By Chet Edwards
For those of us who believe religious freedom is a sacred gift from God, there could be no higher calling in life than to protect that divine gift. Years ago, Brent Walker accepted that calling, and for that our nation and the world are better places today.
I met Brent when I was a relatively new member of Congress in the 1990s representing Waco, Texas and Baylor University. As I began my journey in understanding the importance of the constitutional principle of church-state separation, Brent soon became my mentor. His knowledge of the constitutional issues informed me, and his passion inspired me and so many others.
The 1990s were a challenging political time for those of us who believe in church-state separation. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, nicknamed “The Hammer,” falsely alleged that church-state separation was a myth created by 20th century liberal Democrats. I guess he had never read Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he spoke “with sovereign reverence” of the first 16 words of the First Amendment, which built “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
The attacks on church-state separation were constant and intended to portray those of us who believed in church-state separation to be against religion itself. Those attacks were well-organized and well-financed, and they had a real chance of success. That is why the voice of the BJC, led by Brent – a man of faith and a pastor – was so vital at this critical time in history. Brent eloquently and passionately educated members of Congress and the public that it is people of faith who most deeply believe in the separation of church and state as the bedrock foundation of religious freedom. Without that voice, many Americans could have been wrongly persuaded to believe that church-state separation was a secularist attack on religion itself.
Whether it was successfully fighting the proposed “Istook Amendment” that would have changed the First Amendment or the Judge Roy Moore-backed practice to use taxpayers dollars to place the Ten Commandments in public buildings and schoolhouses, Brent was there to be the voice of faith in opposition to dangerous proposals.
In my 28 years in public office, there are two individuals who have inspired me more than any others: Congressman John Lewis and Brent Walker. Their common bond is that they have both selflessly dedicated their lives to protecting Americans’ fundamental civil rights, and they have done so with decency and dignity in the spirit of Christian love.
Chet Edwards is the W.R. Poage Distinguished Chair of Public Service at Baylor University. He served as a member of Congress from 1991-2011.
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