John Edwards: 'My Faith Came Roaring Back'
In the first of a series of interviews with presidential candidates, Edwards discusses how faith affects his decisions.
BY: Interview by David Kuo
John Edwards, former senator from North Carolina and John Kerry's former running mate, has his eyes on the White House. His is not a long shot bid. Though far more under the radar than his two more popular rivals, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, his is a serious effort backed with ample money and tireless campaigning. He sat down with Beliefnet's Washington editor, David Kuo, to do something he hasn't done before--talk openly and in depth about his religious faith.
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What parts of American life do you think would most outrage Jesus?
Our selfishness. Our resort to war when it's not necessary. I think that Jesus would be disappointed in our ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering and our focus on our own selfish short-term needs. I think he would be appalled, actually.
You've had a lot of experience with suffering. Part of your career has been representing people who we see as suffering. You've also had what you called "world stopping pain" and suffering in your own life. What has that suffering taught you?
It's been part of my own personal faith journey. Because I've done what I think a lot of Americans have done, which [is]: I was raised in a very Christian home and a Southern Baptist church, and baptized in the Southern Baptist church. My dad has been a deacon in the Southern Baptist church for many years. In fact, we went back to my church a few weeks ago and he was getting the Lay Person of the Year Award, which we were all very proud of him for.
But when I went away to college, I drifted away from my faith. Even after Elizabeth and I got married, I had drifted away. It isn't that we didn't exercise faith. We would go to church, but it was not the sort of dominant day-to-day living faith that it is for me today. And in 1996, on a day I'll never forget, my 16 year old son died. And the days after that, when I was trying to survive and Elizabeth's trying to survive, my faith came roaring back and has stayed with me since that time, and helped me deal with the personal challenges we've had. Not only the death of my son, but some of the politics and the difficulty of that on our family. Elizabeth's breast cancer. All the things that we've seen, which is not that unusual for families.
What has it taught you about God?
That God will be there when you need him. That I believe in a benevolent and merciful God. That when things seem at their worst and their lowest, he will always be there for you. That no matter what you do, he will forgive you. And it is important to ask for his forgiveness. It's important in my case to have a personal relationship with the Lord, so that I pray daily and I feel that relationship all the time. And when I'm faced with difficult decisions, which I regularly am, I very often go to him in prayer.
Do you have a favorite prayer?
No. My praying is more conversational than that. It is me explaining to God what I am going through, what our family is going through, and asking him to help me see the way, to do what's right.
And asking him also, which I do regularly, to allow me not to focus on myself and my own selfish desires. Because I am a sinner and selfish, like every human being on the planet. And asking him to give me the power to get outside that and do what he would have me to do. That's sort of the heart and soul of my prayer.
In what ways do you feel God is happiest with you right now?
I think he would be happy with the fact that I have focused on people who live in poverty here and people without healthcare. And the suffering of others in other parts of the world, like some of the work that I've done on humanitarian issues in Africa, for example, and going to the slums outside of Delhi and India.
Focusing on problems in a very personal way that exist, and without regard to my own selfish ambitions, talking about things that may not seem so politically powerful, but are important to me, and I think important to God.
Do you feel like there's a way in which God is disappointed with you now?
Yes, absolutely. Every day. Every day. Because I am like anyone else. I revert to bad, selfish behavior. I try to make myself not do it, but I'm like everybody else. Sometimes better; sometimes worse. And I think there's not a single day goes by that he doesn't feel some disappointment in me. But, he doesn't give up on me--never gives up on me.
In 2004, John Kerry said that he wouldn't let his faith affect his decision making. Does it affect yours?
Yes, it does. I do believe in the separation of church and state. But I don't think separation of church and state means you have to be free from your faith. My faith informs everything I think and do. It's part of my value system. And to suggest that I can somehow separate and divorce that from the rest of me is not possible. I would not, under any circumstances, try to impose my personal faith and belief on the rest of the country. I don't think that's right. I don't think that's appropriate. But freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion. And I think that anything we can do to promote the idea that people should express their faith is a good thing.
Do you think that America is a Christian nation?
That's a good question. I never thought of it quite that way. There's a lot of America that's Christian. I would not describe us, though, on the whole, as a Christian nation. I guess the word "Christian" is what bothers me, even though I'm a Christian. I think that America is a nation of faith. I do believe that. Certainly by way of heritage--there's a powerful Christian thread through all of American history.
Polls show that a lot of Americans think the Democratic Party is hostile to religion. Do you think that the Democratic Party is hostile to religion? If not, why do you think it's perceived that way? Do you think it's changing?
I think that there are lots of very good, strong national Democratic leaders who are people of deep faith. President Carter would be a clear example of that. I think there are lots of us who are people of deep faith.
I think that one of the things that's happened on some of the hot cultural societal issues is that those issues have been used to create a wedge, in some cases, between people of deep faith and the Democratic Party.
And I think one of our responsibilities, one of my responsibilities as one of the leaders of the Democratic Party, is to bridge that gap that has been created. I could go into any evangelical church in America, for instance, and talk about poverty, and our responsibility to those who are living in poverty, and get a terrific response. I am certain of that.