From April 1st—7th, the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress celebrates Congress Week, commemorating the month in which Congress achieved its first quorums in 1789. This year, the Baylor Collections of Political Materials (a founding member of the ACSC) highlights Congressman Chet Edwards’s defense of the First Amendment to memorialize the 225th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.
Thomas Chester “Chet” Edwards served as the representative for Texas’s 11th and (after redistricting in 2005) 17th districts from 1991 to 2011. During his 20-year tenure in the United States House of Representatives, Edwards championed legislation on veterans’ issues, education, technology, and senior-citizens. As a moderate Democrat representing a demographically Republican district, Edwards developed a reputation as a pragmatic, independent leader who valued his constituents’ concerns over partisan politics. His political talent and cross-party appeal earned him a spot on then-Senator Barack Obama’s Vice-Presidential shortlist in 2008.
For Chet, politics, service, and compassion were inextricable from one another. He often spoke of his duty to his district and his appreciation for men and women in uniform. Furthermore, Edwards strongly advocated for the personal freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights. His willingness to listen to, consider, and learn from opposition was partially informed by his respect for the American Constitution and his own religious faith. As a Christian, Chet’s views on the separation of church and state carried considerable weight among his colleagues, so much so that he was considered by some to be the leading congressional voice on the issue.
In the above video, dated June 12, 2001, Congressman Edwards responds to a quote from President George W. Bush decrying political opposition to Faith-Based Initiatives. This minute-long speech on the House floor held many political implications. As a Democrat representing a Republican district, Edwards toed a fine line when it came to criticizing the sitting Republican President. President Bush’s residence complicated matters; in 1999, before taking office, Bush purchased Prairie Chapel Ranch – a property approximately twenty-five miles from Waco, TX – thus becoming one of Edwards’s constituents.
Here, Edwards reiterates his personal respect for the President and “his right to offer his proposals,” but then gives a scathing critique of the President’s comments: “Challenging people’s religious faith because of public policy differences is not a way to bring Americans together. Rather, it is a prescription for religious divisiveness.” Edwards’s criticism echoes Thomas Jefferson’s remarks in 1802: “… I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore a man to his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.” Both Jefferson and Edwards advocate for the separation of government and religion, believing that an American’s belief in the latter should never be made to conflict with the former.
In the above video, dated February 5, 2004, Congressman Edwards and Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio) debate the merits of Charitable Choice provisions. These provisions are found several pieces of legislation, such as the Community Solutions Act of 2001, the American Community Renewal Act, the Fathers Count Act, the Charitable Choice Expansion Act, and the Job Improvement Training Act. Supporters of Charitable Choice provisions hoped to provide federal funds for religious social work programs to help administer addiction recovery and poverty relief without compromising the integrity of the religious organization’s mission. Opponents, including Edwards, the Baptist Joint Committee, etc., argued that the provisions would allow religious organizations to discriminate in hiring for federally funded positions; they also feared that these provisions would allow the religious organizations, in effect, to use federal funds to proselytize to their clients.
Edwards argued that the language in the bill “subsidize[d] religious bigotry in America” due to the allocation of taxpayers’ money toward discriminatory hiring practices. He framed Charitable Choice provisions as the first step in the erosion of religious liberty, citing the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. For Edwards, religious liberty was not a bipartisan issue but a nonpartisan one, too sacred to be sullied by politics. He characterized the denigration of religious freedom as “wrong,” finding such practices “morally offensive as a person of faith” and “deeply offensive to the First Amendment.” Perhaps the most severe condemnation of Charitable Choice legislation comes when he refers to the Founding Fathers’ famous battles over federal and states’ rights as Representative Boehner attempts to adjourn the discussion to a later date: “If this was an issue important enough for Madison and Jefferson to debate for 10 years in the Virginia legislature, … then certainly it’s worthy of our discussion here on the floor.”
Since its 1791 addition, proponents of faith-based governance have attacked the First Amendment’s role as the primary defense of American citizens. However, those who believe in the sanctity of religious liberty have been defended by legislators who shared the vision of America’s Founding Fathers – a vision of a country ruled not by fear, oppression, or dogma but by its own citizens. For Chet Edwards, religious liberty struck at the heart of this vision. He believed in an America where every citizen is free to practice (or not practice) any religion they desire without fear or financial, governmental, or social retribution.
Learn more about the political career of Chet Edwards by visiting the Thomas Chester “Chet” Edwards Papers collection, and for more information about the Baylor Collections of Political Materials, please visit their website.