After his wife had a stroke a year ago, Congressman Chris Stewart said he had a decision to make.

“When we say we put family first, only a couple times in our lives is that tested,” he said. “And that’s the thing that I think I would like to be remembered for, someone who said he loved his family and would put his family first.”

Rep. Chris Stewart speaks during the Sutherland Institute’s 2023 Congressional Series in Salt Lake City.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks during Sutherland Institute’s 2023 Congressional Series at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Stewart said he didn’t want to leave Congress, especially in the middle of his sixth term, but after doctors said to wait a year to see how his wife’s recovery goes, he said he reached a point where he realized it wasn’t fair to her to be gone all the time.

After he announced he would leave, he said he expected to face judgment for his decision, but instead people from across the country reached out to praise him for choosing to put his family first.

“I think most people would do the same thing,” he said.

Stewart spoke Thursday morning about the difficult decision to resign his seat and his lingering concerns about the country during a conversation with Rick Larsen, president of the Sutherland Institute, at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Record in Congress

As Stewart’s time in Congress winds down, he said he’s been thinking about what he considers his top accomplishments. Before running for Congress, Stewart was an author, small business owner and served in the military, both as a rescue helicopter and bomber pilot.

He said he is “very proud” of his time serving on the House Intelligence Committee.

“It’s a select committee, so it’s very small. And the members on it are really the most extraordinary members of Congress. But the problem is that you can’t talk about it so it’s hard to come home and brag,” he said, jokingly.

He traveled to a country near Syria — where, he couldn’t say — where he had to evaluate a program put in place to save American lives.

“And my job was to decide whether we’re going to continue to fund this, are we getting our money’s worth? Is this the outcome we’re hoping for? And I actually felt tremendous responsibility, not just for a billion dollars ... it was more the fact that if we didn’t it was going to impact people’s lives.”

Stewart also serves on the Appropriations Committee, which allowed him to make sure Utah’s priorities were funded, while keeping an eye on debt and spending. And he also said he was proud of the legislation he helped, which he said can be just as important as seeing legislation passed into law.

On the importance of family

Larsen asked Stewart to talk about how family is the formative institution in our country.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, right, speaks with Rick Larsen, Sutherland Institute president and CEO, during Sutherland Institute’s 2023 Congressional Series at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“The vast majority of the societal problems that we’re experiencing right now can be traced back to the foundation of the family and the diminishing or the weakening of the family in our society,” he said.

Those problems create unhappiness, stress and disappointment in people’s lives, he said, leading them to live less fulfilling lives.

This then led to a conversation about the challenges faced by the person will take Stewart’s spot representing Utah’s 2nd Congressional District. A primary election is scheduled for Sept. 5, ten days before Stewart will resign his seat, and a general election will be held Nov. 21.

There are three Republicans vying for the seat including Stewart’s endorsed candidate Celeste Maloy, former state lawmaker Becky Edwards and former Republican national committeeman Bruce Hough. State lawmaker Kathleen Riebe will represent the Democratic Party in the general election, and there are also candidates from the Libertarian Party and Utah United, among others, in the running.

Stewart said he had good news and bad news for his replacement.

The issues being debated today are “existential” he said — they aren’t just issues of where to set the corporate tax rate or how to engage in foreign policy.

“We’re really at a crossroads in many ways of deciding who we are and what we believe as a people. And because that’s true, it’s very difficult to find common ground or to compromise,” he said.

“For example, ... if you want to talk about the right corporate tax rate, I’m happy to compromise with that. But if you want to talk about what it means to be a man or a woman, or if you want to talk about religious liberty, or what liberties are you willing to give up in order to protect religious liberty, those things are much, much more difficult to compromise on. And some might say there can be no compromise if you actually feel like the outcome is to destroy who we are as a people or culture.”

Those debates will necessarily be divisive, he said, and won’t be resolved quickly. But he said the good news is he still believes there can be compromise on thorny issues, much as there was when the Constitution was first debated and adopted.

Being Republican House Speaker is the “worst job”

Stewart spoke candidly at times about the difficulty faced by Republican leaders in Congress, saying former House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner were “diminished” by the demands of the job.

“The worst job in the universe is to be a Republican speaker of the House,” he said.

With the rise of extremes in both parties, and given their “enormous influence,” Stewart said the speakership has become an “impossible job.”

It’s not so much the performative nature of the job that worries Stewart — he said that existed even among the Founding Fathers — but to be an effective member of Congress, you have to be willing to work on legislation and work across the aisle which has become increasingly hard, he said.

He pointed out if he wanted to be in the media more often he would only need to do “one thing” — criticize fellow Republicans.

“If you’re willing to do that you get a huge platform, you can raise a lot of money. I don’t think that’s an effective member of Congress,” he said.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, right, speaks with Rick Larsen, Sutherland Institute president and CEO, during Sutherland Institute’s 2023 Congressional Series at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Stewart: Congress is supposed to move slowly

On the idea that Congress is dysfunctional, Stewart pushed back, saying the Founding Fathers intended Congress to move slowly.

“Our Founding Fathers intended for this to be chaotic. You know, freedom is difficult, and they wanted it to be slow. They didn’t want us to lurch from one policy to another and have dramatic changes based on one election,” he said.

He said he is concerned people seem to be “self-sorting” based on their partisan identities, as they move from state to state based on politics, and as polling show partisanship is affecting people’s friendships and family relationships.

“God cares about this country”

Larsen closed out their conversation by posing the open-ended question, “I am hopeful for the future because ...?”

“I think about that all the time and I know the answer: Because God cares about this country,” Stewart responded.

“Whether we like or not, we are the glue that holds the world together. If the United States crumbles, the world crumbles underneath us. That’s true from an intelligence perspective, it’s true for national security, it’s true from trade. It’s true from diplomacy. It’s true from everything about us. Everyone in the world looks to us for leadership, whether we like it or not. And God knows that and God still cares about this country.”