The Original Theology of Elizabeth Edwards

Of the three top Democratic candidates, John Edwards, I admit, is the one who has left me the most cold. First there was the Sojourners Presidential Forum, where Edwards gamely avoided Soledad O'Brien's obnoxious request (5:51) to name the worst sin he had ever committed, but nonetheless spoke of sin and "my Lord" in the language of his Baptist upbringing -- of which, by my lights, he's made a bit too much.

Then, at last week's YouTube/CNN debate, he really lost me when, in response (1:22) to a question about his position on gay marriage, he said that, because of his Baptist upbringing he was against it -- but "mah wahf, Elizabeth, spoke out a few weeks ago, and she actually supports gay marriage; I do not, but this is an enormously difficult issue for me." My major problem was not that he only supports civil unions -- I supported Howard Dean, and that's where he came down -- but that he seemed to be hiding behind his wife. Which made me feel like there was this playing-to-the-base/playing-for-the-general-election division of labor going on.

Then I met his wife, and I didn't really care anymore. Elizabeth Edwards can play to me (the base) all she wants; she hits all the right notes.

I spent the weekend in Chicago, on behalf of the National Women's Editorial Forum, at a nonpartisan conference called BlogHer. There, Elizabeth Edwards took questions from an audience of women who blog. Edwards, it turns out, is a long-time internet aficionado, having discovered Web-based support groups for grieving parents in 1996, when the couple lost their 16-year-old son in an automobile accident. She herself has been an avid blogger for years, with a number of newsgroup aliases and an intermittent presence on the blog at the Edwards campaign site.

Every question asked of her seemed to be answered in an unusually open manner, especially when the topic of religion came up. Asked by Beth Corbin of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to explain how her faith beliefs inform her politics, Elizabeth Edwards gave an extraordinarily radical answer: She doesn't believe in salvation, at least not in the standard Christian understanding of it, and she said as much:

I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God. I do not have an intervening God. I don't think I can pray to him -- or her -- to cure me of cancer.

After the words "or her," Mrs. Edwards gave a little laugh, indicating she knew she had waded into water perhaps a bit deeper than the audience had anticipated. Then she continued:

I appreciate other people's prayers for that [a cure for her cancer], but I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines. And I don't that believe we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that's what's right. We should do those things because that's what's right.

Wow, I thought. That sounds awfully like, "Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try..." What's Jim Wallis gonna make of that? Haven't the campaign communications consultants schooled her in how to talk the God-talk?

Then today I learned from Dan Balz of the Washington Post that there are no consultants -- at least not in the traditional sense. And that, say some, has a lot to do with Elizabeth Edwards, who apparently did not take kindly to being handled in the past.

From the beginning, she's lived an extraordinary life. The daughter of a Navy pilot, she grew up partly in Japan, a country whose religious traditions seem to have influenced her personal belief system. "I grew up with Shintos and Buddhists," she explained to the BlogHer audience, "but I grew up in the Christian tradition... and I belong to the Methodist Church today." (Once they read this, the right-wing Methodists over at the Institute for Religion and Democracy may try to change that.)

After surviving the death of her son -- a loss she recounts as deep as any she could possibly ever know -- she and John Edwards decided to have two more children, and Elizabeth Edwards gave birth at 48 and again at 50. (They also have a grown daughter, Cate, who also blogs at the campaign website.) Her husband became a major-party nominee for vice president.

Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now he's running for president and the cancer is back. At 58, Elizabeth Edwards is saying what she wants to say. And it could actually work as a campaign tactic.

The electorate is really sick of being pandered to, and even for those who may find her religious beliefs a bit out there, it's hard not to respect Elizabeth Edwards -- which makes it hard not to respect her husband for, if nothing else, having had the good sense to marry her.

Yesterday, the Edwardses celebrated their 30th anniversary by renewing their vows. Unpacking after their recent move into their dream house, Elizabeth Edwards said, she found a copy of their original wedding vows, a traditional Baptist service with their own optional prayer of dedication added. At their wedding, she said, they pledged "that our marriage and our lives should be dedicated to serving others, to lifting those in our community who were without hope and making certain that opportunity was available to everyone."

To John Edwards, this may have been a biblical mandate. For Elizabeth Edwards, the prayer is derived, as she explained it, from "the guidelines that I thought I was given and that I promised to live by."

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