Elizabeth Edwards Responds

06 October 2004

Vice-presidential candidate John Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth Edwards, responds to The Revealer’s Jeff Sharlet.

Elizabeth Edwards

Long, long ago, during the Democratic National Convention, Iwrote the following: “Elizabeth Edwards, this afternoon: ‘We deserve leaders who allow their faith and moral core, our faiths and moral core, to draw us closer together, not drive us farther apart. We deserve leaders who believe in each of us.’ And the reporters say… nothing. Where are the religiously-informed journalists who are going to ask what this means? It’s one thing to engage in bland political speech, but it’s another to implicitly claim spiritual authority without providing a clue as to the nature of its source.”

A few weeks later, I received an unsolicited response from Elizabeth Edwards. It took a while longer before I could verify with the Kerry-Edwards campaign that the email was in fact from Edwards, who was outed in this past Sunday’s New York Times as a blog reader. It follows in full:

At the Democratic National Convention, I said, “We deserve leaders who allow their faith and moral core — our faiths and moral core — to draw us closer together, not drive us farther apart.” You responded, “It’s one thing to engage in bland political speech, but it’s another to implicitly claim spiritual authority without providing a clue as to the nature of its source.”

Do we really need a source for a lament that leaders use the language of faith to condemn the positions of political opponents or to justify their own positions? Is it bland political speech to oppose what is happening in areas like east Tennessee where people of faith are told by those of different political persuasions that, because of their political affiliations, they will be denied eternal life with their Savior? None of this is news or, unfortunately, new.

Although I included my husband’s connections to various faith organizations in my introduction of him, I have not claimed any spiritual authority for my plea for the elevation of faith to a place above partisan political dialogue. My quoted statement was a single line — a simple and, I had dared to hope, elegant plea that our leaders use our faiths to heal wounds of division, not to create them. I am a Christian, but I could be be an American of any faith and still have that same aspiration.

No political party has a superior claim to faith, just as no party has a claim to the American flag. Our collective faith — and I mean that broadly to embrace not only my own faith but also the moral perspective embodied explicitly and implicitly in the Constitution — has the capacity to bridge differences, heal wounds, and create communities. No lesser use will serve us in my view, which is why I wrote the line that provoked your response.

Elizabeth Edwards

With great respect to Ms. Edwards for being the kind of public figure who’ll troll the blogosphere, I’ll stand firm. Politicians do need to name sources when they invoke faith. Otherwise, the “language of faith” — whether used by GOPers to condemn Democrats to hell, or by Ms. Edwards to obscure the sharp edges that do divide many Americans — is an empty shell. Worse, it’s part of a shell game. The public is left guessing what these noble-sounding words actually refer to, much as they were when Eisenhower, preparing to take office half a century ago, opined, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Right — just so long as it was Protestant. Eisenhower presided over the inaugeral National Prayer Breakfast, at which government leaders gathered to to testify to the value of “faith,” and, incidentally, Jesus. One was free to be a Jew or a Muslim, just so long as you joined in a prayer to Christ over your eggs and bacon.

Flash forward 49 years, and you find Sen. John Edwards co-chairing the 2002 National Prayer Breakfast. The event is as ecumenical as ever. Jews, Muslims, and Hindus are invited — to pray to Jesus. These days, many members of the Senate and House weekly prayer meetings, out of which the National Prayer Breakfast grows, dodge tricky, “political” words like “Christian” by calling themselves “followers of Jesus,” and suggesting that this path is open to people of all faiths.

I’m not arguing that John Edwards, or his wife, Elizabeth, are secret missionaries. But nor are they followers of a “collective faith.” They’re followers of Jesus, and a particular Jesus. Nothing wrong with that. But if they’re going to make political hay out of their faith, they owe it to the public to be as open about its shape as possible.

Edwards, for instance, has been involved with faith-based initiatives in North Carolina. Terrific — but tell us more. What is his vision of the relationship between faith and government services? How — if at all — does it differ from that of Bush? Like Bush, the Edwardses believe the language of faith can be above partisanship. But we’ve seen that what Bush considers “above” partisanship is, to a majority of the U.S., street-level spiritual war. So how does the “transcendent” faith of the Edwardses differ?

John Edwards leads
The National Prayer Breakfast

We won’t hear those questions asked in the debate tonight. Ironically, the advantage is all Cheney’s, since his answers to questions of ethics and values are rooted not in faith but in a dark, Hobbesian take on life based not in any personal suffering (Edwards says he recovered his faith after his son died in 1996) but in a pure — and, apparently, secularized — view of original sin.

But the faith of the vice-presidential candidates, or the lack thereof, is not on the press’s agenda. The media sticks to a strictly protestant view of religion in politics — faith is personal, a matter of character, and the only characters that matter are the main ones, Bush and Kerry. But as Cheney’s influence proves, politics is never that simple. Neither is religion.

–Jeff Sharlet

Read more:

John Edwards:
Beliefnet: “John Edwards on Faith
Christianity Today: “What John Edwards Believes
Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: “John Edwards and Religion
The Daily Standard: “Edwards and the Religion Gap
Winston-Salem JournalEdwards’ Faith in the Primaries
AP: “Edwards: Religion Shouldn’t Divide Us

Dick Cheney:
Christopher Manion: “Cheneyland: Hegel (Not Calvin) and Hobbes
The Straight DopeCheney and Leo Strauss
State Capital Bureau: “Religion at Core of Cheney Talk
Religious Freedom Coalition of the Southeast: Cheney on “Real” Religion
Disinfopedia: Religion and Empire, Cheney and Machiavelli
The Rude Pundit: Cheney and Bernard DeVoto