Is John Edwards' Affair a Warning to the Religious Left?

Robert Parham


Former presidential candidate John Edward's extramarital affair with a younger woman paid to produce videos of Edwards is a headshaking disappointment. It shouldn't have been.

Remember what happened in June 2007, the year after Edward's affair reportedly ended?

CNN sponsored "an in-depth discussion of religion, faith and politics" with John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. CNN credited Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, as the one who envisioned the forum.

"He invited the candidates and a special panel of religious leaders who are going to be joining us in the questioning tonight," said CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien. "Tonight, we expect to tackle some of the most important moral issues of our times."

After softball questions about evolution, homosexual marriage, America as a Christian nation, poverty and prayer--all designed to showcase faithful Democrats--O'Brien asked Edwards, "What is the biggest sin you've ever committed?"

The audience erupted with happy laughter.

"Are you willing to say?" she teasingly asked.

"Just between you and me?" he responded playfully.

"I'd have a very hard time telling you one thing, one specific sin," answered Edwards in a hall packed with Democrats yearning to prove that centrist-to-progressives were people who had values--values that differed from the Christian Right, but values nonetheless.

The audience continued to laugh and clap. O'Brien giggled. Edwards grinned. A cutaway to Elizabeth Edwards, his wife, showed her beaming.

"If I've had a day in my 54 years where I haven't sinned multiple times, I would be amazed," Edwards confessed. "I believe I have. I sin every single day. We're all sinners. We all fall short, which is why we have to ask forgiveness from the Lord. I can't--to try to identify one particular sin that was worse or more extreme than others, the list is too long."

Edwards' appearance came after his illicit liaison.

When he finally released a statement last week, he framed it as an error, not a sin.

"In 2006, I made a serious error in judgment and conducted myself in a way that was disloyal to my family and to my core beliefs," said Edwards, who had denied the allegations first made by The National Enquirer some 10 months earlier and ignored by the mainstream press.

His statement was devoid of the explicit theological language which he trotted out as a presidential candidate eager to prove his faith credentials, the language of sin, forgiveness, baptism and faith. Instead, his language was more therapeutic language--egocentric, narcissism. He played the victim card about how he had already beaten himself up over what he had done. He played the proof-of-innocence card--he was willing to take a paternity test to show he was not the father of a newborn baby girl.

Edwards later told ABC News' Bob Woodruff that he had had "a short" affair, but only when his wife's cancer was in remission. On ABC's Nightline, he referenced affairs of other national politicians, admitted that he wanted to keep his affair from the public, denied knowing anything about hush payments, kept attacking "supermarket tabloids" and claimed he did the TV interview to tell the truth.

The former North Carolina senator and vice presidential candidate's political career has been framed in myth--the moral man who weathered the death of a child, supported his wife with terminal cancer, prioritized his family, cared more deeply about the poor than others and lived by faith. No doubt much of this narrative was true, except there was more to the narrative than we knew.

And that is why we should not be so stupefyingly disappointed. We should have questioned the gloss on his story.

What we need, as people of faith, is a permanent discernment-implant when it comes to politicians and their religious claims.

For decades, Christian conservatives blindly brought the moral righteousness of the Republican Party, sold effectively by Southern Baptist fundamentalist preachers, James Dobson and others.

Centrist-to-progressives are buying into the moral goodness of faithful Democrats, sold repeatedly by a cast of evangelical and mainline religious leaders. Political liberals and quasi-religious activists have been working non-stop to recapture the flag of faith from the Republicans who have let it fall from their grip.

Both Republican and Democratic pew-sitters need moral distance from politicians who place the moral mantel of personal purity or the social gospel or both on their shoulders.

Maybe each morning we ought to begin the day with a simple prayer: "Lord, we know that political parties are neither completely moral nor thoroughly immoral and that candidates who create moral myths are covering up moral flaws. Give us the gift of moral discernment, using it to guard ourselves from the myth of the political messiah and guiding us to follow your will in pursuit of the Golden Rule for the common good. Amen."

Robert Parham is executive director for the Baptist Center for Ethics.