Congressman says religious liberty demands eternal vigilance at 2009 luncheon

By Ken Camp, Texas Baptist Standard
July 3, 2009
HOUSTON, TX — An advocate in the U.S. Congress for church-state separation thanked Baptists for their contributions to religious liberty and reminded them of the need to continue defending the wall of separation.

“I have seen too often the political temptations to chisel away at church-state separation. These temptations will continue, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office or which party controls Congress,” said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) addressing a Religious Liberty Council luncheon sponsored by the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty. The event was scheduled in conjunction with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Houston.

Edwards — a lifelong Methodist who attends both Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and McLean Baptist Church in McLean, Va. — acknowledged his personal debt to Baptists in shaping his views on church-state separation.

“I have been a blessed beneficiary of your being missionaries for religious liberty,” he said. “And, for that, I am profoundly grateful. Thanks to you, I could think of no greater cause I could ever have in public service than to play even a small role in protecting God’s divine gift of religious liberty.”

He described how Herbert Reynolds, then president of Baylor University, gave him a copy of the 1920 speech on religious liberty Baptist statesman George W. Truett delivered from the U.S. Capitol steps.

“Upon reading the speech, I was hooked,” Edwards said. “Why hadn’t I seen it before — that an omnipotent God, who could have made us all puppets in his hands, chose instead to give us a gift — a divine gift — to believe in him or not?”

“The logic was so clear to me,” he said. “Given that human freedom is a divine gift, no government has the right to steal it, change it or inhibit it.”

Edwards credited Congressional victories won in defending separation of church and state — defeating a school prayer constitutional amendment, a congressional resolution on prayer and proposals to post the Ten Commandments on public schoolhouse and courthouse walls — to the work of the Baptist Joint Committee and the mentoring offered to him by Reynolds and other Baptist leaders.

“Whatever impact, large or small, I might have had in standing up for church-state separation as a rural southerner in Congress, it was because of the influence of Baptists on my life and your deep commitment, evidence in your faith, your churches and your public service, to the cause of religious liberty,” he said.

Edwards reminded the assembled Baptists of their role in “creating a protecting America’s greatest gift to the world—the stewardship of religious freedom built on the foundation of church-state separation.”

However, he warned against becoming too comfortable and complacent.

“The fact is that the battle to defend church-state separation is a never-ending one,” he said. “We simply cannot rest on past battles won.”

The “patient and persistent revolutionaries” who would “chisel away at the wall of church-state separation” present a continuing threat in part because many Americans don’t understand what separation of church and state means, and politicians find it too easy to try to use legal power to influence or regulate religion, he said.

“Politicians cannot withstand the temptation to use religion as a means to further their own political ends. And the siren song of seeking favor from the religious majority will lead politicians to step on the rights of religious minorities,” Edwards said.

Another powerful challenge to religious liberty, he added, is the “powerful network of cable television and radio talk shows that fuel the constant drumbeat that church-state separation is a liberal secular plot.”

Edwards challenged people of faith to “become the public face of debates in defense of church-state separation” rather than allowing atheists to claim that role.

“In the halls of Congress and on the main streets of America, you can be effective missionaries for religious liberty,” he said.


View more information on previous luncheons