subsidies for religious schools, and a host of other church-state issues are likely to arise. Rightly or wrongly, the Religious Right believes it helped elect the new Congress, and it is demanding political payback.
The path ahead is rocky, and we will be traversing it without one of our most eloquent champions, Chet Edwards.
What’s the best way to honor Chet’s legacy? We can start by summoning up our fortitude and vigilance and standing up for the core values that mean so much to him.