Defending church-state separation can be risky for a politician, but it's a risk worth taking, U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) said recently.
Edwards, an 11-term congressman who represents Waco and surrounding areas, was awarded the Associated Baptist Press Religious Freedom Award at a ceremony in northern Virginia April 10. During his remarks, Edward reflected on a life spent in defense of religious liberty.
"The challenge we face is the same one faced in the days of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison," Edwards said. "Elected officials fear being perceived as anti-religious."
According to a report by the Associated Baptist Press, Edwards noted that during his last campaign, his Republican opponent attacked him for failing to support prayer in public schools.
"I believe in school prayer," Edwards told the crowd, "I just don't believe in government-sanctioned, government-ordered school prayer." He noted that it can be difficult to explain these issues in "a day of eight-second sound bites and 30-second commercials."
Edwards, who is a Methodist, has consistently defended church-state separation on the floor of the House. He has opposed mandatory school prayer amendments, fought against a provision to allow houses of worship to engage in partisan politicking and argued against President George W. Bush's "faith-based initiative," among other efforts.
Edwards' stands have not always made him popular. A few years ago, he fought against a measure that would mandate the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings, seeing a certain amount of political grandstanding in the effort.
"I think congressmen should live by the Ten Commandments more and preach about them less from the floor of the Capitol," he said.
In an earlier interview with Associated Baptist Press, Edwards explained what motivates him to defend church-state separation.
"One only has to look at reports from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan, India, etc., to realize that whenever you mix the power of government with the power of religion, it's not a good thing for government or religion," he said. "I consider my efforts in behalf of church-state separation to be the single most important cause I will ever have in public service. Religious freedom is the first freedom, and if it is put at risk, all the others freedom of speech, association, etc. are endangered."